By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems like just yesterday that the KG KouGars came from the middle of the District 9C pack during the regular season to capture yet another district tournament title in Havre for veteran head coach Charlie Robinson.
But in fact a whole year has passed and this weekend the Hi-Line area will once again be abuzz with basketball as the 2003-2004 Class C basketball season gets underway around the state.
The season officially gets underway tonight when conference favorite Big Sandy plays host to the Highwood Mountaineers at the Big Sandy Tournament.
The Pioneers enter 2003 considered to be one of the elite teams in all of Class C basketball thanks in large part to the fact that Roy Lackner's club returns nearly every player that finished second at last year's 9C tourney and narrowly missed an opportunity to advance to the state tournament.
The Pioneers return all-conference players in seniors Gage Brumwell and Jay Jamieson as well as returning starters Adam Butler and Mason Ophus. Big Sandy also welcomes back senior Skylar Pearson, who missed most of last season with a foot injury.
"I hope that we can be as good as people think we will be," Lackner said. "We have a very solid group of kids who gained a valuable amount of experience last season.
"We have a lot of size and some very good athletes and I think we have the potential to be a very good basketball team," Lackner added. "But we have a lot of work ahead of us and we play a very difficult schedule right away with Highwood, Judith Gap and Saco. So we'll find out early on what we're made of."
Meanwhile the KG KouGars and Box Elder Bears also come into this weekend with high expectations.
The Bears are loaded with talent and at times last season appeared that they were going to run away with the 9C title.
However, the Bears stumbled in close games to Blue Sky and KG in the tournament last season and were left thinking ahead to this season.
Box Elder returns a wealth of talent led by all-around guard Neal Rosette and forward Tim Rosette. Neal Rosette was one of the top scorers in District 9C play last season, while Tim Rosette is a force inside and a top rebounder.
The KouGars, on the other hand, lost several key players to graduation including three-sport standout Casey Crites along with Tyler Kapperud and Thomas Marshall.
However, Robinson's teams are always competitive and the KouGars are the defending district champions .
KG does return starters Richie Melby and Luke Antonich, while Robinson will look to Darby Donovan and Dan Kloppenberg to fill voids left by graduation.
"We definitely have to replace some great players," Robinson said. "But we have some kids that got some valuable minutes last year, and over the course of the season I think you'll see us get better and better. It will take time for us to grow as a team and we are going to keep things simple at the beginning of the season, but if we stay healthy and improve every week I think we can be right in it at the end of the season."
While most people point to the three aforementioned teams to be the powers of 9C basketball this season, there are two teams that Robinson and others feel are definitely on the rise as the season gets under way.
Turner and Hays-Lodge Pole are both coming off of winning seasons and very good district tournament showings in Havre last year. The Tornadoes are once again under the direction of Tim Conlan and return a solid nucleus of players including guards David Jones and Brandon Simons as well as big men Clancy Kegel and Evan Hauge.
Meanwhile the Thunderbirds also have some talent to work this season, but head coach Ken Morin said that if they are to build on last year's 11-9 campaign, his young players will have to grow up fast.
"We lack size and a lot of experience," Morin said. "We have a lot of talented young players on this team. I think that if we can get through the early half of our schedule and gain some experience we will give some teams trouble this year."
Said Robinson: "Turner and Hays-Lodge Pole are two teams that will be very much improved this season. They both have a lot of talent and I think they will surprise some teams this season."
Last season was a rollercoaster ride for the Blue Sky Eagles. The Eagles romped through most of their district schedule before faltering at the divisional tournament.
Now Blue Sky will have to regroup and rebuild because of heavy losses to graduation. Jon Lipp, Ryan Wells, Mitch McKinley, Keenan Toner and Eric Groth all moved on, leaving the cupboard a little bare. The Eagles will look to rebuild around seniors Roald Aageson and Levi Wendland.
The Rocky Boy Stars will also have some rebuilding to do this season. The Stars return a solid post player in Garret Demontiney, but lost their leading scorer in Jesse Colliflower who transferred to Box Elder.
"This is going to be another very competitive season in our league," Robinson said. "Big Sandy and Box Elder will be very good, but I think every game will be a test for every team."
Said Lackner: "That is one of the things that makes our league so interesting. Everybody always plays everybody else very tough night in and night out. It is going to be a very interesting season."
Six of the seven 9C teams will be in action over the weekend. KG and Turner will join the Pioneers at the Big Sandy tournament. Rocky Boy and Box Elder will take part in the Native American Classic in Havre and Blue Sky will be in action at the Centerville tournament.