By George Ferguson
After a one-year absence, the Big Sandy girls basketball team is right back where it should be - the Class C state tournament. As the Pioneers prepared for their opening-round game today in Butte, head coach Roy Lackner was excited about the challenges that awaited his team.
"We are thrilled to playing at state again," Lackner said. "The girls were definitely disappointed last season when we did not make the state tournament. I think they are very excited and motivated."
The Pioneers bring a perfect 23-0 record into today's first-round matchup with the Circle Wildcats. Big Sandy is coming off of a hard-fought three games in which it captured the Northern C divisional title in Lewistown last weekend.
"We have had a very challenging post-season," Lackner said. "Even though we are undefeated, we have played some very tough games to get here. There are a lot of very good teams in this tournament and I think the tough games we have had to play the last couple of weeks have prepared us for this weekend."
Saying that the State C field is good might just be an understatement. The tournament features seven teams with three or fewer losses on their resume. Only Circle, who reached the tourney by way of a victory in an Eastern C challenge game with Scobey, has more than three losses.
"This is definitely the cream of the crop in Class C basketball," Lackner said. "Just about all of the teams I thought would be here are. What is scary is there are a couple of teams that got upset that I thought would be in this tournament, like Saco or Scobey. But having this good of a field of teams will make for a very interesting three days."
Despite all of the good teams, the Pioneers will be the team with a target on their backs, according to Lackner.
"I definitely think that people consider us a favorite because we haven't lost yet," Lackner said. "But in my opinion, there are three or four teams that will be favored. Obviously, Culbertson and Reed Point are very good, and I think Charlo and us will also be very tough as well.
"I like the position we're in," Lackner added. "I think we are playing well at the right time. If we shoot the ball well and stay out of foul trouble, we'll be in good shape."
Staying out of foul trouble will be key for the Pioneers, if they are to remain unbeaten. Despite having a healthy Sheena Darlington for the first time in two weeks, the Pioneers' depth has been and will be severely tested.
"Sheena is back to 100 percent," Lackner said. "It has been tough because she has had to sit some minutes and some of our other starters have gotten into some foul trouble. We are just not a deep team."
Another interesting twist to the Pioneers' postseason run will also unfold this weekend. Lackner will have to be in two places coaching two different teams thanks to the Big Sandy boys team making it to the Northern C divisional tournament in Cut Bank. Lackner will coach the girls game in Butte today and fly to Cut Bank in time to coach the boys game tonight against Dutton-Brady. After that, he will decide where he will be on Friday.
"I knew at the beginning of the season that this situation could happen and it is going to be tough," Lackner said. "But I think everyone would rather have us in this situation than for both teams to be sitting at home right now. I am just going to see what happens and do the best I can."
The action was to get under way today at 12:30 p.m. with Charlo (22-1) taking on Terry (22-1). Circle and Big Sandy are to follow that game at 2 p.m. The night session will feature Reed Point (22-2) against Twin Bridges (22-3) at 6:30 p.m. and Culbertson (23-0) taking on Belt (24-2) at 8 p.m.
"We are ready to go and excited to get on the court," Lackner said. "Circle is a lot like Grass Range, so I think we are very prepared. Even though this tournament is loaded, I think we have a real good chance of being successful this weekend."