Much is at stake for all involved in tonight’s crosstown basketball games at Flathead High School.
Both the Flathead and Glacier boys teams are out to prove they’re among the teams to beat in the Western AA conference, while the girls teams are jostling for the best possible seed at the divisional tournament that is now just a few weeks away. And, needless to say, bragging rights are on the line for all.
The girls are scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m. with the boys set to follow at 8 p.m.
“It’s a battle; it always is,” Glacier boys coach Mark Harkins said. “Every crosstown game is emotional. There’s great crowds, great crowd participation. The kids look forward to it every year. It’s a knock-down, drag-out game.”
The boys, who split two crosstown meetings last season, appear evenly matched once again this year.
Both have endured hiccups thus far this season but have also shown top-tier potential.
Flathead (7-4 overall, 3-2 Western AA) is coming off its biggest win of the season, a 56-48 victory over top-ranked Missoula Sentinel on Tuesday night.
The Braves’ biggest challenge, Flathead coach Ross Gustafson said, is putting that game in the rear-view mirror and focusing on the next emotionally charged game. He’s confident his team can do that thanks to the bevy of senior leadership and experience scattered across the roster.
“That’s going to be the big challenge for us,” he said. “Can we move past Tuesday night and be ready to give 100 percent?
“(Experienced players are) better able to keep their focus on things going on on the court. I’m really happy I have a lot of seniors.”
Those seniors will have to compete with Glacier’s stout defense, which has been tops in Western conference play with just 43.5 points allowed per game.
But Harkins is quick to point out that the Wolfpack (5-5, 3-1) will be similarly tested by Flathead’s potent offense, which ranks second in Western conference play with 53 points per game.
“They have several guys who can score the basketball, so we’ve got to make sure our defense is tightened up and ready to go,” Harkins said.
A possible advantage for Glacier lies with its depth.
The Wolfpack regularly utilizes a 10-man rotation, a contrast to Flathead’s usual rotation of six or seven players.
“It is a grating game,” Harkins said. “It’s hard for kids to play a straight 32 minutes. You’re going to have to have guys come in and not just fill roles, but come in and produce.”
One thing both coaches agree on? Regardless of the eventual victor, the game between the two Western AA contenders will be competitive.
“It will be a really good matchup,” Gustafson said.
“It’s a great measuring stick to see where we’re at,” Harkins added.
The girls contest is likely to be a defensive struggle between a pair of teams that struggled early in conference play but seem to have found their strides of late.
Glacier (7-3, 2-2), which leads the all-time series with Flathead 18-4, boasts the third-best defense in the state, allowing just 37.6 points per game.
That strength corresponds with the weakness of Flathead (3-8, 2-3), whose offense is dead last in the state with an average of 32.5 points per game.
“Defensively, we’re going to make offenses uncomfortable,” Glacier coach Bill Sullivan said. “Our expectation is no different (Thursday).”
Flathead, after early-season struggles, has shown signs of promise recently despite the absence of head coach Tricia Samson-Dean due to the birth of a child.
“They could easily use that as an excuse (to quit), and they haven’t,” Flathead interim coach Tryg Johnson said.
The Bravettes picked up conference wins against Missoula Big Sky and Missoula Hellgate before being clobbered by Missoula Sentinel on Tuesday.
“On one hand, it’s the crosstown game,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, we’ve just got to remember, ‘Hey, it’s just another game, and we’ve got to do what we’re coached to do.’”
That will be tough for everyone to do in what is sure to be a frenzied environment, one that the coaches said all the players look forward to.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” Gustafson said. “Crosstowns always are that way.”