The Big Sandy Pioneers were the last girls basketball team from the District 9C to make it to a Class C state tournament. Now, the Chinook Sugarbeeters and North Star Knights are in a race to be the local team that gets back there.
The Beeters and Knights will be competing for Class C state tourney berths when the 2014 Northern C girls divisional tournament gets underway Thursday at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls. Chinook comes in as the District 9C champion, while North Star is the No. 2 seed out of the 9C.
The Beeters were rarely threatened at last week’s 9C tourney in Havre. But the Northern C will be a different story. The tournament includes six of the top 10 teams in the last Class C Power Poll, including top-ranked Belt and two-time runner-up Winnett-Grass Range.
But as tough as the tourney will be, and always is, the Beeters (19-1) are on a roll, and they will be heavily favored in their first-round game against 7C runner-up Denton-Stanford-Geyser (8-12). Chinook plays the Trojans in the final first-round game Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
“Divisionals has been our main goal,” Chinook head coach Charlie Robinson said. “But we know we can’t afford to look past that first-round game. We have to have high expectations going in, but the focus will be to play very solid in that first-round game and not worry about anything else.”
Chinook will be solid, too. The Beeters were very stout defensively in their two 9C tournament wins, while on offense, they were balanced. Makhayla Farmer (6-2) leads the way, but Chinook got contributions from its entire lineup last week in Havre. Katelyn Neibauer, Emily Dennis, Brooke Nicholson, Hannah Weber and Tavin Schneider can all go for double figures, and Chinook’s size and depth will play a key role this week, especially against the upstart Trojans. D-G-S comes to Great Falls after upsetting perennial 7C power Roy-Winifred last week, and the Trojans have strong players in Kendra Smith, Valerie Johnson and Landra Lucas.
Still, the Beeters are the team to beat in the first-round game, and if they get past the Trojans, they’ll face Belt (19-2) in Friday’s semifinals.
“We can’t look past anybody,” Robinson said. “But we do have a lot more tournament experience now. This is our fourth year in a row making it to the Northern C, so that will help us a lot. Our goal is that first game, and beyond that, just focus on playing solid basketball. A big key for us will be our defense, and right now, we’re playing well on the defensive end.”
Belt (19-2) has yet to be tested, with the exception of regular season losses at the hands of Class B power Fairfield. The Huskies are the three-time defending Northern C champs, and rolled through the 8C unscathed for yet another season. Katie Feretter leads a deep and talented Belt roster, and former Chester star and Husky head coach Jeff Graham will play as many as 10 or 11 players in a single game. The Huskies open up against 10C runner-up Dutton-Brady (16-7) Thursday at 4 p.m. The Cardinals upset 10C regular season champion Chester/J-I in a challenge game Monday night, and will be the first team in the tournament to get a shot at the Huskies.
On the other side of the bracket, the North Star Knights (14-6) open the Northern C with 7C champion Winnett-Grass Range (19-1) Thursday at 11 a.m. The Knights put together a great 2013 Northern C run, losing to C/J-I in the consolation game. Now, under second-year head coach Griff Bye, the Knights are back, led by senior Bettie Carlon, as well as Mackenzie Hansen, Sheridan O’Neil and Tylynn Rettig. North Star will have to play well to beat the Rams, who have been to the last three Class C state tournaments, and are led by veteran Jamie Stahl, as well as sisters Brittany and Angie Murnion.
“With how much Big Sandy and Box Elder improved, the 9C was a tough tournament to get out of,” Bye said. “So we’re very happy to get out of here and to be going back to the Northern C. It will be a really good tournament again.”
The winner of the North Star/Winnett-Grass Range game will face either 10C champion Simms-Augusta (17-4) or 8C runner-up Fort Benton (13-8) in the other semifinal. The Tigers have a big-time scorer in Katelin Smith, while the Longhorns, who will move to the 9C next season, are led by Kinsey Classen. That game tips off at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.
The 2014 Northern C girls tournament starts Thursday and runs through Saturday night’s championship game. The final is set for 8:30 p.m. Saturday night with the consolation game slated for 7 p.m. If a challenge game is needed, it will be played Monday at Great Falls High. The top two teams from this week’s tourney at the Four Seasons Arena advance to the Class C state tournament March 13-15 in Hamilton.