'The feeling is just way better': After losing out on last season's state tournament, Four Winds/Minnewaukan is heading 'Back to the B'
It had been one day shy of a year the last time the Indians felt a feeling similar to this one.
March 11, 2020: Four Winds defeats Saint John, 59-43, in front of a packed Sports Center in Devils Lake. Fans storm the court to celebrate the Indians' first regional title since 2017. The jubilation and celebration were just starting. And then it stopped.
The rise of COVID-19 in the United States began to take shape, eventually halting almost every single aspect of life, including the 2020 Class B state tournament. It was another feeling that the Indians couldn't describe, but not in the same way. Everything they worked for and wanted was just taken away.
It's been a long year for Four Winds in their quest to get back to where they were last season. The limitation of summer ball and a delayed season made things challenging, but the goal to get back where they were, and go even further, was still on the horizon.
March 11, 2021: The Indians were back in the Region 4 title game, but things weren't exactly the same. They wouldn't be tipping off against Langdon/Edmore/Munich at the Sports Center, but the Betty Sioux Engelstad Center an hour and a half down the road, playing in front of over 1,000 fans.
It was the biggest crowd the Indians had seen all season, especially after starting off in December playing in a nearly empty gym. There were a few lapses throughout the game, but it never threw off the overall focus to avenge what was taken from them last season.
Four Winds' defensive effort would power them to a 57-39 win over L/E/M for its second straight regional crown, however, this one was different from the last. The excitement and jubilation of winning were the same as 364 days ago, but there was one huge factor there in the celebrations in Grand Forks that wasn't there in Devils Lake: they know 100 percent that they are going to be playing in the state tournament.
"The feeling is way better than it was last year knowing what we had to go through with all the offseason and regular season work," junior guard Jayden Yankton said. "We've been working hard and getting back to where we deserve to be. The feeling is just way better than it was last year with the new environment and all that."
The new environment and what the game meant to both squads did have an early impact on the Indians and the Cardinals. The offense slowed for both teams, eventually seeing the first quarter end in a 10-10 tie. While a slow jump isn't something Four Winds is used to, the pressure factor is something that has been around all season for the Indians and countering a team's best game.
Four Winds hasn't fallen out of the top three rankings in the state the entire season, and they've scheduled opposition that allows them to stay up there. Going into the state field, Four Winds has already faced half of the teams that will be in Minot (Rugby, Powers Lake, Shiloh Chrisitan, and Dickinson Trinity), losing only to Trinity, which is still its only loss of the season. L/E/M hasn't been an easy out as well as they have peaked as high as No. 4 in the standings this season.
"It's the regional championship game, and if you lose, you go home," Indians head coach Rick Smith said. "Those guys who've just come out of the locker room have had a target on their backs all year long. That's not easy. It's not easy for those guys to go out and battle everyone's best game with the schedule we play...That had a little bit to do with the way we started out offensively, but as long as we're playing defense like we're playing defense it's going to help."
In the post-season, Four Winds has been rolling off of its defense to power its game. Working off of their speed advantage, the Indians have found ways to balance out their offensive and defensive games at a high level. On Thursday when the shots weren't falling, Four Winds would look to its defense to elevate its game.
Defense became the key for the Indians early on as it would eventually up their offensive game in the second quarter. An effort in that paint would eventually see Four Winds up by eight at halftime. From there, the lead would only progress for the Indians as the defensive base would allow the Indians two expand their game. It wasn't an offensive heavy game for the Indians, seeing senior guard JaeShaun Shaw lead in scoring with 14 on the night, but it got the job done.
"It wasn't a great shooting night, but you get the shot coach expects you to take, especially if you're wide open," Yankton said. "You just shoot the ball with confidence and it'll go in most of the time, but it was just one of those nights where you really couldn't shoot. That's why you attack the rim and get points off of there."
The defensive-driven attack is one that the Indians are not looking to move far away from as they advance to the state tournament next weekend. The effort throughout the postseason has given Four Winds a spark in games, specifically against L/E/M and Dunseith, complete domination, which was seen in games against New Rockford-Sheyenne and Rolette-Wolford.
"We just need to keep practicing and working on our defensive game," senior center Bronson Walter said. "Defense turns into offense and that's our game plan."
Walter has been a key piece into the Indians' defensive effort this season. His 6-foot-10-inch height has made him a difficult equation for opponents to figure out. He has taken advantage of defense to offense game as he would finish with 12 points on the night. His efforts throughout the season have stood out in the region as he was named Region 4 Senior Athlete of the Year, the second senior athlete of the year award the center has picked up this season.
"It's awesome to win these awards," Walter said. "It's not only me but my teammates. They make me better every day in practice, so the credit is to them."
Things had clicked throughout the night for Four Winds, even when the shots weren't falling, but there was one moment where for a few minutes that the momentum swung heavily in favor of the Cardinals. At the beginning of the third quarter, one of the moments Smith considers to be an important part of the game, Four Winds would turn over the ball twice, forcing Smith to call a time out.
Among the over 1,000 fans in the arena, Smith could be heard in that huddle expressing the urge for his team to clean up their game. Smith message would end up working as the Indians would go on an 8-0 run out of the time out, seeing Four Winds hit all eight points from inside the paint.
"We talk about it all the time in the locker room that you can't have third-quarter blues," Smith said. "We came out with a turnover and we would go into Bronson and he would have a small guy in front of him, and he would kick it out for a turnover. We just had to get them refocused because you can't just come out and let a team back into the game. I thought we responded very well out of that time out and kept going after that."
From that timeout, the lead continued to widen for the Indians, seeing offensive weapons in Shaw and Yankton capitalize, while transition players in Walter, seniors guard Jonah Jackson and Jacob LaRock would hype up the Indians' defensive effort. There was a lot of energy for the Indians, that stung them at times, but as the game progressed Smith said that they were able to harness that energy to pick up the win.
For L/E/M, they finish their season at 20-4, finishing in the regional championship and picking up 20 wins for the first time since 2018. The team graduates seniors Simon Romfo, Grant Romfo, and Jagger Worley, who have all left a major impact on the Cardinals program, playing a major role in peaking the team to No. 4 in the state rankings. Both Simon and Grant were named to the All-Region 4 team.
There was a lot of excitement not just in the Indians locker room or in the stands, but across Spirit Lake Nation. There is a legacy within the Four Winds program that has been handed down from father to son to brother to brother, and so on. Some players on Four Winds' roster had family members who played on the 2016 squad that won the school's only state title. For a lot of the players, there's a thrill that it's their time to shine.
"Looking up to them it's always been a great feeling," Yankton said. "We've always been happy for them and just being able to replicate what they did is even better knowing that you have the same feeling they did. It's definitely a great feeling."
State is still a very new thing for this Four Winds squad, except for one person on the bench: Smith. He hasn't just been there multiple times but knows what it takes for a team to win. His advice for this season's group: stay focused and have fun.
"When we go back to practice, we're going to work on our defensive end and sharpen up our offensive end," Smith said. "You get messed up with all those TV timeouts, so just play your tails off. Tonight was a great pre-game atmosphere and will be really beneficial for us. Go out and enjoy it. It's going to be fun. Take it in and enjoy it, but at the same time, do your job."
Four Winds/Minnewaukan is the No. 1 seed in the state tournament and will face Shiloh Chrisitan in state quarterfinals on March. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Minot State Dome.