REGIONALS PREVIEW: Who will survive and advance all the way to Minot?
This is it! Ice hockey, gymnastics, swimming, Class B girls, and Class A have just about wrapped up their seasons. The last one to round out the North Dakota winter sports season is Class B boys basketball. It's one of the most exciting times of the year and five area teams are on the doorstep of the state tournament.
Four Winds/Minnewaukan, Langdon/Edmore/Munich, New Rockford-Sheyenne, North Star, and Benson County are all three wins away from Minot, but only one will advance. It'll be win or go home across the lake region next week with so much on the line for every team competing.
As region teams prepare to take the court once again, here's a preview of next week's Region 4 tournament field and predictions for who will be moving on to Minot later this month.
Opponent: March 8 at Langdon/Edmore/Munich at 6 p.m.
Last meeting: 76-43 L/E/M on Feb. 4
The Wildcats made some huge improvements from Friday to Monday in the District 7 tournament in order to get where they are today. After narrowly being edged out by Harvey/Wells County in quarterfinals, to be thrown into the consolation bracket, the Wildcats would return with a chip on their shoulder.
They would upset Dakota Prairie by 11 to advance to regionals for the fourth straight season. The keys to the upset: free throws and rebounding. Senior Cole Wentz highlighted the free-throw shooting effort, draining 12-12 on the night. Benson County locked in from the line as they would shoot for 89 percent at the charity stripe 24-27.
On the boards, senior Blayne Anderson was all over the Knights junior center Garrett Syverson, getting almost every pulldown available. The Wildcats offense continued to centralize around Anderson but saw it expand a little more to guys like Wentz and senior John Fischer. The Wildcats had a full finish and it's a trend they'll need to stick to against L/E/M.
Anderson has been a lock for Benson County all season on both ends. He has the speed, accuracy, jump, and defensive skills to compete with any team, but he'll need to continue to get a lift from his teammates. In facing the Cardinals, Anderson will most likely pair up against Simon Romfo or Grant Romfo. I think he could battle well with either, but Benson County is going to need to lock down on the other Romfo or Jagger Worley.
L/E/M has beaten a lot of teams off of the Romfos and Worley, while the other two on the court help work the systems, and have exhausted their competition. In order for the Wildcats to avoid that, they need to get the ball moving while keeping Anderson fresh. Benson County can compete with L/E/M, but it's going to take a delicate approach by the Wildcats to make sure they don't fall into a head rush early.
If the Wildcats go back to the basics as they did against Dakota Prairie, they have a chance to run with the Cardinals. Regional quarterfinals haven't been too nice to Benson County in the past three seasons, as they've lost to Dunseith twice and L/E/M once. However, this could be the time for the Wildcats to turn it all around.
Opponent: March 8 at New Rockford-Sheyenne at 6 p.m.
Last meeting: 72-47 North Star on Feb. 19
The Bearcats have been raising some eyebrows as of late. They knocked off the No. 2 seed in District 7 by 25 in the second to last game of the season and nearly pulled off a comeback upset over No. 2 Dunseith in the District 8 tournament.
North Star is heating up at the right time and could shock a lot of people in this tournament. They have the offensive weapons to do some damage and have shown progressive growth throughout the season.
Freshman Dane Hagler has been their stand-out scorer throughout the season, leading the Bearcats on most nights in that column. Outside of Dane, it's been a lot about who has the hot hand that night for North Star. Seniors Hayden Hagler and Ben Wagenman picked up all-District 8 accolades alongside Dane and have been consistent on the scoring end as well. Hayden has been an important piece on defense while Wagenman has challenged Dane for the top-scoring spot as of late.
Senior Thomas Nikolaisen has proven that if he gets hot from 3-point range, there really isn't much in his way. He has torched a few teams from deep this season and even if the shots aren't falling, isn't afraid to let it rip from downtown. Junior Drew Nicholas and freshman Parker Simon have also given the Bearcats a lift as well on offense. North Star has shown it has a lot of options to go to that can fire off any given night.
Their quarterfinal matchup against New Rockford-Sheyenne is going to be the game to watch. Unfortunately, I wasn't at the regular season game and NFHS Network doesn't have the varsity game, but North Star shot blew up in the second quarter in that game, outscoring the Rockets 30-10. The Bearcats were able to heat up Nikolaisen, and he would finish with 26 points.
If North Star gets Nikolaisen hot on the arc, Dane progressing as he does and the rest of the team filling in where they can, the Bearcats can pull this upset off again. I think they have the depth and the skill to do it, but they need to have all units clicking in order to do it. New Rockford-Sheyenne has weapons in Evan Ulrich, Johnny Grann, and Nick Burglund, but if North Star peppers them on offense as they did last time, expect the same result.
It sounds like the North Star will run away with this game, but I think it will be one to watch because of how close it's going to be. New Rockford is playing with a chip on its shoulder after the Four Winds game and frankly, has found ways to play even better. North Star is playing well and I think they're hitting the right places at the right time. It'll be a good game for sure!
Opponent: March. 8 vs. North Star at 6 p.m.
Last meeting: 72-47 North Star on Feb. 19
And now to the other bench. New Rockford-Sheyenne is still a really good team and I don't think the Four Winds/Minnewaukan game should take anything away from them. In fact, I think it should add even more to who they are as a team and what they could bring to the court.
Senior center Evan Ulrich and senior guard John Grann are still going to be the Rockets' two big men running the arc and the paint, but guys like junior forward Nick Burglund and junior guard Kaden Jensen showed some big things in the District 7 Championship game.
Berglund was hitting 3's and driving the paint, expanding his offense beyond just someone to put in rebounds. Jensen, who is 5-foot-11-inches, was driving up against 6-foot-10-inch Bronson Walter without fear. He has been one of the guys to start off the drive but against Four Winds, he was finishing off as well.
You can't count out Ulrich or Grann either. Ulrich may have been limited to four points against the Indians, but he can still capitalize on the rebound and closeout from 3-point range. He is very much still the biggest threat NR-S gives to the opposition. Grann has gotten back into a 3-point kick and has also shown strong versatility in being able to close out in the paint as well.
This New Rockford-Sheyenne squad started out as just big guys able to close out in the paint, but now they are captioning on speed and shooting. They have gone deeper in just one weekend and are still a favorite in this tournament. However, in my opinion, they have one of the harder routes to get to Grand Forks.
They need to find a counter when offenses get hot in facing North Star in quarterfinals. The Bearcats and the Indians have gotten extremely hot in the past against NR-S, costing the Rockets in the end. If they can cool down North Star then they'll most likely get L/E/M, which will be the game to watch in semifinals. Their last matchup was decided by four points and with the pace, these two are moving at, it's going to be a shootout.
New Rockford-Sheyenne has a lot of good things going for them and is still one of the top three teams in the region. Height and speed is a two-one punch that a lot of teams don't have in this region and if they lean into that it could be big.
Opponent: March 8 vs. Benson County at 6 p.m.
Last meeting: 76-43 L/E/M on Feb. 4
In the past, I've said that this team needs to go deeper to light up. Simon Romfo, Grant Romfo, and Jagger Worley were doing a ton of work for the Cardinals, and it was working well, but it wasn't getting them the wins to help them break into the top 3 in the state.
They were at the brink all throughout the regular season but just couldn't bust through. Now, I think they might've just made it over the barrier. The ball is moving for L/E/M, the "big 3" is still very much pumping at an impressive pace and the Cardinals have been in every game they have played for a month, going 6-1 from Feb. 8.
The game where you can see things changing for the Cardinals was when they went to Grafton on Feb. 22. Two weeks earlier, L/E/M lost to the Spoilers by 18 at home. They would meet Grafton again and only lose by four. Grafton had gotten better, but so did L/E/M, a lot better compared to two weeks ago.
And it's not just this game to game comparison that has shown the Cardinals are an even more serious threat. On Jan. 19, L/E/M squeaked past Dunsieth by three points in a thriller in Langdon. In the District 8 championship, the Cardinals once again defeated the Dragons, but this time by six. L/E/M continues to trend upward and is doing it at the right time.
The Cardinals' three-one punch in seniors Grant Romfo, Simon Romfo, and Jagger Worley have been a constant all season. Grant has been a force in the paint on both ends, gaining an edge off of his strength to drive to the basket and limit others. Simon has been accurate from further out and a go-to for L/E/M's 3-point shooting. Worley has been huge on the putback and pulldown game for the Cardinals, offering a height advantage to L/E/M.
They keep producing, but they have gotten an edge from guys like sophomore Carter Tetrault, sophomore Gage Goodman, sophomore Markus Kingzett, and junior Tucker Welsh, to expand the effort beyond the big three. That is the edge L/E/M has been needing and they could run with it.
At the rate L/E/M is playing at, I think it'll be very hard for Benson County to upset them. If they do end up meeting New Rockford-Sheyenne in semifinals, it may be intreating. If the ball is moving well for L/E/M, they can run away with it. However, if NR-S comes with a stronger defense than they did last time, it may be a different game. Both teams are making big strides late and the clash could be explosive.
The Cardinals have expanded their game heading deeper into the season and if they keep trend, and find ways to lift the rest of their team, they can put in an argument to win the region.
Opponent: March 8 vs. Rolette/Wolford at 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: didn't meet this season
This team is playing an extremely high level at basketball that, as of now, I don't think anyone can penetrate. I thought that New Rockford-Sheyenne was going to scare this team in the District 7 championship and the Indians took them apart. This team has found ways to better their craft as they go deeper into the season and it's unbelievable.
There were some holes against Harvey/Wells County in district semifinals, even though the Indians won by 25, but they Flex Sealed those shut against NR-S two days later. They brought an aggressive press to the court that gave the Rockets little to no breathing room. They shut down NR-S's weapons in Ulrich and Grann, and just full out ran away with the game.
Four Winds central focus in the paint senior Bronson Walter hasn't been stopped this season, as he has not just played a clean defensive game at 6-foot-10-inches, but has been able to finish or help finish on offense. Senior Caelen Lohnes has stepped up into a defensive role, playing a major factor in shutting down Ulrich in the championship game. Senior Keldon Keja, who has been the starting point for most offensive drives, has been a defensive constant all season, picking up all-district honors. Off the bench, seniors Jonah Jackson and Jacob LaRock have been huge spark plugs, energizing the Indians both ways and giving Walter the support when he needs it.
On offense, senior JaeShaun Shaw has almost unstoppable on the fast break and has lead the Indians in scoring night in and night out. Junior Jayden Yankton continues to progress from outside the arc and on the drive in the paint. Teams have begun to key in on him more and he hasn't broken stride. Walter, Jackson, and Lohnes have also supported the offense immensely off their two-way game.
The Indians go nine deep every night and even down to guys eight and nine, it's still non-stop. Four Winds is producing at a very high standard and is driven to get back to where they were last year and go even further.
Four Winds hasn't played Rolette/Wolford this season, but I don't they'll be too much of a threat to the Indians. They will most likely get Dunseith in the semifinals, which might be intreating, but I once again think that Four Winds is playing too well to have its season ended by the Dragons. I do think L/E/M could offer a challenge in the title game if they get there, but even then, Four Winds is just playing so well right now.
Region 4 Champions: Four Winds/Minnewaukan
This team has been challenged a few times, but they've all been on the statewide level. I don't think anyone is going to beat this team in this region. They are finding different ways to get better when they are playing the best basketball in North Dakota. Everything is clicking for the Indians and I think it'll take a lot to throw that off.
This team knows what it wants and they want it badly. The foot has come off the gas for the Indians all year and I don't think it's going to come off in the regional tournament.
Region 4 runner-up: Langdon/Edmore/Munich
One thing is for certain, the Romfo twins have left a major impact on the L/E/M program that won't be forgotten. I think L/E/M was expected to be good this season, but those two and Worley have helped move them into a top 5 position throughout this entire season.
I think the Cardinals have put some good things together as of late and will play a different game against Four Winds than the last time they met, but I don't think it's going to be enough to beat the Indians. L/E/M is still a very good team, but the Indians are just at a higher level.
I do believe L/E/M can make it into the title game, but man that possibility of a rematch with NR-S is going to be exciting. NR-S can easily get here as well, but that big 3 is just so good, and now that it's expanding, it's going to be a lot to handle.