By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
It may be a different format over a few more days, but the goal at the Northern C girls basketball tournament remains the same - a berth in the Class C State Girls State Basketball Tournament.
This year will be the first time that the boys and girls tourney's will run concurrently, starting today with the girls action at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls.
Three of those teams with state tournament aspirations - Big Sandy Pioneers, Rocky Boy Morning Stars and the Chester Coyotes - are not only definite possibilities for getting one of the two coveted berths, but they could also be divisional champs.
District 9C tournament champ Big Sandy will face a familiar foe in the Coyotes at 2:30 p.m. today. The two teams met twice in the regular season with each picking up a win in the other's gym.
"We definitely got the tougher side of the bracket," said Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner. "Chester gets upset and we have to face them in the first round. That's not an easy matchup."
Not an easy matchup, but at least a familiar one. Chester defeated the Pioneers 61-51 in Big Sandy on Jan 8. Big Sandy returned the favor to the Coyotes with 52-41 win in Chester a month later. It was the first time that teams had played each other in several season and in hindsight have benefitted both teams.
"It really worked out well for us," said Chester head coach Dustin Gordon. "It's tough draw to play Big Sandy in the first game, but I like the fact that we played them twice already and are familiar with them."
Even though the Coyotes suffered a 43-30 loss to Sunburst in the finals of the District 10C tournament on Saturday night, there is no doubting that they are a definite title contender.
"It was a combination of things," Gordon said of the loss. "Sunburst had a great game plan and we turned it over 36 times in the game, which is pretty uncharacteristic of us.
Chester (14-6) returns basically every player from last year's squad that made the state tournament. The Coyotes are blend of experience, size, speed and athleticism.
Led by forwards Mary DeVries and Shawnee Norick, who have all four of the aforementioned qualities, the Coyotes have a solid inside game.
DeVries, in Lackner's eyes, is a college level player, who can dominate games with her 5-11 frame and ability to score inside and outside. Norick, who is averaging over 20 points a game, is the perfect compliment to DeVries with her athleticism.
Chester also has solid guards in Amanda Violett and Keyla Briese. Violett has taken over the point guard duties in the last few weeks, while Briese is one the best outside shooters in the area. However, the Coyotes are still adjusting to life without senior point guard Jillien Johnson, who was suspended from the team late in the season.
"It really has affected us," Gordon said. "She was definitely a leader on the floor. We've had to make some adjustments. We would be a little stronger, but that's the nature of the beast."
Even without Johnson, the Coyotes still have enough talent to scare Lackner.
"They are extremely talented," he said. "They certainly have more talent that we do. They are probably the most athletic team in the tournament. They didn't get beat by many teams this season."
Not to tease Lackner, but his team had enough talent to be one of those teams to beat the Coyotes.
In that game, the Pioneers scrapped their trademark full-court press in favor of a 2-2-1 press that allowed them to slow down DeVries and Norick. Big Sandy also slowed the pace of play way down once it got ahead by four points. The slowing down of the game was to prevent the Coyotes' potent fast-break attack, which killed Big Sandy in the loss to Chester.
"I think they had two shots that weren't lay-ups in that game," Lackner said.
Gordon liked Lackner's assessment of his team's strengths, but thought he might be selling his own team a little short.
"I know he thinks we're talented, but he has an awfully good team," Gordon said. "They are so disciplined and sound. They just aren't going to make mistakes and not beat themselves."
The Pioneers (17-4) don't wow you with one or two player. The sum of the whole is truly greater than the parts and Gordon knows that when all of Big Sandy's parts are playing well, the Pioneers are good.
Big Sandy got solid performances from Naomi Williams and Kacy Herron en route to the 9C tourney title. Williams is force inside and Herron has become a good scorer in Class C. Sophomore Shalayna Pearson didn't have her best shooting tournament, but is capable of putting points up in a hurry, while guard Sandy Zeiger and Sarah Yirsa were solid all weekend.
In the rubber match of these two teams, it will come down to who can impose their strategy on the other most effectively.
"I think it's coming down to a handful of little things like free-throw percentage and turnover-to-steal ratio," Gordon said. "With the bigger floor at the Four Seasons, I think it works to our benefit. I think he's going to pack it with that zone to stop our posts and force us to make shots from the outside."
The Coyotes have prepared to find ways to break the zone to get the ball inside, but hitting the outside shots will make it easier.
"We have done worked on things to spread them out and get the ball to Mary where she's most dangerous which is anywhere inside of 10 feet," Gordon said. "But Keyla is going to have to step up and make some outside shots. She wasn't there when we lost to them."
As for Lackner, he has three keys: break the Coyotes' full-court press, stop the inside game and control the defensive boards.
"If we can do all three, we have a good chance of beating them," Lackner said. "The defensive rebounding is big, we can't give their big girls extra chances inside."
With the consensus being that the Chester/Big Sandy is the tough side of the bracket, it makes the loss in the 9C championship a little easier to swallow for the Rocky Boy Morning Stars. Rocky Boy (18-2) will open with 10C champion Sunburst tonight at 6.
The loss in the 9C title game wasn't easy for head coach Deb LaMere's young squad, but she hopes they remember the focus is qualifying for the state tournament.
"I had to remind them in the locker room after the game," LaMere said. "They were pretty upset. But I think they started to refocus on Monday and practice. We sat down and talked some things out."
Practice wasn't quite so great for the Stars' week in terms of other things. Starting point guard and leading scorer Loni Belcourt gave LaMere a big scare when she got a nasty cut on her middle finger of her shooting had. The cut was enough for Belcourt to receive some stitches, but it could have been far worse.
"That's not exactly what you want to have happen the week before divisionals," LaMere joked. "We really don't know how its going to affect her and how she plays."
Belcourt, along with twin sister, Tori, form a solid backcourt that will be tested by a scrappy, athletic Sunburst squad.
"Sunburst is very quick," LaMere sad. "We match up pretty well with them. They play pretty tough man-to-man defense which is something we haven't seen a lot this year."
The Refiners are led by do-everything player Rachel Kleinert. The 5-8 Kleinert may not seem imposing, but she can flat score points, and in bunches. She dropped 21 on Chester in the 10C finals, and she averages over 20 points a game.
The remainder of the Refiners aren't going to scare many teams, but they play effectively together.
"Sunburst is a dangerous team," Gordon said. "Not many teams play man-to-man as aggressively as they do. It really caused us some problems."
The Morning Stars had their own share of problems in the loss to Big Sandy. They were their own worst enemy, falling way behind early thanks to uncharacteristic turnovers and missed shots.
"We talked about coming out and playing with more composure," LaMere said. "We can't fall behind early like we did in the championship."
LaMere hopes that her overall depth and balance will key the Stars. Besides the Belcourts, Rocky Boy has a solid inside presence in Shaneen Rainingbird, Erin Broncho and Chelsea St. Pierre. Rainingbird is still fighting the effects of a nasty ankle sprain, while Broncho battled illness all last week.
"I think they're getting better," LaMere said. "Shaneen still isn't the same, but Erin is definitely feeling better."
Perhaps Rocky Boy's wild card is Frances Eagleman. The precocious freshman averaged more than 12 points a game during the 9C tournament, while displaying solid maturity.
"Frances has played in enough games this season, where I don't consider her a freshman anymore," LaMere said. "She had a great tournament for us and we need that continue this weekend."
Basically for LaMere and the Stars, it comes down to doing what they had done best all season, which is full-court pressure, scoring points in bunches and dominating the boards.
"We just need to execute our stuff," LaMere said. "These girls know our offense and defense so well. We need to be better at rebounding. That comes down to boxing out on every shot."
The tournament field is wide open with solid teams in Denton (20-3), Grass Range (15-6) and Geraldine (15-6) rounding out the field. It's a wide open race, but the area teams should be among the favorites.
"I really think the winner of our game would have to be considered a favorite," Gordon said. "Rocky Boy has good draw on the other side and Denton was the best team in the 7C even though they got upset in districts."
A possible all 9C matchup in the finals is something that LaMere's team wouldn't mind seeing.
"That would be nice to get another shot at Big Sandy," she said.
Said Lackner: "I really think that the the 9C teams and Chester have played the toughest schedules this season and that should be good preparation."
All of the Northern C action can be heard on 560 KMON-AM.