Havre Daily News
Just a few shorts weeks ago, no one thought that the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds had any chance of making the Class C State boys basketball tournament.
Yet that's exactly what the T-Birds did, and they aren't just happy to be in the tournament, they want to win it.
The T-Birds' magical run began when they were able to take home the District 9C championship two weeks ago in Havre, earning themselves a berth in last weekend's Northern C divisional tournament.
The T-Birds were still considered a dark horse candidate to make it to state entering the tournament in Great Falls. But by the time the Northern C tournament was over, the T-Birds had not only made it to state, they had captured the Northern C crown.
“We have been on a big roll lately,” HLP head coach Charlie Ereaux said. “Not many people expected a whole lot from us, but we knew all along what we had and we had confidence in our team.”
If the T-Birds are going to continue their amazing run throughout the postseason, they will have to do it against much tougher competition this time around, starting with their first-round opponent.
Hays-Lodge Pole will face off against the ninth-ranked Alberton Panthers on Thursday at 2 p.m. in Billings. The Panthers are fresh off a 63-44 victory over the Drummond Trojans in the Western C divisional challenge game Monday night.
The Panthers are making their first trip to the state tournament since 1971 and are 23-2 on the season.
“They are a very talented team,” Ereaux said. “It is going to be a big challenge for us, but at this time of the year every team is going to be good. They wouldn't be here if they weren't good.”
The Panthers are a senior-laden team that is loaded with talent, especially in the frontcourt with seniors Kort Graf and Brandon Kohlwes. Graf scored 21 points and had seven rebounds in the win over Drummond, while Kohlwes pulled down 14 rebounds in the same game.
Out on the perimeter, the Panthers boast the sharp shooting Geof Denhe, who shoots it well from anywhere on the floor and opens things up for the big men down low.
HLP counters with the electrifying freshman A.J. Long Soldier, who can do just about anything. Long Soldier is an effective shooter, passer, rebounder and he is also a very good defensive player. As long as the T-Birds have Long Soldier, they will always have a shot.
“He has just given our team such a spark,” Ereaux said. “I knew that he had the potential to be a great player. I just didn't know it would happen this quickly.”
The T-Birds also have a solid bigman of their own in the versatile Lance Brockie. Brockie is one of the unquestioned leaders of HLP and he never seems to shy away from the big moment. He causes defenses problems because he can score both inside and outside and he often opens things up for his teammates because of his clutch perimeter shooting.
“Lance definitely causes problems because he can score in a lot of different ways,” Ereaux said. “He is a talented player, but he is also a great leader.”
Cody McCabe also provides the team with a scrappy player, who can rebound, defend and also score.
“Everybody is playing pretty well for us right now,” Ereaux said. “We are just playing with a lot of confidence right now and all the guys have stepped up big for us throughout these past couple of weeks.”
This year's Class C state tournament will have a slightly different feel, because for the first time there will be nine teams participating. That is because three teams now qualify from the Northern C division.
In a rematch of the Northern C semifinals, Heart Butte will take on Highwood at 11 a.m Thursday in the opening game of the tournament. The winner will take on defending state champion Gardiner in the quarterfinals at 8 p.m.
The Warriors knocked off the Mountaineers last Friday night. They are led by 6-10 Jesse Brave Rock. Brave Rock is a dominating low post player and if the Mountaineers are going to have any chance at victory, they will have to find a way to slow him down.
Whoever survives the opening-round game between Highwood and Heart Butte will then have the unenviable task of taking on Gardiner later on that same day.
The Bruins are 23-1 on the season and are considered serious state-title contenders. They boast a number of gifted players led by their two returning All-State performers, Nick Broadhead and Bodie Tobin..
The biggest roadblock in the Bruins' road to a second consecutive Class C state title could well be the Whitewater team they defeated for the title a year ago.
Whitewater, which is 24-0 on the season, will take on Park City at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals. The Penguins look to avenge last season's runner-up finish.
The Penguins are blessed with more than enough talent and experience to go all the way as they return three All-State performers from last year's squad in Shade Stiles, Roman Morris and Kalvin Reichelt.
Park City got into the tournament by defeating Wibaux, 59-39 in the Southern C challenge game Monday night. The Rangers will look to pull the unthinkable upset behind the play of Joe Darkenwald and Aaron Blair.
The other quarterfinal game will be between Melstone, which is making its second state tournament appearance in three years, and Fairview at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.
Melstone lost just one game all season and is led by Adam Weisz and Kale Eike.
Fairview, who finished second in the Eastern C, will look to pull the upset behind the dynamic play of Bo Selvig and Greg Hardy.
“This has been a great experience for our entire team,” Ereaux said. “Not many teams get the opportunity that we have right now. So, I told the players that they need to enjoy it and take advantage of it because opportunities like this don't come along everyday.”
The Class C state tournament will continue through Saturday night and all the action will take place at the Billings Metra.
State Class C
11 a.m. - Heart Butte (16-8) vs. Highwood (22-2)
12:30 - Melstone (22-1) vs. Fairview (17-9)
2 p.m. - Hays-Lodge Pole (13-11) vs. Alberton (23-2)
6:30 - Whitewater (24-0) vs. Park City ()
8 p.m. - Gardiner (23-1) vs. winner of 11 a.m. game