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Homegrown basketball star, teacher says good-bye

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Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 8:23 am

After a distinguished 25-year career coaching and teaching at Columbia Falls High School, Mark Beckwith will retire at the end of the school year.

Beckwith grew up in Columbia Falls. His father worked at the Anaconda Aluminum Co. plant and he was a star player in high school. In 1969, Beckwith’s senior year, he averaged a whopping 21 points and 21 rebounds a game. He recalled one game against Whitefish where he had 36 points and 32 rebounds.

“I was 6-foot-8 and most teams didn’t have anyone that big,” he said.

But there was disappointment that season as well. Back then, Columbia Falls played in what was called the Big 32, an amalgam of what would now be Class A and AA schools. The Wildcats had already beaten conference foe Missoula Hellgate twice in the regular season, but they lost to the Knights in the divisional tournament’s challenge game, 59-56. The Cats ended up third.

Beckwith went on to play for Montana State University for four years. In his freshman season, the team was a monster. Beckwith averaged 23 points a game, and the Bobcats averaged more than 100 points a tilt.

But in his senior year, one quarter shy from graduation, Beckwith went to Germany to play profession ball. It was an eye-opener.

“That was a real adjustment,” he said. “If I didn’t score 35 points a game, we didn’t win.”

So after a season, Beckwith returned to Montana and worked in construction with his brother Lee in Helena. There, he was talked into coaching youth basketball by a friend who was a physical education coordinator.

Beckwith then went back to MSU, got a degree in industrial arts, and then landed a job as teacher and basketball coach in Cut Bank in 1986. He led the team to a state Class B championship in 1989, where they took second after losing to Lodge Grass 91-83.

“That was a special group of kids,” he said. “They decided they wouldn’t get beat.”

Later that year, Beckwith moved back to Columbia Falls. He’s been here ever since. He coached track until 2006 and then returned as an assistant in 2009. In 2005, he led the boys to a second-place finish at the state Class A track meet.

That too, was a special group of kids. Devin Schmit set a record in the 800 meters at the meet and took second in the 400 meters, but he ran out of gas in the 1,600 relay, Beckwith recalled. The Cats took second.

“He’s the only athlete who came and apologized for not winning a race,” Beckwith said. “It wasn’t for lack of trying on his part.”

Beckwith also served as head basketball coach for four years, but his greatest success came as an assistant under coach Cary Finberg, when the program really turned around in the early and mid-2000s.

In 2002, the Cats took third at the state Class A basketball tournament, and in 2003 they won their first title. Matt Beckwith, Mark’s oldest son and a standout player himself, was on the 2002 team.

“That group of kids decided they wouldn’t get beat,” he said. “That’s what changed the program.”

The Wildcats went on to win state championships in 2005 and 2006, when Beckwith’s younger son, Nick, played on the squad. Beckwith stepped down as assistant coach after 2006.

“Cary and I worked well together,” Beckwith said. “He let me do the things I was good at.”

Finberg had praise for Beckwith as well.

“Mark did a good job working with the big guys,” he said. “He was a tremendous assistant coach, and I appreciate his contributions.”

Beckwith’s teaching career has also been fruitful. The industrial arts program at the school is thriving.

“I’ve been lucky,” Beckwith said. “I’ve had great people to work with. I would do it all over again. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

In retirement, Beckwith plans on hiking, skiing and river floating. He’s an avid hiker with lots of trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness over the years. He says he has a couple planned already for this summer.

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