By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday night in the District 9C boys basketball championship game, the Rocky Boy Stars weren't just playing for a trophy or for a spot in the divisional tournament. They were playing for history. They were playing to complete a mission that started three months ago and isn't nearly over.
That mission was the driving force behind the Stars as they raced past the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds, 73-55, in front of a capacity crowd at the Havre High gymnasium.
"This is just the first step," said Rocky Boy senior James Burns. "We are on a mission this season and we have two more tournaments to go to complete that mission."
The game between Rocky Boy and Hays-Lodge Pole pitted the top two teams in the 9C all season, but it was Burns and the Stars who made it clear early on who the superior team in the conference was, at least on this night.
Burns got the Stars off to a quick 6-0 start and Rocky Boy would never trail the entire game. Burns scored nine more points in the quarter, helping the Stars get off to a 19-14 lead.
In the second quarter, Rocky Boy continued to find its work easy in the paint. Twice during the second stanza, the Thunderbirds cut Rocky Boy's lead down to three points, but each time reserve forward Nate Rock had an answer. Rock scored 12 points in the second period, as the Stars pushed their lead up to 13 points at 38-25 by the end of the first half.
Rocky Boy's first-year head coach Andy Smith said that Rock's play off the bench was the critical difference in the final outcome.
"Nate Rock is just the ideal basketball player," Smith said. "He just goes out there when he is called upon and gives you everything he has every night. Tonight he did that for us, and he was the big difference in the basketball game, because he seemed to come up big every time Hays-Lodge Pole got close."
Although down by 13 points, the Thunderbirds showed early in the third quarter that they weren't going to go down without a fight.
Senior point guard Robyn Doney sparked the T-Birds on a 12-4 run that pulled them back to within six points. But Rock was once again the difference. He answered the Thunderbird run with six straight points of his own, as the Stars jumped back in front by nine points at the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the T-Birds pulled close again. William Granados came off the bench to score six quick points and cut the lead back down to four points.
But that would be as close as Hays-Lodge Pole would get.
From that point, the Stars ripped off 14 unanswered points, with Burns, Rock and leading scorer on the season Charles Walking Child leading the charge. By the time the run ended, the Stars were up by 16 points and the Thunderbirds' hopes of capturing the District 9C championship were gone.
While Rocky Boy's high-octane offense has paved the way for its spectacular season, on this night, it was the Stars' defense that spurred them to victory, according to Smith.
"These kids have bought into the fact that we need to play good defense and we need to work hard on every possession," Smith said. "They are a very unselfish group and they take pride in playing great defense. And they really take pride in rebounding. I think that was a big difference tonight, because we dominated on the boards."
Indeed, Rocky Boy outrebounded the T-Birds terribly and they also forced them into 19 turnovers on the night. Individually, the Stars got 23 points from Burns and another 21 from Rock. Walking Child added nine points and 13 boards, while Jesse Colliflower also chipped in with nine points and eight assists.
The Thunderbirds were paced by Granados with nine points off the bench. Lance Brockie and Dwight Flansburg added seven points apiece.
The Thunderbirds will now have to sweat out one more game as they will play Box Elder today at 6 p.m. in a challenge game. The winner of tonight's contest will then move on to the Northern C Divisional tournament.
Meanwhile, the Stars have completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in 9C history. In the past two seasons, the Stars won a combined five games.
They are now 19-1 this season and headed to the Northern C divisional tournament in Great Falls as one of the favorites. To a player like Walking Child, who has seen the toughest of times, nothing could be more satisfying.
"This means a lot to our school and to all these players, because we have never been here before," he said. "All of these guys came together to get this done and this is big for us. But it isn't over either. We are on a mission this season and we aren't done yet."
Smith also thinks that his team isn't done doing good things this year, but for the moment, he is content to just enjoy what the Stars have accomplished up to this point.
"I am just really proud of what these kids have done this season," Smith said. "The seniors on this team have been in last place the last two years, and now they are reaching out and taking the only opportunity they have at success. They have worked extremely hard this season, and they all deserve what is happening to them right now."
Rocky Boy will open the 2005 Northern C divisional tournament on Thursday at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls against the winner of the Chester/Dutton-Brady challenge game.
Rocky Boy 73
Hays-Lodge Pole 55(1st)
H-LP 14 11 14 16 - 55
Rocky Boy 19 19 10 25 -73
Hays-Lodge Pole - Steven Shambo 4, Kelly Healy 2, Robyn Doney 6, Delaine Ariwite 4, Dwight Flansburg 7, Clayburn Grant 2, William Granados 9, Lance Brockie 7, Mike Werk 6, Joel Blackelk 4, Cody McCabe 2. Totals 22 7-11.
Rocky Boy - Charles Walking Child 9, A.J. The Boy 1, James Burns 23, Jesse Colliflower 9, Joe Small 2, Ivan Whitford 5 Nathan Rock 21, Lakotah Oats 3. Totals 27 14-25.
Total fouls - Hays-Lodge Pole 21, Rocky Boy 16. Fouled out - Brockie. 3-point goals - Shambo, Flansburg, Granados, Werk, Burns, Whitford, Oats.