By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
It doesn't happen too often, but the Hi-Line will be well-represented this weekend at the Class C state girls basketball tournament in Belgrade. After squaring off in the Northern C divisional championship game last Saturday night in Great Falls, both the Chester Coyotes and the Rocky Boy Morning Stars are headed to the big dance.
What is even more unusual is how the two teams got this far. Both squads captured their respective district regular-season championships but neither team won its district tournament two weeks ago. Still, both schools found their way into the divisional championship game, with the Coyotes coming out on top, 54-39. Despite the loss, the Morning Stars were still safely in the state tournament field because they had already beaten third-place Sunburst, meaning the Refiners could not challenge for the second spot from the Northern Division.
Now the Coyotes and Morning Stars will open the state tournament with different challenges. When the Coyotes (16-6) take the floor Thursday at 1 p.m. against Ekalaka (16-6), they will be looked upon as one of the favorites to reach Saturday night's championship game. Chester had been dominant for most of the season, thanks in large part to the play of star center Mary DeVries. The Coyotes are also battle-tested, having played several tough Class B schools this season, as well as a difficult Class C schedule.
"I think our experience is a big plus for us," said Coyotes head coach Dustin Gordon. "It really showed up against Rocky Boy when the game got really emotional and intense. Our kids kept their composure and it helped us down the stretch, and I am really proud of them for that."
Including DeVries, who has led the Coyotes in scoring and rebounding all season, Chester boasts a very talented starting five. Forward Keyla Briese and guard Shawnee Norick are both capable scorers, and point guard Amanda Violett is the team's catalyst, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The Coyotes like to work the ball inside to their bigger front line, and they also pride themselves on playing physical, hard-nosed defense. In the divisional championship game, the Coyotes shut down Rocky Boy's star guard tandem of twins Tori and Loni Belcourt.
"We're at our best when we're patient on offense and we play good solid defense," Gordon said. "Winning the divisional championship is very exciting, and I think we can do very well at the state tournament if we play our brand of basketball. These kids work extremely hard and they execute very well and we're excited about being in the state tournament."
The Coyotes' road in the state tourney will not be easy. Ekalaka is the second-place team from the Southern Division and presents a tough test for the Coyotes in the opening game. Should the Coyotes prevail Thursday afternoon, they will take on the winner of the Scobey/Drummond matchup, which tips off at 2:30 p.m. The Spartans captured the Eastern C championship with relative ease. But Drummond might be one of the favorites this weekend and would even be more heavily favored if not for a season-ending knee injury to point guard Jessica Tubbs. The Trojans are 21-3 this season, but two of those losses have come in the post- season. Drummond was upset by Lincoln in the District 13C championship game and it was also knocked off by White Sulphur Springs in the semifinals of the Western C divisional tournament. Drummond then came back to upset top-seeded Charlo in a challenge game on Monday.
The other side of the bracket will feature the Morning Stars, who come into the state tournament with a 21-3 record. Like Drummond, the Morning Stars have suffered two if their three losses in the last two weeks. Rocky Boy lost to Big Sandy in the District 9C championship game two weeks ago in Havre, and lost to Chester in the Northern C championship game.
The Morning Stars have rebounded nicely from each loss, but Thursday night's task will be much more difficult. Rocky Boy opens the state tournament in the final game of the first round at 8:30 p.m. against undefeated Reed Point-Rapelje (23-0). The Pirates have run the table this season and cruised to the Southern C divisional championship. They will be looked upon as one of the favorites to cut the nets down this weekend.
Still, Rocky Boy head coach Deb LaMere is looking at the state tournament in the same manner as she has looked at each of the last two weeks.
"We were disappointed to lose to Chester," LaMere said. "But it's over and we are still going to the state tournament. Everything starts over for us now."
This is the first time in 18 years that a Rocky Boy girls basketball team has made it to the Class C state tourney. But the Stars won't just be there to play; they will be there to win. The Belcourt twins give Rocky Boy probably the most talented backcourt in the tournament. The sophomore guards have literally traded nights leading Rocky Boy in scoring all season. Shaneen Raining Bird is another guard who can shoot the 3-pointer and is very dangerous when left alone. Rocky Boy also has a solid front line with senior Chelsea St. Pierre and talented freshman Erin Broncho.
While LaMere admitted that her team will face a tough test this weekend, it may not be the last time some of these Stars see the state tournament.
"This is a very athletic and talented group," LaMere said. "They are young and they are good basketball players and they are going down to state and will play hard and they will play well.
"I am just really proud of how far they have come and I know they are really excited too," she added.
The Morning Stars' opening-round game Thursday will follow the game between Western C champion White Sulphur Springs and Eastern C runner-up Circle. That game tips off at 7 p.m. All of the action at the Class C state girls basketball tournament will take place at the Belgrade Special Events Center.