By Kim Staudinger
It wasn't the matchup everyone had been anticipating for weeks, but it was just as emotional and intense as spectators had hoped for.
Just hours after pulling off a huge upset over second-ranked Big Sandy, the Belt Huskies were hoping to knock off the state's top team in Chester as the perfect way to end their storybook weekend.
Instead it was the relentless senior-packed Coyotes who would not give in to their dream of becoming divisional champions.
"These girls have worked very hard," Chester coach Linda Van Dyke said following her team's 54-39 championship win over Belt. "We set goals early in the season. It's nice to know with hard work you can reach your goals."
Chester advanced to the championship game after defeating Box Elder Friday night 72-58.
Clinging on to a 20-17 lead, the Coyotes scored the last four points in the first half and the first six of the second half, giving them a more comfortable 30-17 lead. Senior guard Maci Tempel sparked the run with four points.
"I'm glad we played with better poise," Van Dyke said. "Tonight we had to slow things down and pass it around and stay under control."
Despite another eight-point rally by the Coyotes in the fourth quarter, the last 14 minutes of the game was fairly even in score Chester 24, Belt 21.
Still, the harm had already done and Belt was unable to pull off another big win going into the state tournament. But that did not matter to the Huskies since they are heading to state for the first time in nearly seven years.
"It's always been a dream," Belt coach Bruce Keaster said. "But for it to become a reality, it's the greatest thing of the season. For us to be here and see a couple of great teams like Big Sandy and Box Elder not being able to go on, you feel real fortunate."
With the 15-point victory, the Coyotes are the only undefeated team remaining in Class C. Chester (23-0) opens the state tournament with the winner of the Ryegate/Jordan challenge game. With the second-ranked team in the state in Big Sandy not making the trip, some may think Chester has an easy route to the championship game. But, as Belt proved last Friday night, anything can happen in tournaments.
"We know everybody's out to get us," Van Dyke said. "The pressure has made us better players and a better team."
Belt, who fell to 20-4 with three of those losses coming to Chester, opens the state tournament with Harlowton (22-2).
Early on it looked as though Belt's magical weekend may continue, starting the game with two consecutive baskets by Justine Larson and spark-plug Hallie McCafferty. Larson was fouled on her next shot and made one-of-two to give the Huskies a 5-0 lead.
But following a Chester timeout, the Coyotes took charge and rallied off nine straight points. Senior Michelle Van Dyke (game-high 14 points) scored five points in the run.
Five of Chester's six seniors scored in the championship game, combining for 51 of the team's 54 points. Van Dyke led all scorers with 14 points, followed by Jamie Graham and Heidi Cicon with 12 each.
"What more can you say about Chester," Keaster said. "They are a great team and a great group of girls. If anybody out there is better than Chester, I don't think we'll see them in Class C."
Belt Molly Sweeney 4, Justine Larson 9, Laura Keaster 13, Hallie McCafferty 3, Trista Garza 2, Nichole Widhalm 4, Megan Wichman 2, Anna Burnham 2.
Chester Maci Tempel 9, Jamie Graham 12, Heidi Cicon 12, Chasi Buffington 4, Michelle Van Dyke 14, Amanda Schlepp 2, Courtney Fraser 1.