BILLINGS -- Malta, Fairfield, Malta, Fairfield, Malta, Fairfield.
Say that line quickly, and you can hear the frustration of Class B girls basketball programs across Montana channeling how Jan felt in that famous, often-memed "Brady Bunch" scene.
For the past decade-plus, Malta and Fairfield have dominated the landscape, combining to win all 11 state championships since 2007. During that span, they’ve played each other in the title game seven times, including last season when Fairfield edged Malta 34-33 as the Eagles’s Natalie Klinker blocked Malta’s Sophia Stiles’s game-winning attempt at the buzzer.
Klinker is now at the University of Idaho and Stiles is with the Lady Griz, and both teams also graduated other key seniors besides their stars. Does that leave the door open for somebody else?
Somebody like Three Forks, which returns a solid core from last year’s third-place team, although a volleyball injury to Talyn Pitcher will be a big loss? Perhaps semifinalists Wolf Point and Red Lodge, who had just three and two seniors, respectively, on their state-tournament rosters? In fact, of the eight teams at last year’s state tournament, Malta had the most seniors with five. Three other tournament teams, Florence, Ronan and Colstrip, had three or fewer seniors, though Colstrip saw a couple underclassmen transfer to other programs. Even so, the tournament last year had a decidedly youthful flair.
But don’t just look to last year’s tournament teams, Three Forks coach Mike Sauvageau said.
“Townsend is loaded,” he said. “Nobody is even talking about Townsend, and I think right now they are the best team in our district (5B).”
Yes, Fairfield and Malta graduated the most seniors, but when programs churn out championship seasons like clockwork, they shouldn’t be dismissed easily.
And Sauvageau isn’t, pointing particularly at Fairfield.
“They’re fundamentally sound, and that goes a long way,” he said.
Despite the graduation losses, it’s likely the Eagles and M’ettes will be around. And if there are teams out there ready to take at least one of those championship-game berths away, they’re going to have to earn it in a crowded field looking to squeeze through that door, no matter how small the opening.