At a cool 6-foot-4, there haven’t been many players who could stand toe-to-toe with Jill Barta throughout her spectacular four-year career at Class B Fairfield.
This weekend, though, as the annual Montana-Wyoming All-Star basketball series makes its return, there will be a handful of teammates who can look Barta nearly eye-to-eye. That’s how big the Montana contingent will be; six of the 10 players on the roster are listed at 6-0 or better.
“Their size will really be something that we’ll have to contend with,” said Wyoming coach Frank McCarthy, who has three 6-footers on his roster. “It seems like that’s how it is most years.”
That’s probably true. Montana does seem to get more than its share in the height department when it comes to this series. But even to Montana coach Brian Henderson, who has been a part of the Midland Roundtable series for 17 years, this year’s squad stands above most others.
“It’s right up there,” he said, no pun intended. “Traditionally, we’ve been pretty big compared to Wyoming. But across the board … we have some 6-foot girls who can run and are athletic. All of our bigs are pretty mobile.”
The Gonzaga-bound Barta, of course, who never lost a game in her four years at Fairfield, can do it all. So can 6-footers like Senior’s Jace Henderson, Billings Central’s Justyn Juhl and Frenchtown’s Vanessa Stavish. Mix in the strong presence of Helena Capital’s Michaela Dowdy and Kalispell Glacier’s Cassi Hashley and it’s easy to see why Wyoming might have some matchup problems. Heck, you might as well throw in Missoula Sentinel’s Olivia Roberts, another do-everything player who is listed at 5-11 and headed to the University of Wyoming.
“We have a lot of height on our team, but we also have a lot of quickness,” Barta said, singling out the under-6-foot crowd of Billings West’s Mika Robinson and Belt’s Katie Fertterer and Kara Gerke. “All the shorter girls, they’re quicker than most girls in Montana. And the taller girls are surprisingly pretty darn quick.”
Brian Henderson knows, though, his team will have to do more than play keep-away to come away with a series sweep.
"It’s going to be two really good games because you have some high-profile kids on both sides and kids who have a lot of talent to go with it," he said. "We know both sides can score; it’s just a matter of who’s going to get stops.”
Wyoming’s Stanford standout
Brian Henderson talks of high-profile kids, and they don’t come much higher profile than Wyoming’s Kaylee Johnson. The 6-2 standout from Natrona County of Casper departs for Stanford next week after averaging 16.7 points and 14.3 rebounds as well as 4.3 blocks per game her senior season.
Jace Henderson, Brian’s daughter, got a first-hand look at Johnson when Senior traveled to Casper early last season. Johnson scored 32 points in a 54-47 win over the Broncs.
“She’s a great player,” Jace Henderson said. “She definitely uses her size in the post, but she’s also got a great outside game.”
While the girls from the Cowboy State will also get plenty of help from the likes of Sundance’s Kacie O’Connor, who averaged better than 23 points per game, McCarthy, the Wyoming coach, is looking forward to seeing Johnson and Barta on the floor at the same time.
“The marquee matchup is Kaylee Johnson and then, of course, Barta,” he said. “I’ve seen them both play numerous times, and that would be a great matchup. Both are Gatorade players of the year and they’re both very skilled and very athletic.”
Notes and quotes
• There will be three Hendersons on the Montana bench this year. Joining Brian and Jace is Jace’s older sister Dani, an assistant for the Montana team. Dani played two seasons for Brian at Rocky Mountain College. Brian, who resigned as the RMC women’s coach following last season, said this will be the first time he gets to coach Jace, who is headed to UM to play volleyball this fall.
“I’m pretty lucky,” Brian Henderson said, noting he also coached Dani in the all-star series. "It’s my last weekend of basketball, and that’s pretty special. I wouldn’t want it to end any other way than to get to coach one of my kids.”
• There were a couple changes to the original rosters. Sentinel’s Maddie Keast, who has signed to play at Montana, hasn’t fully recovered from a sprained ankle suffered in the State AA semifinals in March and has been replaced by Gerke. On the Wyoming side, Sarah Erickson of Cheyenne East has replaced Rawlins’ Kalli Feddersen, who is also out with an injury.
• The teams split the series last year, with each team getting a win on their opponent’s home floor. Montana leads the series 23-11.