By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
Although a few high school boys basketball games were sprinkled across the state last weekend, the real fun begins this weekend as the whole state swings into action. Which means that on the Hi-Line, it is time for another season of District 9C basketball. This season promises to be another exciting year in small gyms around the area.
After a year of total domination by the Big Sandy Pioneers in 2004 - their only loss came in the Class C state championship game - this year's 9C landscape looks to be a bit different.
Graduation hit several teams very hard, including defending 9C and Northern C champion Big Sandy. KG, Box Elder and Turner also lost several key starters, leaving the door wide open for a couple of young and upcoming teams.
As the season gets underway, the consensus is that the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds, under the direction of Ken Morin, might be the team to beat in the 9C this season.
The T-Birds showed flashes of brilliance last season en route to a fourth-place finish at the district tournament. They return all five starters this season and several key players from their bench. That fact, combined with their uptempo style of play, should make them on of the most dangerous teams in the district this season.
"Hays-Lodge Pole is definitely going to be a very good team this season," said veteran KG head coach Charlie Robinson. "They have some very good shooters and some skilled all-around players. If they stay healthy, they are going to be right there at the end of the season."
Another up and comer in the 9C this season may be the Rocky Boy Stars. Rocky Boy has endured consecutive last place finishes in the 9C and had four head coaches in two years. But now the Stars are under the direction of former Havre High standout and Montana State University-Northern football player Andy Smith, and he is looking to build on the momentum that Rocky Boy gained at the end of last year.
"I think we have the potential to be a very good team by the end of the season," Smith said. "We are working hard at getting better right now and we do have some pretty talented and athletic kids on this team."
Indeed, the Stars are led by guards Upton Whitford and A.J. The Boy but they will also look to 6-3 center Charles Walking Child for a rare inside presence. Rocky Boy should also benefit from transfers such as Joe Small from Hays, as well as former Rocky Boy Star Jesse Colliflower and Box Elder standout James Burns.
At present time, Burns and Colliflower are ineligible, but Smith is hoping to have them for the second half of the season.
With the Thunderbirds and Stars poised to be maybe the most talented teams in the league this season, no one on the Hi-Line is counting out the perennial powers either. KG has been the model of consistency in District 9C play for nearly two decades and this season should be no different.
The KouGars return a trio of of solid players led by senior Drew Kapperud and junior all-conference guard Cody Donoven. Sophomore Brandon Melby is also back to give the KouGars starting five some much-needed experience.
"I think it will take some time to mature and get better as a team," Robinson said. "But we will be better at the end of the season than we are right now. We have some solid players on this team, and we should be very competitive by the district tournament."
While the KouGars certainly lost some talent from last season, no team was hit harder by graduation than the Pioneers. Big Sandy ran rough shot over 9C opponents last season but graduated three all-state players in Gage Brumwell, Mason Ophus and Jay Jamieson. Big Sandy returns just one player tha saw any extensive varsity experience in senior Devin Genereaux.
"We're a little young," said head coach Roy Lackner. "We're not bad offensively, we can shoot the ball and we're to shoot 30 three-pointers a game. We'll be a dangerous team. It will just depend on how well we're shooting that night."
Big Sandy is going to make up for lack experience with effort. Lackner's players would run through a wall if they thought it would help them win. Players like Lawrence Jappe, Kyle Little, Karl Osterman, Chris LaBuda, Justin Willis and Kyle Danreuther have shown hustle and heart along with some athleticism and speed.
"We're going to run eight or nine kids at you," Lackner said. "We're going to run, press and trap you all over the court. It ain't going to be pretty basketball, but you won't find many teams that play harder."
The Box Elder Bears and Turner Tornadoes also suffered key losses from last season. The Bears finished second at the 9C tourney a year ago and have finished in the top two in the league standings each of the last four years. If Gus Bacon's team is to continue that excellent run, they will have to do it with a young but talented team, led by guards Aaron and Tyler Henry.
"We still have some experience starters," Bacon said. "I think that we have a very good team still, but with all of the good teams in our league. Every night is going to be tough for us."
Turner, under the direction of new head coach Terry Jones, will have to replace all five starters from last year's team that finished fifth in the league standings. Jones still has some talent coming back, but it is youthful. He admits that this season will be a work in progress.
"We have some good players but none of them have seen any significant varsity time," Jones said. "We are not writing this season off by any means, but we are certainly rebuilding this season."
Speaking of rebuilding, last season was certainly that for Brian Campbell's Blue Sky Eagles. But this season Blue Sky and J-I are co-oping which gives Campbell's squad an upgrade to its roster a compliment to some solid returning players.
The Eagles return several key players like Darius and Conrad Wendland as well as Alex Chivilicek. J-I's portion of the roster will give the Eagles such talented players as Craig Miller, Dane Kantorowicz, Josh Beaudry and Cody Jurenka.
"I think that Blue Sky/J-I will be the dark horse of our league," Robinson said. "The young kids they had last year got some very valuable experience, and the kids they added from J-I are very good players. When they come together, they could have a very good basketball team."
The regular season will kick into high gear this weekend. Several teams will compete at the Native American Classic in Havre and in Billings. There is also a full slate of non-conference games scheduled for this weekend. Of course everything leads up to the annual District 9C tournament which gets underway on Feb. 15 at the Havre High gymnasium.
"I think our league is pretty wide open this season," Morin said. "There are still some very good teams, and this league has some great coaches in it. By the time we get to the district tournament, the whole thing could really still be up for grabs."