All winter, the question has lingered throughout southwest North Dakota.
“Who do you think is going to win Region 7 boys basketball tournament, Beulah or Dickinson Trinity?”
We could be five days from finding out that answer.
Or, who knows? An upset of classic proportions could be set to play out on the Knights of Columbus Activities Center floor during this week’s tournament.
Still, any way you slice it, the Region 7 Tournament goes through the No. 1-ranked and defending state champion Beulah. With many of its main components back from last season, the Miners are undefeated at 21-0 and on a 37-game win streak dating back to Jan. 10, 2012, when it lost to Trinity in the regular season. The Titans want to be the team that doesn’t let that streak reach 40.
It has been four years since anyone other than Beulah or Trinity represented Region 7 at the state tournament and there are six teams in this tournament who don’t plan on being the proverbial red carpet to the Minot State Dome for either team.
District 13 champion Heart River is chief among them. The Cougars upset Beulah in the 2011 region semifinals before losing to Trinity in the title game. In 2012, their season was cut short again by the Titans — this time in the semifinals. With a senior-heavy group that has been building to this week for three seasons, Heart River sure isn’t going to back down without a fight. Neither will Mott-Regent or Hazen, for that matter.
The District 13 runner-up Wildfire are led by senior guard Taylor Zentner, Region 7’s leading scorer at 21.3 points per game. Hazen, the No. 3 seed behind Beulah and Trinity in District 14, follow one of the state’s best all-around athletes in senior guard Stetson Carr. And don’t forget the underdogs. New England and Richardton-Taylor each have seven seniors on the roster and each boasts one of the region’s best scorers.
Raiders junior Lane Voltz (19.2 points per game) and Tigers senior Levi Hollinger (19.1) have ranked among the top five scorers in Region 7 much of the season.
Hettinger-Scranton has just two seniors — including difference-making center Stephen Kristy — and a talented group of underclassmen that have quietly improved throughout the season to a point where they are relied upon to take the reins in the clutch.
Whether Trinity and Beulah tip off for the title Thursday night or if a dark horse finds a way to stick its nose into the mix, this season’s Region 7 Tournament is bound to be memorable.
Beulah (21-0) vs. Hettinger-Scranton (8-13), 3 p.m.
No. 1-ranked Beulah is the state’s lone undefeated boys basketball team.
That does little to comfort Miners head coach Jeremy Brandt going into the Region 7 Tournament.
“Our season, to this point, doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Brandt said. “It comes down to one game on Monday and hopefully we have a couple more chances after that.”
Beulah looks to defend its region title and reach the Class B state tournament for the third time in four seasons when it opens the region tournament against Hettinger-Scranton at 3 p.m. Monday.
The defending state champions came back this season loaded for another run at the title.
Senior Trevor Zacher, the District 14 player of the year and in the mix for a Mr. Basketball nomination, averages 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.9 steals per game and has a talented senior group behind him.
Senior Jesse Hettich averages 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.6 steals and 3.1 assists per game while senior Cody Nelson adds 11.6 points, 3.4 steals, 3.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
The District 14 champions shoot 51 percent from the field as a team and are outscoring opponents by average of more than 26 points per game.
Yet, one of the few teams the Miners had even a shade of struggles against this season was Hettinger-Scranton.
Though Beulah beat the Night Hawks 58-45 at home on Feb. 9, it was a much closer game than expected — especially considering Hettinger-Scranton committed 34 turnovers.
Night Hawks head coach Adam Hill said that game showed him the formula for beating Beulah.
“Number one, it starts with taking care of the ball,” he said. “… That’s the very first thing you’ve got to handle is their pressure. For us, we played a lot of zone last time we played them and outrebounded them actually. That’s the second thing, getting them to miss and once they miss, securing the rebounds. They’re so long at every position, that’s a huge key is boxing out and limiting their chances to score points.”
Hettinger-Scranton has the player who can do that in senior center Stephen Kristy, the 6-foot-4 all-District 13 selection, has averaged 16.7 points and 12 rebounds per game this season.
Surrounding him is a set of youngsters who have improved throughout the season.
Freshman Hayden Sadowsky averages 10.5 points per game and went off for a career-high 23 in the team’s region-qualifier game win over Bowman County. He is one of three freshmen who play significant minutes for the Night Hawks.
“We’ve overcome a lot of things this year and have grown a lot as a team,” Hill said. “This was our goal to get here and get some experience. I’ve always told the kids, once you get into the regional, anything can happen. We’re going to come out and play as hard as we can and see how far we can go.”
Mott-Regent (14-7) vs. Hazen (14-8), 4:30 p.m.
Like offense? Be sure to get a seat for the 4:30 p.m. quarterfinal game between District 13 runner-up Mott-Regent and Hazen, the No. 3 seed from District 14.
The highest-scoring game either team played this season happened on Jan. 22 when Mott-Regent went up to Hazen and won 85-79.
“I felt like they took it to us,” Hazen head coach Randy Johnson said. “Hopefully we’re ready, we remember that game and we come with a lot of energy and a high-intensity level.”
Mott-Regent head coach Wayne Heckaman believes the teams match up well against each other and have similar philosophies on how to win.
“We know both teams can put the ball in the hole,” Heckaman said. “It’s going to come down to who can protect the inside-out game. We both like to go inside out. Hazen has got excellent post play and they’ve got excellent perimeter play.”
Most of what Mott-Regent does goes through senior guard Taylor Zentner, who averages 21.3 points, eight assists and six rebounds per game.
He’s backed up by his brother, junior Tyler Zentner (13.6 points) and senior Jonah Honeyman (9.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game).
“Taylor is a huge leader and everybody knows that,” Heckaman said. “Everybody knows he’s an important factor for our team. He also distributes the ball very well. He also makes a lot of players better.”
Senior guard Stetson Carr averages 20 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 4.5 steals per game to lead Hazen, which lost to Beulah in the Region 7 semifinals last season and trails only its Coal Country rival in offensive output this season. The Bison average 70.6 points per game.
Junior forward Austin Cieslak adds 15.6 points and 8.5 rebounds a game for the Bison, who are no strangers to competing on the big stage.
Many players on this year’s basketball team played on the football team that won the Class 1A state championship last fall.
“This is a time when you have to lace up your shoes tighter and get after it a little bit,” Johnson said. “I expect them to come out and play very hard as well. We won’t have an easy game.”
Heart River (17-4) vs. Richardton-Taylor (12-9), 6 p.m.
A district champion should not be considered an underdog in a North Dakota Class B region basketball tournament.
But that’s about the only way to gauge Heart River coming into the Region 7 Tournament.
With a 17-4 record, a 10-game win streak and fresh off winning a memorable District 13 championship game against Mott-Regent, the Cougars are a team that would normally be viewed as one to be reckoned with as they enter their quarterfinal game against Richardton-Taylor at 6 p.m. Monday.
As big of an intimidation factor that may be presented by Beulah and Trinity, Heart River head coach Greg Pruitt is confident his team has just as good of a chance as anyone to emerge a region champion.
“Everybody is coming in with a clean record,” he said. The records don’t mean anything.”
The Raiders have the exact same mantra.
After winning just three games in each of the previous two seasons, Richardton-Taylor has found itself in the region tournament with a 12-9 record and District 14’s No. 4 seed.
Paced by junior guard Lane Voltz, who averages 19.2 points per game, and five seniors who chip in five to 11 points per game, the Raiders are pleased to be where they’re at — but they want more.
“Our goals to start the season was to win more than half our games and get to the regional tournament,” Richardton-Taylor head coach Rob Bartz said. “Everything after that is gravy for us. Right now, we obviously want to continue to succeed.”
Heart River presents a difficult roadblock, however.
Senior guard Seth Ewoniuk averages 12.2 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals per game. Senior forward Riley Obrigewitch adds 12.2 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Senior center Isaiah Marschner chips in 10.4 points, six rebounds and three assists Junior guard Tyson Kudrna scores 11.4 points per game and senior guard Cole Hecker adds 5.5 points and 4.5 steals per game.
“The team feels confident,” Pruitt said. “We’re excited for the regional. We know the caliber of play is going to be higher. Our kids need to focus and we need to do the little things right.”
Despite losing to Heart River twice already this season (57-15 on Dec. 15 and 64-51 on Feb. 9), Bartz said Richardton-Taylor is confident it can pull off an upset and make its resurgent season last at least three more games.
“I believe we can win this basketball game,” Bartz said. “I go into most of my games thinking we have a chance to win them. But I do believe we can be competitive and keep it close enough that we have a chance to win in the end.”
Dickinson Trinity (19-2) vs. New England (11-11), 7:30 p.m.
Gregg Grinsteinner has coached 476 games in 19 seasons as Trinity’s head coach.
No game scares him more than the quarterfinal round of the Region 7 Tournament.
“We’re pushing that it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Grinsteinner said.
The Titans close out the quarterfinal round against New England, the No. 3 seed from District 13, at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Trinity, which has seemed to be on a collision course with No. 1-ranked Beulah for the Region 7 crown since the beginning of the season, has to get by the Tigers first if it wants to play for the title it last won in 2011.
“What we need to do is kind of simplify and do what we do best,” Grinsteinner said. “Number one, get the ball inside and do a better job of scoring opportunities.”
The Titans are led by senior guard Jacob Volk, a possible Mr. Basketball candidate who averages 20.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. But Grinsteinner said their whole game plan goes from the inside out through senior posts Isiah Binstock and Jesse Kubik.
Binstock, a 6-foot-3 forward, averages 11.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Kubik, a 6-7 center going to North Dakota State to play offensive line on its football team next fall, averages 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds.
New England head coach Luke Powers laughed when asked how his team is going to stop Binstock and Kubik and referred to two of his team’s three senior captains.
“Austin Fitterer (a 5-8 guard) is going to play on (6-1 center) Alex Nielsen’s shoulder and we’re still going to be about 3 inches shorter,” Powers said with a laugh.
The Tigers present a scary formula for the Titans, however.
While they play a deliberate style and have players who can score in bunches.
Senior guard Levi Hollinger averages 19.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Sophomore forward Daniel Prince, who comes off the bench, adds 11.4 points and 8.2 rebounds.
“We don’t match up with them real well. What we have to do is throw different things at them,” Powers said. “I’m going to try and throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Trinity and see if it works.”
New England has no intention of lying down before the District 14 runner-up Titans. Nonetheless, Powers knows his team is in for a fight.
“They’re bigger than we are and they’re more athletic than us,” he said. “We knew we have a very tough task ahead of us. We plan on going out, playing hard and leaving all our energy and our heart out there on the floor and hopefully we get some bounces.”