By Ryan Divish
Don't think for a second that this is a one-team tournament.
The Big Sandy Pioneers may have won the District 9C girls tournament enough times to make most people believe that everyone is playing for second, but don't tell that to the other six 9C teams and coaches.
The girls tournament kicks off today with the second-seeded Blue Sky Eagles facing the Rocky Boy Morning Stars at 1 p.m. at the Havre High gym. The second game of the day will start at 7 p.m. and feature the third-seeded Box Elder Bears facing the sixth-seeded Turner Tornadoes.
It would seem that this tournament is nothing more than a warm-up for the Northern C Divisional for the top-ranked and undefeated Pioneers. Still, if there was consensus among coaches around the league, it is that Big Sandy can be beaten.
Even the Pioneers own coach, Roy Lackner, admits his team could be beaten if it doesn't play well.
"Blue Sky or Box Elder are both very capable of beating us," Lackner said.
Said Box Elder head coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum: "I think they are beatable. They aren't as deep as they have been in the past. Still they're the team to beat. You always compare your team and what you do to Big Sandy".
Indeed, only one team Blue Sky played Big Sandy under double figures this season. However, the Pioneer's swagger has just a touch of a limp in it due mainly to the injury to star forward Sheena Darlington.
Darlington, who averages 25 points and close to 10 rebounds per game, injured her knee earlier this season against Sunburst on Jan. 17 when she banged knees with another player. In the last few weeks of the season, Darlington has played quite sparingly trying to get healthy for the post season run.
"We've taped it, we've braced it," Lackner said. "We've tried pretty much everything to make it feel better when she plays."
However, time may have been the best remedy. Coming into the tournament Lackner said Darlington is close to being 100 percent and will be ready for the tournament.
Besides Darlington, Lackner still gets solid production from senior Lindsay Danreuther and junior Ashley Goodian, who each average 16 points a game.
Even though Blue Sky may be the best bet to knock off Big Sandy, the Eagles got a harsh taste of reality on Jan. 31 when they were beaten 69-58 by Box Elder.
"We got a wake-up call in that game," said Blue Sky head coach Liz Olsen. "It was good for us to see we can't just show up and expect teams to roll over for us."
The Eagles are one of the more experienced teams in the 9C, featuring four seniors and five juniors on its roster. Blue Sky is led in scoring by senior Jessica Patrick, who scored 36 points in the loss to Box Elder. Olsen was pleased with Patrick's performance, but hopes for more scoring balance in the tournament.
"We need that balance to win," Olsen said. "We have girls capable of scoring points and we need them to score."
Box Elder has perhaps the most explosive player in the 9C in senior Tami Infante, who averages 19 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals a game.
Infante can score in a myriad of ways and is the unquestioned leader of the third-seeded Bears. But for Box Elder to be successful, they need production from players like Chasidy Parisian and Brandy Lawrence.
There is a drop-off in records following Big Sandy, Blue Sky and Box Elder. The remaining four teams all have losing records, but that doesn't mean much this time of year.
"You can talk all you want about team's records," Lackner said. "But right now everyone is 0-0."
KG, Turner, Hays-Lodge Pole and Rocky Boy would like nothing more than to play spoiler in the tournament. The KouGars saw their best player, Cady Arifin, and their point guard, Casie Toner, suffer injuries before the tournament. Both should be able to go for the KouGars.
Turner suffered through injuries all season, but has all of its players back for the tournament.
Both Hays and Rocky Boy went through mid-season coaching changes which took some adjusting to. However, the T-Birds boast the tallest player in the conference in 6-1 Collette Hawley.
The tournament schedule is different than the past since the boys tournament is being concurrently. The semifinals will be held on Thursday with the championship game taking place Saturday at 7 p.m.