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TWICE AS BRIGHT

Rocky Boy boys and girls go to state together, for the first time

 

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

The Rocky Boy boys and girls basketball teams take a photo together Tuesday at Rocky Boy High School. The Stars and Morning Stars are making their first trip to the Class B state tournament together since the school moved up to the Class B ranks nearly a decade ago. And for the Rocky Boy girls, this weekend in Missoula will be their first-ever appearance at the State B tourney.

Basketball fever is running hot across much of the state of Montana right now, but in Rocky Boy, it's running hotter than just about anywhere else.

That's because for the first time in the history of Rocky Boy High School, both the girls and boys basketball teams have qualified for the Class B state tournament. For the boys team, it's the first trip to the Class B state tournament since 2015. For the girls, on the other hand, it's their first trip ever.

"I kind of want to thank Malta and Fairfield," Rocky Boy senior Sean Henry said. "I think they really helped prepare us for state because we have been playing them for so long and falling short, every time and having Fairfield cheer for us in the championship game (Northern B), just felt good."

As Henry said, for the first time in a long time, the Northern B Division will be represented by two girls teams other than Malta and Fairfield. Rocky Boy and Poplar will take their place and each will attempt to keep the division's streak of 10 straight state championships alive.

"The North has been really good for a long time," Henry said. "We don't want to let the division drop."

Of course, it won't be easy. The Morning Stars open the Class B state tournament against Townsend, a talented team out of the Southern B. But one thing's for certain, with the basketball hoopla consuming Rocky Boy right now, there should be plenty of fan support to cheer on both squads in Missoula.

"It makes me feel really accomplished," Rocky Boy senior Jaylynn Mitchell said. "We achieved one of the main goals that we have been working towards all season. It means a lot because it was our last chance and we have worked so hard, so it was great to prove that we could do it, especially with the team that we have. There won't be another team like this one."

It's a journey that started a season ago, when the Morning Stars fell just one game short of the state tournament. That was a motivating factor for the team. Yet, there were stumbling blocks along the way, such as a 81-38 defeat at the hands of Havre. It was a humbling experience for the Morning Stars, but when the teams played again in Rocky Boy, later in the season, they lost only by six, to the top-ranked team in Class A that is still undefeated.

Throughout the entire second half of the season, Rocky Boy has been on a tear and it has continued in the postseason, with championships in the District 1B and the Northern B Divisional.

"I always knew that we would make it to state," Adrienne Gopher said. "I knew when we were undefeated back in middle school that we would make it one day, and it finally happened."

While the girls team knew it was in the state tournament before the start of the Northern B championship game, the path wasn't quite so easy for the boys. But, like the girls team, the Stars fell just short of reaching the state tournament in 2017, one win short in fact. The team that edged them out, Malta, ended up winning the state championship. This time around, the Stars are hoping they are the team that gets hot at the state tournament.

"It's really big," Rocky Boy senior Ben Iron Eyes said of playing at state. "Not that many kids get to do it, especially from a small reservation, so it's really big."

What makes the whole thing seem even bigger is that both teams are headed to the state tournament for the first time.

"I think it's great for all the loyal fans out there," Iron Eyes said. "They stuck with it when there we some tough times and some rebuilding years. So I feel really good that they will finally get to watch both teams to go state."

Over the past few years, Rocky Boy reservation has seen plenty of success with the Box Elder Bears. The Box Elder boys won a pair of state championships and made the tournament three times. The Box Elder girls, who are heading to Butte for the Class C state tournament, are making their second appearance in three years. They made the state title game in 2016. But now, the Morning Stars and the Stars are ready to take advantage of their time in the sun as well.

"There is a lot of excitement, especially with Box Elder also going to state," Henry said. "Some of our fans will have to choose where to go, but whatever we get, we will be happy. It will just be exciting to be there, it's almost too much to talk about."

While some fans might have to choose between following Rocky Boy or Box Elder, the fans that want to cheer on the Stars and Morning Stars will have a much easier time doing that, since both teams will be playing inside Dahlberg Arena on the campus of the University of Montana. It also allows the two teams to cheer each other on as well.

"It's great that the girls team made it," Kendall Windy Boy said. "I feel good for them because they have three seniors on that team. Everyone is really fired up about state."

"I think everyone is very proud of us, both boys and girls," Senior Kordell Small added. "We have been wanting this for years and ever since my freshman year I have been wanting to get back."

Certainly, both teams are looking to do more than just make an appearance at the state tournament. The Stars have been highly ranked all season and could be a dark horse in the boys race, while the Rocky Boy girls, along with everyone else, are looking to take advantage of a Class B girls tournament without Malta or Fairfield.

However, neither team has much experience competing at state. The girls team has zero previous experience on that stage and as far as the Stars are concerned, only Small has played previously on Class B's biggest stage.

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

A handmade poster hangs over the front of the outside of a sign at Rocky Boy High School, showing that both Rocky Boy varsity basketball teams are on their way to the Class B combined state tournament, which starts today in Missoula. It's a historic occasion for Rocky Boy, which is rich in basketball tradition, but has never had the boys and girls make it to the state B tourney in the season before this year.

"I have been telling them that it's going to be loud and there's going to be a lot more people," Small said. "It's going to be kind of nerve racking but you just have to try and play your game and not get too nervous."

Of course, that's easier said than done, especially when the hopes of so many, are resting on so few.

"We have got a lot of really great support," Small said. "I love it and I am looking forward to getting even more support from all the (Rocky Boy) fans this week. If we could win a state championship, it would mean a lot. It's been since 2010. I know that everyone would be proud and that the whole community would come together."

Winning a state championship is a big dream, but thanks to the success of the boys and girls teams, Rocky Boy has two shots at achieving it and if either team comes through, it will be a historic moment, one that will live on forever.

"I had a front row seat back in 2010," Small said. "And it's been a dream ever since. I can remember watching them jumping around and celebrating, holding the trophy. I want to hold that trophy, too."

 

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