By Ryan Divish
Call it revenge, call it vindication. One thing is for certain, it offered the Big Sandy girls basketball team plenty of motivation.
After losing to the Belt Huskies, 62-57, in last season's Northern C divisional semifinal and being left out of the Class C state tournament despite having a 23-1 record, the Pioneers began preparing to face Belt the day after the season ended.
It almost seems like deja vu for Big Sandy, as once again, the Pioneers head into today's Northern C Divisional in Lewistown undefeated and top-ranked in Class C. But that is where Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner wants similarities to last season to end.
"We want to control our own destiny," Lackner said. "We need to get those first two wins. Losing either means that someone else controls your destiny and we could be sitting at home as the best 23-1 team in the state just like last year."
It won't be easy as probably the three best teams in the tournament are all on one side of the bracket. The top-ranked Pioneers (20-1) along with fifth-ranked Belt (20-1) and sixth-ranked Grass Range (19-2) are all on the same side of the bracket.
"We definitely got on the tougher side of the bracket," Lackner said. "There are just three losses between three teams. If we can make it the championship then I'll be confident."
Big Sandy opens the tournament today against sixth-ranked Grass Range and with a win would most likely face Belt in the semifinals. Lackner makes no bones about wanting to beat Belt, but certainly knows Grass Range is a solid squad.
"We've been preparing for Belt since the summer," Lackner said. "We're not looking past Grass Range to Belt, but if you prepare for the best, you prepare for everyone. Grass Range is a good team, but they will have their hands full with us."
The Rangers like to play an up-tempo full-court style of basketball led by MSU-Northern volleyball recruit Renae Knerr. However, that style doesn't make the Pioneers apprehensive, rather they are relishing that possibility.
"If Grass Range wants to run, they won't have to wait around for us," Lackner said. "You can't gamble against us because we'll hurt you.
Indeed, the Pioneers are more than capable of handling pressure defense if for no other reason than they face it every day at practice. Guards Lindsay Danreuther and Ashley Goodian are exceptional ball handlers and are not just capable of beating full-court pressure, but beating it for easy baskets.
"We break presses pretty well," Danreuther said. "And that could hurt them because it keys their whole defense."
Besides handling the Ranger pressure, the Pioneers want to apply a little bit of their trademark pressure.
"I think we can hurt them with our pressure," Danreuther said. "We can get them a little riled up, get them on their heels and get them to make some mistakes."
Said Lackner: "Everybody knows that we press and they try to prepare for it in practice. But until you're out there on the floor feeling it, there's a big difference."
Another matchup that Lackner thinks may favor Big Sandy is inside. Grass Range is a little bigger with three girls standing 5-8 while the Pioneers have just one. But it's a pretty good one in Sheena Darlington. The senior post scored a dominant 29-points in the District 9C championship game.
"They don't go inside a whole lot," Lackner said. "That should keep Sheena out of foul trouble."
The Pioneers and Rangers tip off today at 2 p.m. at the Fergus High School gymnasium.
While Big Sandy is perennially a favorite to win the Northern C, its District 9C counterparts, the Box Elder Bears, are flying below the proverbial radar as an underdog - which suits head coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum just fine.
"We're used to being an underdog," Schwab-Hannum said. "It's good because we don't have a lot of pressure on us. We've been kind of overshadowed by the boys team all year and we have the chance to get out from under it and show people we can play."
The Bears will face the District 10C champion Valier Panthers tonight at 8 p.m. Valier, 12-6 overall, went into the 10C tourney as the fourth-seed, but strung together three-consecutive wins including an upset of Sunburst in the championship game to get to Lewistown.
Box Elder, 15-6 overall, was in a similar situation. The Bears went in as third-seed at the 9C tournament with Big Sandy and Blue Sky being considered the favorites. However, Box Elder knocked off Blue Sky in the semifinals to earn a spot this weekend.
This team hardly bears resemblance to the squad that first took the floor in December. With only three seniors and the rest underclassmen, the Bears had their fair share of rough spots.
"At the beginning of the year, I wondered how we were going to win any games," said standout guard Tami Infante. "It took awhile, but we've really started playing good together."
Led by Infante and Brandy Lawrence, the Bears have fought, scrapped and run their way into this weekends tournament. And that style must continue for Box Elder to move on.
"We need to play our style of game," Schwab-Hannum said. "We need to box-out, rebound and keep pushing the ball."
Said Infante: "I know Valier has two quick guards, but we'll have to see if they can keep up with us."
Much of the scoring duties fall directly on Infante's capable shoulders. She has averaged close to 23 points a game and can score in a variety of ways. Still, the Bears must get points from Lawrence, Ann Favel and others to really be effective.
"Tami will get her usual points," Schwab-Hannum said. "But I need 6-10 points from every other player that plays. It seems like a lot, but it's just a few layups here and there."
Schwab-Hannum will only give a little hint of a smile when she is asked about the Bears' side of the bracket which features teams with four or more losses.
"The three heavyweights are on the other side," Schwab-Hannum said. "And one of them has to stay home even if there is a challenge game. Big Sandy still has to be a favorite. They have some experience and they have a coach who is prepared for every situation."
Infante is diplomatic about her team's chances but knows how she would want the tournament to end - an all 9C matchup in the championship.
"I want to get Lackner and Big Sandy," Infante said. "I have never beaten him in my high school career and I would love to get him in the championship."