Editor's note: This is the first in a series honoring the 406mtsports.com girls and boys teams of the year, female and male athletes and overall school of the year. Next: Boys team of the year.
HELENA — Three consecutive Class AA state championships aren't the only measure of Helena High's girls basketball dynasty.
The Bengals also had players advance to the collegiate level.
That and becoming the first team since Missoula Sentinel in 2014 to win three consecutive state titles is why the Bengals are the 406mtsports.com Girls Team of the Year.
Members of those championship squads either playing or signed to play in college are Kamden Hilborn (played at Montana State and transferred to Carroll), Jamie Pickens (signed with Montana), Paige and Payton Aasved (Providence), Jessica Ellsworth (Rocky Mountain College), Hailey Crawford (Montana Tech), Sam Holman (Providence) and Vanessa Walsh (Montana Tech).
Helena's road to the third championship wasn't perfect.
The Bengals overcame the regular-season shock of falling 34-31 to Kalispell Glacier on Feb. 15. And the upset wasn't the end of their adversity.
During the postseason, the Bengals faced a single-elimination scenario after falling to Missoula Hellgate 54-50 in the Western Divisional semifinal March 1.
Bengals coach Eric Peterson's response was candid.
"At this point, we are not in the business of losing in tournaments," Peterson told 406mtsports.com then. "We have to gather ourselves and be ready to play in the consolation bracket."
Led by Pickens, the Bengals responded by not losing again.
At state, they toppled Butte, Helena Capital and Billings West to achieve the trifecta.
Their previous playoff experience was the main difference in propelling Helena to win the championship, Billings West coach Charles Johnson said after losing to the Bengals in the title game.
"I think with a team like Helena High, you saw the poise, and our team is very experienced," Johnson said. "Helena is a great team because they did an amazing job and made the plays when they needed to."
Resourcefulness, playoff experience, poise and consistent excellence were significant factors in Helena's success.
"In order to win one state championship, you have to have great players, have a little luck with injuries, and be playing your best basketball at the right time," Peterson said. "So for us to win three in a row is a testament to the caliber of student-athletes we have had in our program. These student athletes have bought into the team mantra of we being bigger than me, and they have set the standard for our program. Also, our sub-varsity coaches put in many hours in and out of season to help foster relationships that go above and beyond the call of duty. That being said, it is still a little mind boggling that we have won three in a row and something everyone who has had a part in it, will cherish for the rest of our lives."