Havre Daily News sports editor
The regular season in District 9C girls basketball has been all about six teams trying to chase down the Big Sandy Pioneers. When the season drew to a close Saturday night, no one had succeeded.
Today, when the 2006 District 9C girls basketball tournament gets under way at the Havre High School gymnasium, the story won't be any different. There is only one question that needs answering - can anyone dethrone the top-seeded Pioneers.
“We've put ourselves in a pretty good position,” Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner said. “We have beaten everybody in our league this season so we feel pretty confident about our chances in the tournament.
“But this league is very tough and there are some very talented teams,” he added. “We are going to have to play very well if we want to win it.”
The No. 5 Pioneers finished the regular season with a perfect 12-0 mark in league play and a 17-1 overall record. They enter the tournament as the defending 9C champions, having defeated Rocky Boy in last year's title game. Big Sandy will have a bye in the opening round, and the Pioneers will play the winner of Wednesday's first-round game between Chinook and Hays-Lodge Pole.
“I would prefer to play right away,” Lackner said. “It is tough to wait until Thursday to play when everybody else has at least played one game. But we have some experienced kids who have been through this before, so we'll be ready to play in the semifinals.”
Before anyone gets to the semifinals, or worries about knocking off the heavily favored Pioneers, they have to get through the opening round. That starts today at 2:30 p.m. when second-seeded North Star (9-3, 12-6) meets seventh-seeded Box Elder (1-11, 2-16).
The Knights have been a pleasant surprise in 2006, finishing second in the regular-season standings after being predicted to finish no better than fourth at the start of the year. North Star is one of the deepest teams in the field this week and the Knights have a solid foursome led by guards Maia Aageson and Megan Warren and forwards Tasha Dyrland and Jodi Norman. North Star is also a veteran club that has been in the pressure cooker of the 9C tournament before.
“I think our depth and our experience will help us out tremendously this week,” North Star head coach Brian Campbell said. “We have also played a really tough schedule this year and I believe that will have us even more prepared for the tournament.”
Box Elder's season has been one of close losses and difficult times. Still, the Bears, like everyone else, have a fresh start this week and they will be primed for an upset this afternoon.
Tonight, the first round continues with third-seeded Rocky Boy (7-5, 10-8) taking on sixth-seeded Turner (3-9, 7-11) at 8:30. To some, the regular season has been a disappointment for both the Morning Stars and Tornadoes.
Rocky Boy was picked to battle Big Sandy for the league championship this season, and with good reason. The Morning Stars won the 2005 District 9C regular-season championship and finished second at both the 9C tournament and Northern C divisional tournament. And, they returned everybody from the 2005 team who played admirably in its first state tournament berth in almost 20 years.
However, the Morning Stars have not lived up to expectations this season, losing games they probably shouldn't have. Still, Rocky Boy head coach Deb LaMere isn't counting her team out of anything just yet.
“We wanted to be in the top three this season in our district and we accomplished that,” LaMere said. “I think we play in the toughest district in all of Class C and we still have a pretty young team. So, I think we are right where we want to be going into the tournament.”
Turner was also predicted to finish much higher than the Tornadoes did this season. The reason for the high expectations was the return of three of the 9C's best players. Senior forwards Cheryl Cowan and Ashley Van Voast are two of the leading scorers and rebounders in the league, and point guard Kelsey Klindworth is a seasoned player who can also shoot from the outside.
Despite the Tornadoes' record during the regular season, no one is overlooking them in the tournament.
“Turner is a team that everyone needs to watch out for,” Box Elder head coach Shiloh Schwab said. “They have lost a lot of close games this year and they have two of the strongest players in our district. They could be a real dark horse in the tournament.”
The first round will conclude on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. when fourth-seeded Chinook (6-6, 8-10) squares off against Hays-Lodge Pole (4-8, 9-9).
Like Rocky Boy, Chinook's regular season has been difficult to figure out. The Sugarbeeters are one year removed from playing Class B basketball and they may be the league's most talented and athletic team.
However, that talent and athleticism hasn't translated into instant 9C success.
“I really think we would have won more games in District 2B this year,” Chinook head coach Mark Roseberry said. “We have had to learn to play at this level as we went along, and there is very good basketball being played in Class C. It is just different.
“But I am really proud of our kids,” he added. “They have worked really hard to adjust to playing in the 9C and even though we've had some ups and downs, the kids have really stayed focused and they have stayed positive.”
Despite the Beeters' .500 record in conference play, they are on everyone's list as a team that could make the most noise this week, including the head coach of their first-round opponent.
“Chinook is probably the most dangerous team in this tournament,” Hays-Lodge Pole head coach Rick Adsit said. “They have gotten better and better as the season has gone on and they are very talented.
“We have had an up-and-down season and we're hoping to put four quarters of consistent basketball together this week,” he added. “If we do that we can make some noise too. But we'll have our hands full against Chinook in the first round.”
The 9C tournament not only produces exciting games over five days, but it also showcases star players. And every team in the field has them. Players to watch include Big Sandy's trio of Kaci Herron, Shalayna Pearson and Naomi Williams, and Rocky Boy guards Tori Belcourt, Loni Belcourt and Shaneen Rainingbird.
Chinook has an outstanding roster of players led by Kassie Dugan, Crystal Roseberry, Morgan Obie, Dawn Kellam and Georgia Barber. Box Elder is blessed with the talent of sophomore forward Rokki Parker as well as senior forward Tasha Parisian. Hays-Lodge Pole has a pair of veteran players in Sheena Shambo and Suzie Kirkaldie.
“I really believe this is going to be a wide open tournament,” Adsit said. “Everbody knows that Big Sandy is the favorite. But after that I think every team is really evenly matched.”
Said Lackner: “We know that we have to go out and earn wins on the floor. Our record doesn't matter. And there are a lot of very good teams in our league. My goal is just to get to the divisional tournament. I really don't care how we do it. One thing I do know is that, like every year, this tournament is going to be exciting.”
The 2006 District 9C girls basketball tournament will get under way today at 2:30 p.m. at the HHS gymnasium. The tournament will run all week and will conclude with the championship game on Saturday night.