DISTRICTS PREVIEW: Who's moving on, who's going home, who's winning it all

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Four Winds/Minnewaukan, Nelson County, Benson County and New Rockford-Sheyenne will be playing in the District 7 tournament at New Rockford-Sheyenne School while North Star and L/E/M will be playing in the District 8 tournament.

It may have come quicker than usual, but it's time for postseason basketball. Districts may seem like a hop, skip, and a jump into the Region 4 tournament, but this weekend's tournament can be a predictor of what we might see down the road, along with giving a few squads a birth in the tournament they may have not expected.

Six area teams will take the court on Friday: New Rockford-Sheyenne, Four Winds/Minnewaukan, Benson County, and Nelson County will be in New Rockford. North Star and Langdon/Edmore/Munch are at home as the higher seeds in their tournament. Eight will move on between the two districts. Here's how each team looks, and where they may end up, heading into this weekend's tournament. 

Benson County 

Record (as of Feb. 8): 13-5, 2-3 District 7 

Opponent: No. 4 New Rockford-Sheyenne on Feb. 12 at 5 p.m. 

Benson County forward Quinn Neppl cuts past L/E/M guard Jaya Henderson during a  game on Dec. 14 at Leeds High School. The Wildcats won 52-49

The Wildcats conference finish can be deceiving as to the product they put out on the court. Benson County is a team that can speed up the pace of play and has a strong one-two punch via juniors Quinn Neppl and Desidy Schwanke. 

Neppl has been a target for almost every team the Wildcats have faced. She has been a charging force into leading Benson County to big wins over then No. 1 Langdon/Edmore/Munich, Rugby, and Richland. Her ability to cut into the paint and shoot from anywhere on the court at will has made her a dangerous piece to Benson County's puzzle. 

Her strong performances night in and night out have been complimented by Schwanke on the post. Her abilities to finish inside the paint have also allowed her to have a strong completion rate at the line. The duo of Neppl and Schwanke have run the Wildcat's offense, but lately, a lot of teams have prepared for that, especially within the district. 

In mid-January, the Wildcats would play five games in a little over a week, seeing them drop key district matchups to New Rockford-Sheyenne and Nelson County. Fatigue played a factor in this important stretch and proved to be a situation of being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the scheduled draw. 

One concern they need to follow is how to keep Neppl and Schwanke working throughout the game without their opponents shutting them down. The Wildcats don't have the deepest bench, so they'll need as much support as they can get from the other three in the starting five. The Wildcats are a talented squad and if well-rested could be a serious dark horse in the district tournament and build up even more momentum possibly going into Regionals. If Benson County is healthy and rested, they could have a shot at the district crown. 

New Rockford-Sheyenne 

Record (as of Feb. 8): 8-8, 2-3 District 7 

Opponent: No. 5 Benson County on Feb. 12 at 5 p.m. 

New Rockford-Sheyenne girls basketball defeated Drake-Anamoose, 62-35, on Feb. 1 at New Rockford-Sheyenne School

If you look at the Rockets play within the district, they won and lost the game they were supposed to, except for maybe one surprise win and one surprise loss. An overtime loss to Nelson County and a win over Benson County were the two outliers, but the Rockets have played a pretty straight forward season and have made a strong scheduling decision to move some easier non-conference games to the bottom of their schedule.

Next to Four Winds, the Rockets have played one of the hardest out of conference schedules in the district. Eary on, New Rockford would play top state teams in Carrington and Central Cass, who is still undefeated, and would recently face Kidder County who is sitting at two losses towards the end of the season. 

However, the Rockets have had opportunities late in the season to exercise their offense against non-conference opponents. Against Drake-Anamoose and Barnes County North, New Rockford-Sheyenne put up big scoring numbers and stretched out the margin of victory, something they haven't been able to do a lot of this season. Powering up their offense late in the season could be key heading into districts.

Senior Dani Bjerke has been a force on the scoring front for the Rockets, having the ability to hit shots from all over the court. On the post, seniors Cassie Longnecker and Kayahna Hopfauf have provided strong support in the putback game and on the free-throw line. It may have taken longer than some teams, but NR-S is beginning to get into an offensive rhythm at the right time. 

Against Benson County, the Rockets defense will need to step up to limit Neppl and Schwanke, along with continuing to finish inside the paint as they have. If all the pieces come together, the NR-S and Benson County game could be the game of the tournament. If the Rockets continue to play a strong offensive game and up their defensive play, they'll have the edge against the Wildcats. 

Nelson County 

Record (as of Feb. 8): 10-7, 3-2 District 7 

Opponent: vs.No. 6 Warwick on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. 

Dakota Prairie boys basketball and Nelson County girls basketball faced off against Finley-Sharon/Hope-Page in a double header on Jan. 25 at Dakota Prairie Elementary School. The Knights lost 62-58 while the Chargers won 78-24.

This being the first year as a co-op aside, this is an impressive showing by the Chargers either way. There were a lot of questions heading into this season for Nelson County, which was merging Dakota Prairie and Lakota squads for the first time under a first-year head coach and they've answered almost all of them. 

The Chargers opened up their district schedule with a thrilling overtime win over New Rockford-Sheyenne and have only dropped games to the seeds ahead of them, Four Winds/Minnewaukan and Harvey/Wells County, losing to the Hornets by only five. They also pulled off an upset over Benson County to take ahold of third in the district

Nelson County has delivered a balanced attack, highlighted by the team's speed on both ends of the court. The trio of juniors Paytan Lippers, Marit Ellingson, and Nora Johnson has provided the Chargers with a defensive press that proved beneficial for the team in the transition game.

Senior Kylee Baumgarn has been clutch for Nelson County not just on the post, but from outside the arc as well, putting up big numbers on offense from all over the court. Lastly, junior Hollie Emory has been the Chargers go to under the net, running the team's rebounding game on both ends. 

The Chargers have had an extremely impressive showing in the regular season and have caught the attention of teams all over the district. Talent mismatch is where Nelson County might struggle against higher-ranked teams, but the Chargers could surprise some teams in districts. They are a heavy favorite to defeat Warwick in their first-round game and could definitely do more damage down the line. 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan 

Record (as of Feb. 8): 10-7, 5-0 District 7

Opponent: Winner of NR-S/Benson Co. on Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m.

Four Winds/Minnewaukan girls fell to Shiloh Christian, 53-48, Jan. 23 at Four Winds High School.

It took a second for the Lady Indians to hit their stride. They've played debatably the hardest schedule in the district, facing top 10 ranked teams in Velva, Carrington, Grafton, Kenmare, Shiloh Chrisitan, L/E/M, and Thompson. However, that is where six of their seven losses came from.

Playing a challenging schedule has allowed Four Winds/Minnewaukan to take control of the district and possibly the region. Three straight wins from the end of January into early February, including a long-awaited win over L/E/M, saw the Lady Indians break into a level they've been trying to get at for a while. 

Still a young team, Four Winds/Minnewaukan has been powered forward by their three juniors: Myona Dauphinais, Ezura Rainbow, and Mahpiya Jackson. Dauphinais, who was one of the top 3-point shooters in the state last season, has solidly stepped into an all-around role in the paint and back on the arc. While she hasn't been shooting as heavy from deep as she did last season, her efforts in the paint have elevated her game even more. 

On the post, Rainbow and Jackson have used their height and strength to not only drive to the net but put away shots as well. Jackson has done a lot of the Lady Indians rebounding work while Rainbow's finishing efforts haven't gone unnoticed. It will be interesting to see the counter-attack opponents will put on these two. 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan is a heavy favorite to do well in the postseason, but their second-round matchup could prove interesting. Benson County posed the biggest threat to the Lady Indians' undefeated conference record, only winning by five against the Wildcats. The Lady Indians are hitting their stride and that's going to be hard to beat. 

North Star/Starkweather

Record (as of Feb. 8): 11-4, 3-2 District 8

Opponent: No. 6 Rolette on Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at North Star

North Star junior forward Danielle Hagler looks for an open player in a game against Dunseith on Jan. 13 at North Star High School.

Moving up north to District 8, the North Star/Starkweather Bearcats is debatably one of the hottest teams in the district. They have rolled off eight straight wins to put them in third place in the district, an unbelievable recovery after starting out the season at 3-4 overall. 

The Bearcats are a team, similar to Nelson County, where they are knocking on the door of being a finalist in the district championship. Yes, L/E/M did defeat them by 40, but the Bearcats challenged No. 2 Dunseith through four quarters. Last week, the Bearcats picked up big non-conference wins over Rugby, in overtime, and Bottineau. 

The Bearcats' offense has been ignited by junior Danielle Hagler, who has absolutely gone off in these last eight games. Against Rugby, she would throw down 40 points in the win and is scoring over 20 points a night for North Star.

Throughout the season she has received a boost from junior Lindsey Nyhagen and senior Sydney Staus on the post. In situations where Hagler may have two or three guards on her, Nyhagen and Staus have come in and kept the Bearcats offense thriving when Hagler is unavailable. 

North Star is red hot and if they continue to win the way they are, they have a chance of cracking into the championship game. If they win their first-round game, they'll travel to Dunseith, which should be a close finish. If the Bearcats can continue their system of revolving their offense around Hagler and giving her the support when she needs it, North Star might be able to make a run deep into this tournament. 

Langdon/Edmore/Munich

Record (as of Feb. 8): 13-6, 5-0 District 8

Opponent: Winner of No. 4 Saint John/No. 5 Rolla on Feb. 13 at Langdon Area 

Langdon/Edmore/Munich girls basketball fell to Grafton, 70-46, on Feb. 5 at Langdon Area High School.

The Cardinals have lost four straight games, but you can't count this team out. They're still defending state champions, ranked in the top 10, and have cruised through their district schedule, with Dunesith being the only district team to come close to challenging the Cardinals, and they lost by 19. 

L/E/M does have some things to figure out if they move deeper into the post-season, and this would be a good time to work those things out. The Cardinals are looking for a more consistent attack and are willing to go through the entire bench to find it. If these games start to lean heavily in favor of L/E/M, as they have in the regular season, the Cardinals could begin to run their bench. 

Despite the few losses lately, the Cardinals still have some of the most talented players in the region powering them ahead. Junior Morgan Freije continues to be an absolute force on the post while senior Kaylee Lowery has given the Cardinals an all-around lift on offense. Freshman Jaya Henderson has begun to stand out as a shooter for L/E/M and freshman Cora Badding has provided support to Freije inside as well. 

There is a need for the Cardinals to improve their game, but the threat of losing and having their season end isn't here just yet. L/E/M is a favorite to win District 8 and carry on into regionals, where they might start seeing threats that will end their season. There is a possibility the L/E/M could see Benson County and Four Winds/Minnewaukan in regionals, two squads that have handed the Cardinals losses this season. 

But that is two weeks down the road and could possibly not happen. The Cardinals may be in a slump, but it should have little effect on their success in districts. They will face either Rolla or Saint John in the second round, teams they have defeated by 58 and 33 points this season. 

Predictions 

District champions 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan - The Lady Indians are red hot right now. I think Benson County and Harvey/Wells could challenge this team, but Four Winds has been through the gauntlet and I think it's finally paying off. 

Langdon/Edmore/Munich - They've gone unchallenged in their district and I don't really see anyone beating them in this tournament. They may see games where their lead is cut down to 10 or less, but the Cardinals are still in good shape. Regionals will be a different story

Moving onto regionals

Nelson County - This team's attack is so well balanced. Even if they fall into the second bracket, they shouldn't have a problem picking up a win to punch their ticket to regionals.

North Star/Starkweather - If they meet Dunseith it'll be a toss-up, but if they lose that game, they should be in good shape to pass go into regionals. 

Toss-up 

Benson County and New Rockford-Sheyenne - This game is going to dictate a lot. If the Wildcats are healthy and get Neppl going, they could possibly move all the way to the championship. If NR-S' offense starts clicking, then they could win. 

If either loses, I don't think either team could beat Harvey/Wells, but I think a healthy Benson County can beat Nelson County. Benson County has an easier route to regionals in my opinion. Both I think can beat Warwick, but whoever loses this game will have a harder road to regionals. 

I'm getting all crazy here. Anyway, good luck to all the teams. I'm looking forward to watching all the games! 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for the Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.