While drawing top-seeded Century in state quarterfinals, Devils Lake doesn't see itself as an underdog
State quarterfinals between the Firebirds and the Patriots isn't really a battle a David versus Goliath. Or a Goliath versus Goliath. More like a regular-sized Goliath versus one that is like a few inches shorter and a few pounds lighter. Basically, Bismarck Century is a dominant force, one that is the best in the state, but Devils Lake isn't exactly an underdog.
The Firebirds have been a constant at state for the past five seasons, making it to the state championship game twice in the last two seasons. While late season losses to Fargo Davies and Grand Forks Red River have put the Firebirds in a lower seed than in the past, coming to Bismarck as the fourth seed in the east, the experience is still there for Devils Lake.
"Everybody knows that they're the top dog, but after last year, they also know that we're nothing to take for granted either after knocking off Century and Davies," Firebirds head coach Justin Klein said. "All that stuff with records and seeds is out the window. I think the east knows what they have here, but we haven't played anyone in the west. There's a lot of unknown, but everyone is going to come in focused and ready to go."
The Firebirds are following a similar path that can only be felt by one other team in this tournament: Fargo Shanley. Both teams made it to the 2020 state championship game, where Devils Lake was heavily favored to win at 25-1 on the season, but due to the rising COVID-19 pandemic, the game was canceled.
Returning back to the tournament almost a year later, it may be a different Firebird squad, but the motivation is still there to clinch a Class A championship that in ways feels like it was stripped away from the Firebirds.
"I've had a chip on my shoulder," senior forward Jailyn Martinson said. "My dream since I've been a little girl is to win a state championship and it would be huge if we can get past that first round and make it into semis."
Devils Lake has had the edge in facing the top seed in the east three times this year, Davies, giving them some perspective into what a top seed from the west might look like. The Patriots have found their edge as an undefeated squad off of their shooting game. They have been lead off by sophomore guard Logan Nissley, who has averaged 21 points per game this season and is 46 percent accurate from deep, attempting 165 3-pointers on the season.
The Patriots' strengths are on the arc, which happens to be where Devils Lake's struggles are after losing some of its top shooters, but Century's lulls happen to be in the paint where the Firebirds have locked down from this season. The height factor on the post for Devils Lake has allowed them to score and stop from inside the paint at a high margin throughout the season.
The Firebirds have already broken three players into triple digits in overall rebounding. Senior forward Laila Gourd is nearing 200 pulldowns on the season, with 182 on the season. Senior center Rachel Dahlen is right behind her with 179 and senior center Karli Krogfoss just broke into the triple digits with 117 pulldowns on the year.
The post-play has been huge for Devils Lake, which is why their opponents as of late have packed the paint in order to stop them. In response to that, and expecting Century to do the same, Devils Lake has moved their guards in senior Ramsey Brown and Martinson down into the paint in order to give the regulars on the post some help.
"Our posts are much bigger and strong than theirs which will help us a lot," Martinson said. "We want to keep the ball high, turn and score because our post our way faster than their's in my eyes."
On the guard play, Martinson and Brown have been heating up at the right time for Devils Lake. Brown knocked down her 1000th career point against West Fargo in the EDC tournament and Martinson continues to play a full game, sparking the offense early throughout each matchup. In most games throughout the season,
Martinson has been the one to kick the scoring off early and offer a balanced attack throughout the first half. Later in games, opponents have keyed into her more, but by that time, her teammates have already warmed up and are moving the ball around the paint and into the net.
"I'm just motivated by how important those first three minutes are," Martinson said. "If you can get up in those first three minutes, then that dictates the whole game. Getting my mindset right is the main thing. It's going to be important to get a quick start against Century."
The post and the paint continue to be the key to success for the Firebirds, and it's what they've keyed into during practices this week. In facing a team that has shown a little lapse on the post, Devils Lake is looking to expose that and use it to its advantage. Teams have tried to push the Firebirds out to the arc in order to pressure them for a deep shot, but Devils Lake has tightened up in the paint since the EDC tournament.
"I think they're going to key in a little bit more on Dahlen down low, so that's going to open something up for Gourd and Krogfoss off the bench," Klein said. "You might see some three post looks. Everyone also knows where Martinson and Brown are, so I think between those two or three kids there's going to be some opportunities to get some shots."
Devils Lake believes that they have found some cracks in Century's 25-0 record and are zeroed in on chipping away at them. At the same time, there's also some history between the Firebirds and the Patriots. The 2019 state title game came down to the Firebirds and the Patriots at the Bismarck Events Center, seeing Century walk away with a 69-61 win. In besting Century last season and now coming back to Bismarck two years later, Devils Lake is still driven by its motivation to finish out the year with a state title after falling one game short last season.
"After the way, the season ended last year, nothing is being taken for granted," Klein said. "The seniors have really set the tone and they've learned it from other kids. This being the fifth year we've gone to state, it's really helped with the lead heading down the row.
Devils Lake faces Bismarck Century on March 12 at 5 p.m. in NDHSAA Class A Girls State Tournament quarterfinals at the Bismarck Events Center.