By Joe Whalen
The skyline at Big Sandy is dominated by one structure: the General Mills grain elevator. But a few hundred yards away, nestled at the edge of a neighborhood barely visible to truck drivers speeding down Highway 87, a high school gym serves as the town's main factory.
Year after year, one productive autumn after another, Big Sandy cranks out a winning girls basketball team.
The Lady Pioneers, three-time defending District 9C champions and the top seed in this weekend's district tournament at Havre High, have blazed a trail of victories across the Hi-Line unlike any other in the region. Currently ranked second in power points behind Chester among more than 100 Class C teams in Montana, Big Sandy (18-0) has captured 12 of the last 14 district crowns, qualified for the state tournament in four of the past five years, won two state titles and amassed a 200-6 record against district opponents in coach Roy Lackner's 20 seasons.
"Every year I hear people say, Oh, we'll get them next year,' and it doesn't happen," Lackner said. "I don't know what it is, but we just keep on winning."
In the tournament semifinals tomorrow night at 6, when the Lady Pioneers meet the winner of tonight's quarterfinal matchup between Rocky Boy and KG, five starters with double-digit scoring averages will take the floor: junior point guard Lindsey Danreuther, sophomore wing guard Ashley Goodian, junior center Sheena Darlington and senior forwards Katherine Bitz and Amy Silvan.
"I think we'll be fine in districts, but you can't overlook anybody," Silvan said. "We have to get past Box Elder. They can run the floor, and their offense has two really good guards who will take it to the hoop. And they play way more aggressive than any other team in the district. That's why you can't overlook them."
Big Sandy recently broke its own state record for points in a game, a mark that had stood for 15 years, by putting 132 on the board in a victory over Hays-Lodgepole. Yet statistics and records fail to illustrate the secret behind Big Sandy's perpetual success.
Every day for three hours, players run the floor, crash the boards and relentlessly perform drills from one end of the gym to the other. Fatigue showed on the faces of many players at yesterday's practice, but not in their steps.
"Practice is just like studying times 10," said Bitz, one of at least a dozen honor roll students on the team. "You're not going to go anywhere if you don't practice, and if you don't study you're not going to do well in school."
Bitz and Silvan, the team's captains and only two seniors, feel a sense of urgency about their fourth and final season of high school basketball.
"This year is it for us. This is our last chance to win states," Bitz said.
But before the Lady Pioneers can prepare for either divisional or state playoff action, they must deal with Box Elder, the tournament's second seed and the only district opponent that has given them a challenge this season. Big Sandy defeated the Bears twice this fall once by 10 points and once by 15 and will look for a third victory over their neighboring rival if form holds and the two teams meet in Saturday's district championship game.
"I don't care what team you are, or what year it is, to win District 9C, you've got to beat Big Sandy," Lackner said. "That's the way it's always been, and nothing has changed."
The Lady Pioneers' road to this weekend's tournament in Havre passes through Box Elder, which sits 10 miles northeast of Big Sandy along Highway 87. On a higher plane, Box Elder's path to a 9C championship must pass through Pioneer country.