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7 years later, the Wildcats break through

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | February 23, 2023 7:55 AM

The Columbia Falls Wildcats’ boys basketball team is 14-3, and if you think they’ve fattened up on Class B competition, we have some context.

The regular-season split with Bigfork indicates the Vikings will be just fine with next year’s move to Class A, thanks.

The win over Missoula Loyola signifies the Rams’ lone loss this season — and that 72-65 victory may have been the arrival moment for this squad.

“We had a 21-point lead going into the fourth quarter,” Chris Finberg, the Wildcats’ seventh-year head coach, said. “Beating Browning at home by 16, beating Bigfork at home were good. But winning the way we did (in MIssoula) may have opened up other people’s eyes that we were pretty good.”

To be sure, the Wildcats knew they’d be solid. A strong cast of juniors returned from a team that went 11-10 last season.

Eight juniors dominate the roster, along with senior forward Bryce Dunham and sophomore Reggie Sapa. Jace Hill, Alihn Anderson and Cody Schweikert are double-figure scorers, and Hill and Anderson burst on the scene as freshmen.

It’s telling that Hill averaged 16.3 points a game his first year of high school, 17.3 as a sophomore — and this season is at 12.8 ppg.

“I told anybody that would listen — because Jace has been starting for us since his freshman year, and has been our leading scorer since his freshman year — that as years go on with this crew, his points may go down but our wins will go up,” Finberg said.

“We’re still asking him to do a lot, but it’s nice that we have more help around him.”

You have to like Montana legacies. When Columbia Falls made a then-rare State A appearance in 1997, Jace Hill’s dad, Beau, was a senior and Chris Finberg was his junior backcourt mate.

In his first season coaching the squad was Cary Finberg, Chris’s uncle.

Two Saturdays back, Columbia Falls’ 74-47 win over Whitefish clinched the first regular-season title for the program since Cary Finberg’s last season as boys coach, in 2014-15.

By then Chris Finberg had been a long-time assistant, eventually moving up to junior varsity coach while driving over each day from Cayuse Prairie. “I used all my personal days on road trips and tournaments,” he said.

There was no teaching job for Chris when Cary — who guided the Cats to five state titles in 19 seasons, and continues to coach the Wildkat girls — stepped down. But a year later there was, and it’s been a journey since. As in 27 losses in the first 36 Northwest A battles.

“I’m not sure how to phrase it, but the first four years we lost a lot of games,” Chris Finberg said. “That might have made me a better coach, honestly, going through that adversity each and every year for four years.”

Help was on the way. Anderson and Hill showed promise early, and there’s size (Dunham is 6-foot-5; Schweikert and Hunter Goodman are 6-3) and quickness. Hill leads the team in rebounding and assists as well as scoring; Anderson is hitting 42 percent from three.

“They play off each other well, playing together that long,” Finberg said.

Finberg often plays two posts at a time, and has Mark Robison as a third guard. All Sapa has done is shoot 57 percent from the field while averaging 5.6 points off the bench.

“And he does a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Finberg said. “I think he’s one of our best defenders. Can knock down a three. He’s found a role and he’s performing it well.”

The goal, obviously, is to be one of the four (or possibly, five) teams to advance out of this Western A Divisional that begins today in Ronan. It’d be their first State A berth since 2015.

It would be a nice get for a coach who followed a local legend.

“There’s always some pressure,” Chris Finberg allowed. “But I try not to think about it. I try to be myself, and be my own coach.”

And these Wildcats are making their own run.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 406-758-4426 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct Chris Finberg relationship to Cary Finberg.

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