Havre Daily News
After an exhilarating run to the District 9C boys basketball championship, the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds will look to continue their Cinderella story at the Northern C Divisional Tournament, which gets under way today at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls.
Hays-Lodge Pole begins divisional play tonight at 6 against Geraldine, and 9C runner-up North Star squares off against Highwood today at 2:30 p.m.
The T-Birds began the season as favorites to win the district title, but the team failed to fulfill the promise and struggled to a 4-8 conference record, placing it sixth in a league of seven teams.
Few gave the Thunderbirds a chance at the start of the tournament. However, they played an inspired brand of basketball and finally lived up to expectations by defeating the top three teams in the 9C tournament last weekend in Havre.
Now, the T-Birds have their sights set on a new goal: reaching the Class C state tournament, which is something they almost did a year ago. HLP finished fourth at the Northern C tournament last year.
“A lot of people still don't believe in us,” HLP head coach Charlie Ereaux said. “They think that we were just lucky to win those games. But luck had nothing to do with it. These kids earned it.”
It's difficult to say that the T-Birds were lucky, when all they did was knock off the top three seeds in the district tournament on consecutive nights, including a 22-point romp over second-seeded Box Elder in the semifinals.
In the 9C title game, the T-Birds knocked off the top-seeded North Star Knights, 49-47. Although the game was close throughout, the T-Birds didn't trail once in the second half, and at one time led by double digits.
So, while Hays-Lodge Pole's victory may have been improbable, it had little to do with luck.
Besides, who needs luck when you have a freshman sensation like A.J. Long Soldier. Long Soldier is an unbelievably athletic 6-4 swing player who made the 9C tournament his own personal coming-out party. He capped off his spectacular weekend with a dominating 21-point performance against North Star.
“He is a tall athletic kid that is hard to contain,” North Star head coach Charlie Robinson said. “He was the whole key to their success against us.”
Said Long Soldier: “I never really expected to do as much as I am doing. I thought I would score some points and play well, but I didn't expect anything like this.”
Teams can't just focus on Long Soldier. While Long Soldier is an amazing talent, Lance Brockie and Cody McCabe are the heart and soul of the T-Birds, and Brockie has led the team in scoring and rebounding all season. Both players also have divisional tournament experience to draw on.
The 6-5 Brockie provides the T-Birds with a rare combination of talent and experience. He is a talented low-post player, who can put the ball on the floor and is not afraid to take or make the big shot.
Brockie and the T-Birds will have to be at their best tonight when they match up against Geraldine.
Geraldine is the District 8C runner-up, and the Tigers earned the right to play the T-Birds by taking out Stanford in a challenge game on Monday night.
Geraldine went 14-7 in a very difficult district. The Tigers are led by Cody Joyce, who scored 15 points in the win over Stanford. Justin Woodburn, Jesse Schmidt and R.J. Clark also provide solid scoring for the Tigers.
“We are playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Ereaux said. “We are a dangerous team right now and we want to ride this thing as far as it can go.”
With the T-Birds being the talk of the 9C tournament, it would be easy for people to forget about the North Star Knights.
Even though the Knights finished as the runner-up, the fact that they won the 9C regular-season title and were undoubtedly the best and most consistent team for the majority of the season can't be overlooked by anyone in Great Falls this weekend.
“I think that the kids are really excited for this opportunity,” Robinson said. “And I feel that we have a lot of confidence right now due to the fact that we were able to rebound from a tough loss in the championship game and still finish in second place.”
The worst thing about being the runner-up in 9C is that now the Knights have the unenviable task of taking on 19-1 Highwood, the District 8C champion, this afternoon.
The two teams met twice in the regular season with Highwood winning both times.
However, it can be difficult to beat one team on three different occasions and it's possible that Highwood is not pleased by having to face North Star yet again.
“Playing Highwood twice already this season gives us a slight advantage because we are already familiar with them and they have added pressure in trying to beat us for a third time,” Robinson said. “Therefore, while we can simply play to win, they may be playing more not to lose.”
Standout players Cody Donoven and Branden Melby lead the Knights in scoring. Both are versatile players who can score inside and out.
Darius Wendland gives the Knights a viable third scoring option, and Shane Rice provides the team with solid defense and rebounding.
Highwood counters with a pair of its own talented scorers in Brian Davison and Bret Bahnmiller.
Today's other opening-round matchups pair District 7C champion Winifred against 10C runner-up Heart Butte, and District 10C champion Dutton-Brady versus District 7C runner-up Denton.
Winifred and Heart Butte will be a battle of two teams that have the ability to make a run late in the tournament. The Red Raiders are 19-2 and one of the top-ranked teams in the Class C. Winifred is led by lethal scorer Garrett Carr, while Heart Butte boasts some high-octane scorers of their own in Joe Wagner and Sheldon Armstrong.
The nightcap pits perennial 10C powerhouse Dutton-Brady against Denton, which is 15-6 on the season.
Dutton-Brady is led by dominant post player Nic Wells and outside shooter Donnie Chippewa. Denton has its own marksman in Mark Buckentin.
The Heart Butte/Winifred game will get under way this afternoon at 1, and Dutton-Brady/Denton finishes off the first day of action at 7:30 p.m.
The Northern C divisional tournament will run through Saturday night in Great Falls. The top three teams from the tournament will advance to the Class C state tournament March 2-4 in Billings.