The Custer County District High School Cowgirl basketball team is one of the most storied programs in the state of Montana.
But it has been five long years since the Cowgirls advanced to the Montana Class A State Tournament. That drought will end Thursday when the Cowgirls take on Hamilton in the first-round in Great Falls at 2 p.m.
The Cowgirls, like all of the teams at the state tournament, have not played in nearly two weeks following the divisional tournaments.
“The girls are ready to go,” Cowgirls second-year head coach Jacqui Engstrom said. “They had a good week-and-a-half of practices. Taking two weeks off hasn’t affected us. It was good to have that recovery time. We know every team is in the same situation, so we just had to make sure we stayed focused every day.”
The Cowgirls enter the state tournament with a 12-9 record on the season, but have played extremely well down the stretch.
Midway through January, the Cowgirls were in the midst of a five-game losing streak and were sitting at 2-5 on the season.
But starting with a 73-59 win over Class B St. Labre, the Cowgirls have gone 10-4, with their only losses coming against Eastern A champion Laurel and Class AA teams Billings West and Billings Senior.
Even in their three losses to Laurel, the Cowgirls have improved drastically. They lost 58-33 in their first meeting and 67-52 in their second regular season meeting. In the Eastern A championship game, the Cowgirls hung around with the defending state champions but lost 60-52.
“We had a lot of learning curves at the beginning of the season,” Engstrom said. “But once we started figuring out what we could and couldn’t do as a team, they really started gelling and playing well together. Once something clicks for these girls, they just run with it. It’s what makes them so great and so exciting to watch.”
The Cowgirls feature a balanced offensive attack, led by senior Shaylee Singleton and sophomore Ashlie Larson. Singleton averages 10.4 points per game and Larson averages 10.1. Senior Beth Sutter has played well throughout the year, averaging over seven points per game, while Tori Swope and Kadie Heinle each average over five points per game.
The Cowgirls will face a Hamilton team that is 17-3 on the year and won the Southwestern A title for the first time in 35 years. Their only losses this year came against Class A top-ranked Columbia Falls and AA teams Missoula Sentinel and Missoula Big Sky.
The Lady Broncs are outscoring teams 52-38 on average this season.
“Hamilton is a good team,” They like the dribble drive, so we have to stop them from getting to the paint and contain (Taylor) Goligoski. We have been working on them since divisionals and the girls have seen them play, so they know what to expect. It’s a good matchup for us and I think it will be a great game.”
Containing Goligoski has not been easy for any team this season. The 5’8” junior is the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Montana and is the leading scorer in Class A this season.
Goligoski was the only Class A player to average over 20 points this season, scoring 20.9 per game. Fellow junior Jaylee Albert averages 10.4 per game.
The Cowgirls and Lady Broncs are on a tough side of the bracket. The other first-round game features Columbia Falls (19-1) and Belgrade (9-13).
Columbia Falls features six girls at least 5’10” tall, led by 6’0 senior Haley Belgarde who averages over 12 points per game.
Belgrade is a bit of a surprise in the tournament, finishing in fourth place in the regular season in the Central A, going just 2-8 in the conference before reaching the Central A title game. Belgrade is led by 5’4” junior Alexis Clingingsmith, who averages 9.8 points per game.
On the other side of the bracket, Laurel (16-4) faces Anaconda (12-9) and Havre (14-6) plays Frenchtown (15-6).
A win for the Cowgirls puts them into the semifinals on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. A loss sends them into the consolation bracket at 12:30 p.m.