Thursday, July 18, 2024

A title long coming; a little boost at end

Daily Inter Lake | August 10, 2023 12:00 AM

You wonder how history might differ if Cary Finberg had been a teacher, which of course was the original plan.

He played college basketball at Montana Western and did his student teaching at nearby Beaverhead High School, which made him the freshman coach in Dillon in 1990, when his brother Craig guided the varsity Beavers to their first title in 44 years.

“My plan was to go and teach somewhere,” Finberg said. “My dad calls me up the year I’m graduating and says, ‘Come back to Columbia Falls, I’m getting older, come work the (Columbia) Bar.’

“I’m in my early-20s. I’m thinking, ‘Sounds fun to me.’”

It went swimmingly, if getting married, raising a family and oh by the way coaching six state championship hoops teams (five boys, one girls) mean anything. Still, when he applied for the boys basketball job after three seasons as an assistant, there was no guarantee a non-teacher would make the grade.

“I never taught,” he said a few weeks back. “That was kind of a big thing back in the day, as far as not being a teacher. Running a bar — I’m sure that was a concern. But being a Columbia Falls graduate, having coached for three years, I knew the community, knew the kids, knew what I wanted to accomplish with the basketball program…. I think we did alright.”

The proof is in the fine print at It was 2003, 20 years ago, that the Wildcats broke through for that first boys championship. The oral history that ran in Sunday’s Daily Inter Lake detailed a lot of that season — but as usual, a lot of stuff wound up on the cutting room floor.

His staff, for one thing, was top notch: Dan Hirshele and Steve Kracher at the beginning, Mark Beckwith and the late Greg Bauska and eventually, 2003 mainstay Tyler Jones later on.

“I had a great run of players and a great run of assistants,” Finberg said. “Bauska was incredible as a volunteer assistant. I basically said, ‘Here are your two or three players, you’re in charge of the posts, do what you want with them, I trust you.’ “

Jones, now an assistant principal in Whitefish, epitomized the grit of the players involved.

“Tyler Jones, as a junior, led the state tournament in rebounds at 5-foot-10,” Finberg said during a wide-ranging conversation at, yes, the Columbia. “That’s with the big Browning kid there, Mike Chavez.”

That was 2002, things were starting to build, and Finberg was running a tight ship.

“I loved practices,” Jeremy Grilley, one of the two Wildcats (along with his twin Jesse) to play collegiately, said.. “They were intense. Coach was intense and demanded everyone play hard. Everyone has a story. …”

Go on.

“We were having a scrimmage and someone was shooting free throws,” he began. “I was going to try to pull a Michael Jordan, where he ran in and dunked the rebound.

“It was a clear lane violation. He just blew up.”

Details have been lost to time, but Grilley does remember the Wildkat girls were waiting to practice, wide-eyed witnesses to a dressing-down.

“High intensity, always,” Grilley said. “But everyone in our class and younger thrived off it.”

One interview that got away was with leading scorer Darin Nau, who contacted the Inter Lake Saturday — just after the story was turned in — to say he could talk Sunday, the day it ran.

Working 12- to 13-hour shifts for UPS in Williston, North Dakota, Nau was a tough scoring machine to get a hold of.

“Not sure I could’ve added much, if anything, to that tale,” he texted. “It sure was a fun ride! Bumps and bruises here and there, but our spirit and grit prevailed. … and that’s truly what mattered most.”

Which sounds about right. Like that 2003 title game, when he missed most of the first half with foul trouble, Nau came in and gave things a boost at the end.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 406-758-4463 or