By George Ferguson
For one coach, today's Northern C boys divisional basketball tournament in Cut Bank is old hat. And for another this tourney is old hat with a new twist. KG head coach Charlie Robinson has seen a lot of divisional tournaments in his storied coaching career and so has Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner. The difference between the two is that Lackner is entering the boys tournament for the first time.
Both head coaches will be in action today as the KouGars face the Winifred Red Raiders this afternoon and the Pioneers will take on the top-ranked Dutton-Brady Diamondbacks tonight in opening round action at the Cut Bank High School Gymnasium.
KG (14-7) comes into the tournament as the District 9C champion and is riding a nine-game winning streak. But with all of the competition in the field, the KouGars may be a team that other districts are overlooking. However, not being labeled a favorite is of no concern to veteran head coach Charlie Robinson.
"This is a very deep and competitive tournament," Robinson said. "But we have the ability to be one of the teams that can go to state. It is a matter of making sure we continue to do the things that have gotten us to this position."
The main thing that has propelled the KouGars from a middle of the pack team in District 9C to that of a top contender has been balance. Although senior Casey Crites leads KG in scoring, averaging just over 15 points per game, the KouGars made their way through the district tournament with the efforts of players like Richie Melby, Thomas Marshall and Tyler Kapperud.
"We are not a very deep team and sometimes that is a concern," Robinson said. "But we have a lot of starters that can step up and score and rebound for us. It's that balance has led to our recent success."
Robinson knows that the capabilities of all his players will be tested this weekend as he anticipates opponents looking to take Crites out of the equation.
"I am sure that there are a few teams in this tournament that have some junk defenses to try to shut Casey down," Robinson said. "But we have had success when teams have done that in the past. Because of the balance we have offensively, I think that type of gimmick defense works to our advantage."
The KouGars will be a facing a Winifred (16-6) team that comes in second from District 7C. The Red Raiders are a team that has progressed much like Robinson's squad.
"We beat Winifred by three points in overtime on the first weekend of the season," Robinson said. "But they are a lot like we are. They have been playing solid basketball late in the season. I don't expect them to be the same team that we saw in December."
Joining KG from the 9C is the Big Sandy Pioneers (14-7). While Lackner is no stranger to Northern C tournaments, the boys Big Sandy program is. The Pioneers have never gone to a divisional tournament since joining the Class C ranks over two decades ago. But don't think that Big Sandy is happy just to make the tournament.
"We have done some great things this season," Lackner said. "I said at the beginning of the year that if this team comes together and gets some consistency on the floor, we would be able to go to the divisional tournament. Now that we're here, hopefully the kids believe that we can keep going."
While the Pioneers are probably the underdogs in the eyes of many coaches this weekend, they are not a team that can afford to be overlooked. Big Sandy boasts a very strong front court in juniors Mason Ophus and leading scorer Gage Brumwell. Big Sandy also boasts one of the top shooters in the conference in Jay Jamieson. Point guard Adam Butler is also healthy again after missing most of the district championship game with a deep thigh bruise.
"I feel like we have as much talent in our starting lineup as anybody," Lackner said. "The key is depth because we don't really have any. For us to be successful this weekend, we have to stay out of foul trouble and maintain our aggressiveness offensively so that we can play with a lead."
The second place finish two weeks ago in Havre earned the Pioneers a first round date with the top-ranked Diamondbacks of 10C. Dutton-Brady is 20-0 on the season and are a team that boasts tremendous size, athleticism and depth. The D-Backs have one of the top individual players in the tourney in 6-2 senior Reid Fleishman and also have two 6-3 players on the front line. They also have a solid backcourt led by 5-8 senior Adam Tranmer.
"There is no doubt that Dutton-Brady is a very talented team and they have played well all year," Lackner said. "But when you get to this level, I think every team is talented. We are all playing well and you never know what can happen.
"It is a matter of getting these kids to believe that they can play with these teams and if that happens we'll be OK," Lackner added.
The tournament begins at 12:30 p.m. with District 8C champion Highwood (20-1) squaring off against upstart Heart Butte (12-9). That will be followed by KG and Winifred. The night session will begin at 6:30 p.m. with District 7C champion Judith Gap (21-0) taking on Geraldine and the Pioneers and Diamondbacks will follow that contest.
Despite some of the impressive teams representing the four districts this weekend both Robinson and Lackner agree that 9C is well represented and both coaches are confident in their teams chances when things tip off.
"I feel like we are playing really well right now," Robinson said. "There is no reason for that not to continue. Yes, there are some great teams in this tournament, but that is what makes this special, because anything can happen."
Said Lackner: "Last year Hays-Lodge Pole was second at districts and won this tournament. It just goes to show you that this tournament is wide open and we are ready to play whoever is in front of us."