By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
If basketball is what you crave, then look no further than the Havre High School gymnasium. This afternoon the annual rite of passage that is the District 9C boys basketball tournament will get under way in Havre and this year's version looks to be as entertaining as ever.
While the 9C tournament does not have a dominant team such as Big Sandy was a year ago, it does have the Rocky Boy Stars (17-1).
The Stars ran the table this season in conference play under first-year head coach Andy Smith and they have to be considered the favorite to cut down the nets on Saturday night. But the Stars won't have a cakewalk to the Northern C divisional tournament later this month in Great Falls.
Despite losing only one game this season, Rocky Boy has been pushed to the limit in several games. The Stars are going to find themselves tested this week by a host of contenders like Hays-Lodge Pole, KG and Box Elder. Still, Smith insists that his team is ready to take the next step in what has already been a remarkable season.
"We have won a lot of close games this year and I think that that will have us ready to play in the tournament," Smith said. "But there are a lot of good teams and any one of them could get hot this week and win this tournament.
"The good thing is that I don't think we are playing our best basketball coming into this week," he added. "Hopefully, our best games are still ahead of us."
Rocky Boy will have a first-round bye, which means it won't play until Thursday's semifinal round. They will await the winner of perhaps the most intriguing matchup in the opening round which pits Box Elder (9-7, 11-7) against Big Sandy (4-12, 4-14).
Both the Bears and Pioneers are coming into the tournament under the radar a little bit, but most coaches in the league believe that they both could be that one sleeper team that always seems to emerge during this tournament.
"Our game with Box Elder should be a very close one, because both teams like to get up and down the floor and score a lot of points," said Big Sandy veteran head coach Roy Lackner. "We are a young team and nobody is expecting a lot from us this week. But I guarantee nobody is going to play harder than these kids do and we are going to be a tough out for somebody."
The Pioneers are both the defending district and divisional champion, but they had to replace nearly all of its starting lineup from a year ago.
Meanwhile, the Bears are the other team that made it out of the 9C tourney a year ago. Box Elder has had an up-and-down year in 2005, but head coach Gus Bacon said that he likes his team's chances this week. Smith also thinks that the Bears could be a very dangerous team to play as well.
"We have progressed and gotten better as the season has went on," Bacon said. "I really like how this team is playing right now. If we keep playing this way, I think we have a good chance to do some things in this tournament."
Said Smith: "Box Elder is a team that concerns me this week. They are so explosive offensively, and if they are shooting the ball well, you are going to have to score 85 points to beat them."
The other side of the bracket is as equally intriguing. The Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds (13-3, 15-3) were picked by many to win the conference title this season due to the fact they returned every player from last year's team which finished fourth.
But the T-Birds suffered some early season setbacks, which cost them a chance to keep pace with Rocky Boy. Still the T-Birds are one of the highest scoring team's in the tournament and they are also very sound defensively which makes them a serious threat to capture the coveted 9C championship.
Hays-Lodge Pole will open against Blue Sky-J-I at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The Eagles (0-16, 1-17) have suffered through a second straight very difficult season winning just one game on the year.
The final first-round matchup will put the KG KouGars (11-5, 12-5) against the Turner Tornadoes (1-15, 2-16). For two straight seasons, KG head coach Charlie Robinson has insisted that his team is in a rebuilding mode, yet they always have to be considered a 9C title contender.
This year is no different as the KouGars have been tops in the league defensively and are a capable offensive team.
"We have come a long way since the beginning of the year and I like where this team is at right now," Robinson said. "If we can be consistent offensively I think we have a very good chance to be in the mix on Saturday night.
"But we have to get by a very good offensive team in Turner," he added. "And Hays-Lodge Pole is playing really well right now so our side of the bracket is tough. I still think Rocky Boy is the team to beat this week, but Hays-Lodge Pole, Box Elder, Big Sandy and us all have a chance to be there as well."
While teams like KG and Box Elder will once again be in the hunt for a 9C title, this tournament will once again feature some outstanding individual talent from every team.
The Stars have a host of talent led by 6-3 leading scorer Charles Walking Child as well as standouts like James Burns, Jesse Colliflower and A.J. The Boy.
KG has one of the league's leading scorers in guard Cody Donoven and Turner also has an explosive scorer in Dalton Cornell.
Box Elder features perhaps the best backcourt tandem in guards Tyler and Aaron Henry, while Hays-Lodge Pole might have the most depth. The T-Birds are led by 6-4 sophomore Lance Brockie but head coach Ken Morin will routinely go 11 players deep in a game and all of those players are capable of reaching double figures.
Big Sandy has a very young team led by veteran guard Devin Genereux. Lawrence Jappe, Justin Willis and Chris LaBuda are three Pioneers who could be up-and-coming stars in 9C for the next couple of years. Blue Sky/J-I also has a very capable scorer in Craig Miller.
"I think this tournament is a lot more wide open this season," Robinson said. "There are a lot of very solid teams and four or five of them have a chance to be there on Saturday night. It should be a very exciting week again this year."
The top two teams from the District 9C tournament will advance to the Northern C divisional at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls. The 9C tournament will get under way this afternoon and run through Saturday night.