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DISTRICTS: Four Winds defeats Nelson County in championship, Benson County, NR-S advance to regionals

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Benson County and New Rockford-Sheyenne picked up wins to advance to regionals while Four Winds/Minnewaukan defeated Nelson County for the District 7 championship on Feb. 15 at New Rockford-Sheyenne School

A lot of people, on the court and in the stands, didn't think the season was going to make it this far, but after Monday night's finish, the first champions of the postseason were crowned.

Three days of basketball came to a close Monday night as No. 1 Four Winds/Minnewaukan sprung past No. 3 Nelson County for its third straight District 7 title, defeating the Chargers 52-35. Prior to the Lady Indians win, No. 5 Benson County and No. 4 New Rockford-Sheyenne punched their tickets into regionals next week, with the Wildcats powering past No. 6 Warwick and the Rockets pulling off the upset over No. 2 Harvey/Wells County. 

Monday isn't usually the most basketball-heavy day, but those inside the gym at New Rockford-Sheyenne School were treated to three exciting matchups. Here's a recap of the final day of the District 7 girls basketball tournament. 

Benson County 79, Warwick 34 

Benson County - 21, 20, 28, 10 - 79

Warwick - 9, 4, 10, 11 - 34 

Benson County -- Williams 0 0-0 18, Nepl 3 6-7 12, Tollerud 4 2-2 10, Nelsen 1 4-6 9, Schwanke 1 4-6 9, Tofsrud 1 0-0 8, Gossen 0 0-0 6, Maddock 1 0-0 5, Kenner 1 0-0 2. Totals 12 16-21 79. 

Warwick -- Jackson 5 1-3 11, Aderson 4 1-2 9, Belgarde 1 2-2 7, Hunt 2 1-2 5, Alberts 1 0-0 2. Totals 13 5-9 34. 

3-pointers: Benson County 13 (Williams 6, Tofsrud 2, Gossen 2, Maddock 1, Nelsen 1, Schwanke 1). Warwick 1  

Saturday's loss to Four Winds/Minnewaukan was one that the Wildcats were trying not to look back on. The offense wasn't clicking in ways that Benson County wanted it to, leading to a wide margin of loss on the scoreboard. Monday's game against Warwick was therapeutic and healthy for the Wildcats in so many ways.

Benson County was very much focused on getting a win to punch its ticket into regionals but at the same time, they were looking to play a game that was going to benefit their entire roster, exercise their offense as a whole, and play a game that everyone was going to enjoy. Every bullet point on that list was checked off by the final buzzer. 

No. 5 Benson County ran its entire roster and saw 90 percent of its roster break onto the scoring sheet, leading their Wildcats to one of their biggest victories of the season, defeating Warwick 79-34 to advance to regionals against Dunseith on Feb. 22. 

"The kids worked hard tonight," Wildcats head coach Kent Neppl said. "The kids worked with a sense of urgency and took care of business right away. We shot the ball really well, which is what we needed to do." 

The Wildcats wasted no time heating up the 3-ball as they would down seven 3-pointers by halftime. The effort was powered by junior guard Ashlyn, who would finish with a team-high 18 points, all off of six 3-pointers. It was a lesson that Benson County had looked at from the last game. They had the looks against the Lady Indians but weren't taking them. Against Warwick, the Wildcats proved how dangerous of a shooting team they can be.

"It was just about moving the ball quicker and if you're open, shoot the ball," Neppl said. "On Saturday night, we got open looks, but we didn't shoot the ball. It was more frustrating when your two leading scorers don't shoot the ball, so tonight I emphasized shoot the ball. I don't care who you are. If you're open, shoot the ball." 

The mentality of shooting when open would eventually amount to 13 3-pointers on the night for Benson County, seeing everyone get in on the action. The effort also included senior center Kearyn Nelsen, who has been begging Neppl the entire season if she can shoot a 3. Neppl has expressed throughout the season that they need her on the post and she couldn't jump out to the arc. However, up big in the third quarter, Neppl gave Nelsen the green light and her eyes widened when the 3-ball fell off her hands.

The shooting effort was important in boosting the Wildcats score up but had more depth in giving the entire roster a confidence boost. For Williams, hitting six treys in one game benefited her individual mental game and she knows those around her who had similar successes had benefited too. The key to finding the 3-ball: staying calm.

"We came together before we got to the game, calmed down, shots some balls, and came to the game, and let her loose," Williams said. "When we're confident we make our shots and play better together when we're talking. If one is lacking, we're all lacking, but if one has confidence, we all have confidence." 

In addition to building confidence around the roster, the Wildcats were looking to move some pressure off of their star players. Junior guard Quinn Neppl, who has been the target of debatably all the Wildcats' opponents, sat the first quarter because according to Neppl, she needed a break. The quarter off was given to Quinn in order to have some pressure taken off and come onto the court with Benson County in a comfortable position.

She would return to the court in the second half to down a team second-best 12 points off of three shots from the field and 85 percent shooting at the free-throw line. 

 "I think she puts a lot of pressure on herself and that the team can't do it without her," Neppl said. "Don't get me wrong, she's a big part of our team, but she needed a little break and that helped her. It just took some pressure out." 

The collaborative effort was one that boosted the Wildcats to a big win, not just to keep their season alive, but to boost the overall team mentality. There were points in Monday's game where four out of the starting five were on the bench, cheering for the girls who usually didn't see the court until the final minutes of the game. Confidence was key for Benson County and are now heading into regionals knowing that a lot the roster can go off. 

"It's a big energy booster to have everyone out on the court," Williams said. "We play better together, make our shots and if one person goes off, we all go off. Coach tries to get us all working together in practice, but when we do that in a game, it's better for all of us."

The challenges will get tougher down the road as the Wildcats will be at Dunseith on Feb. 22 to open up regional play. In their last meeting on Jan. 5, the Wildcats fell to the Dragons 49-38 in Maddock. They know it's going to be a challenging game ahead, but they believe if they can duplicate Monday's effort, it will be a competitive game. 

"We're going to get back to work in the gym," Neppl said. "We want to be doing the fundamental things right. Passing, shooting, box out, and edging drills. We basically want to prepare for a tougher team. We need to be ready for that challenge." 

New Rockford-Sheyenne 63, Harvey/Wells 53 

New Rockford-Sheyenne - 13, 17, 21, 12 - 63 

Harvey/Wells County - 15, 13, 16, 9 - 53 

New Rockford-Sheyenne -- Bjerke 5 1-2 17, Belquist 4 6-8 14, Longnecker 1 2-3 10, Heinz 3 2-2 8, Hopfauf 3 1-2 7, Demester 0 4-4 4, Cudworth 0 0-1 3. Totals 16 16-22 63. 

Harvey/Wells County -- Keller 3 2-2 14, Sieg 3 3-4 9, Raue 4 1-3 9, McKiven 1 4-8 9, Vollmer 3 0-3 6, Arnold 0 0-2 6. Totals 14 10-22 53. 

3-pointers: New Rockford-Sheyenne 5 (Bjerke 2, Longnecker 2, Cudworth 1). Harvey/Wells County 5 (Arnold 2, Keller 2, McKiven 1).

It was do or die for both the Rockets and the Hornets in Monday's early evening matchup. Both teams had chips on their shoulders heading into the game. The Rockets were upset on their home court a day prior by Benson County while the Hornets, who drew a BYE and were a favorite to get to the tournament championship, were upset by Nelson County 

Early on, the Hornets would jump out to a large 11-6 lead, but from there, things began to tighten quickly. There was little to no give between both teams throughout the majority of the game. However, similar to their game against Benson County three days prior, one run would prove to be the difference-maker. 

An 11-2 run in the third quarter and all-around lockdown performance by the Rockets would give No. 4 New Rockford-Sheyenne the 63-53 upset over No. 2 Harvey/Wells, ending the Hornets season and sending the Rockets into regionals. 

"We hung together," Rockets head coach Elliott Belquist said. "We led for most of the game and there were times where it could've slipped away. It got close down the stretch, but we kept on competing and got rebounds. We didn't give up."

The Rockets offensive effort was powered by the trio of senior guards Dani Bjerke and Cassie Longnecker, and freshman guard Kelsie Belquist. The trio all broke into individual double figures with Bjerke leading the scoring with 17 points. Bjerke has been a constant force for the Rockets this season on offense and managed to maintain that strength along with sharing the wealth in scoring. 

Benson County and New Rockford-Sheyenne picked up wins to advance to regionals while Four Winds/Minnewaukan defeated Nelson County for the District 7 championship on Feb. 15 at New Rockford-Sheyenne School

"We worked on their [HWC] press a lot and we knew that ball movement was key to get good shots," Bjerke said. "We were hoping the shots would fall from there."

Throughout this tournament, the Hornets have brought a fast and aggressive press to the floor that jumps on teams early. Nelson County struggled with it early on and so did NRS, but both teams were able to find a counter and eventually take over the game. On the defensive attack, Kelsie Belquist played a major role in limiting the Hornets' response. 

Her balanced attack saw her attacking with a similar press the Hornets were putting onto the Rockets and on offense, she cleaned up from the line. She would 6-8 on the night, leading the NRS' key free throw shooting performance, which proved to be a difference in the end as HWC shot only 45 percent from the line. 

In the paint, seniors Kayahana Hopfauf and Chloe Heinz continued to press, making conversions harder for the Hornets from close. Hopfauf capitalized on her height game while Heinz continued to deliver a persistent and quick attack as the Rockets were in the transition game. 

"We match up fairly nice with them," Belquist said. "Kayahna does a nice job on their post player. We had to switch her in and out a few times because she got tired, and I thought Chloe [Heinz] did a good job of coming in a defending her and being active." 

While the Rockets had the edge, the Hornets weren't really out of it until the final minutes of the game where NRS was able to jump its lead to 10 heading down the final stretch. Before that, the mental factor was one that was catching up to the Rockets. Pacing up the game was leading to fouls, sending HWC to the line, pulling them closer. 

The nerves were coming back from before tip-off, as the Rockets knew that this was a big game and a lot was on the line, but they went back to simplifying the game and their minds, which eventually led them to the win. 

"We knew we just had to stay calm in play our game," Bjerke said. "When the fouls started racking up, we knew we had to take a breath and step back. We just needed to stay on our toes and be smart about everything." 

A lot of the Rockets' success on Monday came down to patience and composure. Belquist said in situations where things get tight the NRS tended to rush things but against HWC, a calm approach, which was a little harder as they were playing in front of a home crowd, would keep their season alive. 

NRS has its biggest challenge of the season ahead of them on Feb. 22 in regionals as they travel to Langdon to take on top-seeded L/E/M. The Rockets are heading into this week focused and ready, but are enjoying the fact that their season is still alive. For a team with a heavy senior class, moving on means a lot. 

"It feels great to get this win," Bjerke said. "We've had a lot of losses against Harvey, so this game felt really good to win. As a senior, it feels like I can take a breath now knowing our season is still alive." 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan 52, Nelson County 35

Four Winds/Minnewaukan - 17, 10, 15, 10 - 52 

Nelson County - 11, 6, 10, 8 - 35 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan -- Rainbow 8 4-4 20, Jackson 4 4-5 15, Dauphinais 2 2-4 9, Yankton 3 0-1 6, Cavanaugh 1 0-0 2. Totals 18 10-14 52. 

Nelson County -- Baumgarn 2 2-2 15, Ellingson 1 3-5 8, Emory 3 0-0 6, Parsley 1 0-0 2, Schwind 1 0-0 2, Johnson 0 2-2 2. Totals 8 7-9 35. 

3-pointers: Four Winds/Minnewaukan 2 (Jackson 1, Dauphinais 1). Nelson County 4 (Baumgarn 3, Ellingson 1). 

History was going to be made in the final game Monday night no matter who won. Nelson County had already forged a path of success, running all the way to the district title game as a first-year co-op. On the other bench, Four Winds/Minnewaukan was looking to do something no other Lady Indians squad had done: three-pete at districts. 

Both squads are in similar places of being red hot late in the season. The Lady Indians had finally got the monkey off their back in L/E/M, picking up a late-season win over the Cardinals, and had cruised by Benson County to get to the championship game. The Chargers had won eight of their last nine, upsetting No. 2 HWC to get to the title game. 

Experience in the big game ended up being a difference-maker as No. 1 Four Winds/Minnewaukan would propel to a 52-35 win over No. 3 Nelson County to its third straight District 7 title, a first in the Four Winds girls basketball program. Against Benson County, there were some nerves to start the game, but against the Chargers, the Lady Indians were locked in from start to finish. 

"It was a nice win," Lady Indians head coach Sean Gourd said. "Nelson County has been playing really well lately and we showed up today. We were a little more focused today. It was quiet in the locker room before the game and I think we knew what was ahead of us. We kept the pressure on them, and they threw a few different looks at us, but we responded." 

As they have for the bulk of the season, Four Winds' found a lot of their strength on the post in juniors center Ezura Rainbow and forward Mapiya Jackson, as they would combine for 35 of the Lady Indians 52 points on the night. The finish is Rainbow's second straight 20 point finish as she would drain 22 against Benson County. 

Jackson, while providing strong defensive support, has used her height to finish under the net on the other end. She had 15 for the Lady Indians, shooting 5-4 from the line and downing five shots from the field. The combination has been huge for Four Winds this season as the duo has brought a strength and height combination to a Lady Indians squad that is more speed-focused.

"Thing about both of them is they're both long and lanky, and so smart," Gourd said. "They have a lot of experience with playing in big-game situations, they've been starters for the past few years. They play so well together and it's so exciting to have another year of that with them." 

Jackson and Rainbow have been a constant presence in the paint, while junior guard Myona Dauphinais has settled into a versatility role as a guard and forward. Against Nelson County, she balanced her game with nine points, shooting two from close, 2-4 at the line, and one from 3-point range. Monday night, she stepped into more of a playmaking role in order to help Four Winds to a win.

"It's taken a lot of practice in moving into this role," Dauphinais said. "I wasn't really a point guard and it just takes more driving to get your rhythm going and to the line." 

Dauphinais has settled into the guard role and has gotten more and more support from her teammates around her as the season rolls on. Monday night, junior guard Mallory Yankton layed in six points for the Indians, and sophomore Makeiska Cavanaugh finished with a two-point field goal, strengthening the young squad's depth. 

Early in the season, the Lady Indians talked a lot about their identity as a young team. Now picking up a third straight district title, Four Winds' believes that it is in a good place and is ready to push even further to make even more history. 

"Some of the girls may not be scoring, but they're playing well," Gourd said. "Defensively, we have assists and rebounds coming from different spots, and that's really helping us overall as a team. It shows up with the W and it's been working, so far for the most part." 

Benson County and New Rockford-Sheyenne picked up wins to advance to regionals while Four Winds/Minnewaukan defeated Nelson County for the District 7 championship on Feb. 15 at New Rockford-Sheyenne School

For Nelson County, they might be going home a little disappointed, but they aren't unsatisfied with the effort they put forth. The Chargers believe that they did as much as they could to prepare for the title game and just happened to run into a hot hand in Four Winds.

"We ran into a really good team tonight and I thought the girls were really prepared for this," Chargers head coach Gus Kueber said. "It was the first time these girls have been in a championship game and I think it does help Four Winds, but it doesn't help when you only score 35 points, and that's where you credit Four Winds. We came up a little bit short today, but fortunately for us in making the championship game, our season is not over." 

Nelson County was able to limit Four Winds on the first drive but struggled when it came to second-chance opportunities. Rainbow and Jackson would be flushed in the first attack but found a lot of their points cleaning up rebounds. It's one of the little things Nelson County is looking to clean up on before hosting Saint John on Feb. 22 in McVille. 

The Chargers saw their offensive weapons in senior Kylee Baumgarn and junior guard Marit Ellingson lead the way in scoring. Baumgarn had a team-high 15 points, shooting three 3-pointers. Ellingson found her strengths at the line, going 3-5 from the charity stripe, adding two from the field in the finishing effort. 

Moving forward, Kueber believes that the loss is only going to make the Chargers a more driven team. After getting a taste of what the title game feels like, there's a hunger for wanting more. In the Chargers' last meeting with the Woodchucks, Nelson County snuck by with a 60-56 win. Saint John upset North Star in District 8 play-ins to clinch a birth in the upcoming tournament. 

"This is just going to get us ready for regionals when it comes down to it," Kueber said. "You can try to practice this stuff, but there is no substitute for this atmosphere. This is probably the biggest crowd the girls have played in front of in their entire lives. It's a good experience and hopefully, this will carry over into next week."

History is still one of the goals for the Lady Indians. Gourd mentioned earlier in the season when Four Winds was down that they "still had time to make some history". The Lady Indians are in a good place heading into the final step to get to the state tournament and aren't satisfied until they get there. 

"There's just one more we want to get and it's right there for us," Gourd said. "I'm hoping it comes together for us. We've paid our dues, but it's just a matter of playing the game. You just have to go out there and get it." 

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.