By Dillon Tabish, 2-22-12
Fans have known what to expect when they watch the Glacier boys basketball team. Few high school programs in the state have executed the run-and-gun offense better than the Wolfpack the last few seasons.
“We’ve been told we’re fun to watch,” senior Colton Harkins said.
But there’s been a drawback to that notoriety. The last three years opposing teams did their homework and focused on wearing down Glacier’s fleet-footed style of basketball. The Wolfpack still managed to make three straight trips to the Class AA state tournament but have not fared well after that, ending up 0-6 in tournament games.
Hoping to change that trend, head coach Mark Harkins and his coaching staff pushed the team to forge a new identity, one that would still thrive in the regular season but also might survive longer into the postseason.
Ranked third in Class AA in last week’s Associated Press poll, Glacier has won seven straight and 11 of its last 12 with one game left. The Wolfpack (15-3 overall, 9-2 in Western AA) are clinging to first place in the West and the chance at winning back-to-back conference titles. But just like last year, the Western AA crown, and an automatic state tournament berth, will come down to the final game on the schedule, and it’s a dramatic one. Glacier hosts rival Flathead at home on Friday.
Led by senior George Sherwood, Flathead (9-9, 5-5) has been close to beating the top teams in the West all season. The Braves lost close games to Helena Capital both times and split with Helena. Glacier needed a big fourth quarter to hold off the Braves by only five points in the first cross-town match of the season. Great Falls C.M. Russell beat Flathead by only eight. The Braves have advanced to state two years in a row and four times in the past nine years.
“Flathead is as athletic as any team in the conference,” coach Harkins said.
After Friday’s cross-town finale, Glacier and Flathead will be seeded for playoff games that will determine trips to the state tournament in Bozeman, March 8-10. Top-ranked Billings West (17-1, 9-1) stands as the favorite.
The Wolfpack clinched their first Western AA division crown last year after defeating Flathead in the regular season finale. Glacier entered the state tournament on an 11-game win streak and embodied the breakneck style that Harkins had nurtured since taking over the program in its first year in 2007-08. But like previous trips, last year’s postseason success dried up as opponents, particularly from the East, snuffed out the Wolfpack’s scoring bursts.
“As you get further and further into the season, teams can take away the transition, so you have to be effective in the half court,” Harkins said.
“What we’ve learned from our past experiences and qualifying for state the last few years is that the game gets more physical and slower. We still like to get out and run, but this team I think executes as well as anybody we’ve ever had in the half court, probably better. I’ve been really pleased with how these guys play that style.”
Fans have seen shades of the old Wolfpack style this season, but the team does stand out as one of Glacier’s most well-rounded squads. Five players are averaging six points or more a game. The team is out-rebounding opponents on average by eight boards a game. And the half court offense, although less exciting than its run-and-gun counterpart, is producing successful results.
“All around we’re pretty good,” Glacier senior Andy Boyer said. “I feel like we’re playing at a high level right now.”
It helps, too, to have a player just shy of 7-feet tall. Ryan Edwards, Glacier’s 6-11 junior center, has become the conscience of the new offensive mindset. Edwards is averaging roughly 12 points, 10 rebounds and almost three blocks a game. He also requires a lot of attention from opponents, which has led to better opportunities for teammates. Kyle Griffith is averaging 13 points per game and guard Evan Epperly is averaging 11.
“It helps having Ryan in the middle because you center everything on an inside-out approach and he’s kind of the anchor in there,” Harkins said.
“It’s really nice to have a seven-footer in the middle of the key that’s definitely nice,” Harkins’ son, Colton, said.
Glacier’s lineup only has a few players who contributed significant varsity minutes last year, namely Edwards, Griffith and Epperly. But there are still players like Boyer, Harkins and Sean Peters who were suited up and remember the thrill of peaking during the final stretch of the season.
“Things are fun right now. We started out rough but we’ve picked it up and won a few games in a row,” Peters, a senior, said. “I think our team chemistry just grew and we came together a lot more.”
With cohesiveness and a balanced style of play, the Wolfpack appear to be peaking at the right time, even if Harkins takes a more humble approach when addressing that notion.
“I think they put themselves in a good position,” Harkins said. “It’s just going to be a great next two weeks to see what happens and how it all shakes out.”
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