Pirates ready to defend titleRaising the bar is a classic cliché in sports, but sometimes there’s just no other way to put it. Take, for example, the model of success the Kidder County Lady Pirates have managed to string together.
By: Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun
Raising the bar is a classic cliché in sports, but sometimes there’s just no other way to put it.
Take, for example, the model of success the Kidder County Lady Pirates have managed to string together.
Kidder County’s 46-37 victory over Linton during last week’s Region 3 championship game in Hazelton is just another addition to what has turned into an impressive résumé of Class B girls’ basketball over the past few years.
The Pirates have played in all six Region 3 championship games dating back to 2005, racking up four region titles and culminating in the team’s first state championship last season.
But the Pirates are hungry for more, and if any team wants a shot at the title during this week’s state tournament in Minot they’re going to have to first go through the defending state champs.
“When we started out, our main goal was just getting back,” Kidder County co-coach Dan Welder said. “The girls got a taste of it last year and they worked their butts off, even over the summer. It showed when tournament time came around.”
The Pirates are currently riding a 22-game winning streak heading into today’s quarterfinals at the Minot State University Dome, and are also sporting the exact same 23-1 record they rode into last year’s state tournament with.
A 55-43 road loss to Region 4 champion Carrington (22-2) in the team’s second game of the season has been Kidder County’s only hiccup thus far. The early-season loss was understandable, as the team had to find a new identity without all-state point guard Lindsey Sand in the lineup.
But it didn’t take long for the team’s new leader to emerge. Kidder County’s 5-foot-11 Eli Benz — who was unanimously selected as last year’s state tourney MVP after posting a three-game average of 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game — was more than ready to take on the role.
The Region 3 Senior Player of The Year has started in all 24 games for the Pirates this season and leads the team with 20.3 points per game. Benz also leads the team in rebounding (200), blocks (44), assists (112) and her 66 steals is second to only Bailie Ziesch’s 76.
Benz enters this week’s state tournament having scored 1, 309 career points.
“Eli was not as vocal a leader last year like Lindsey was, and it took some time for her to get into that role. She’s a really soft-spoken, humble girl,” Welder said. “But she’s really accepted the role of motivator and vocal leader and she’s handled that exceptionally well.”
But a 20-win season isn’t accomplished with one girl alone. Kidder County’s remaining starting five of seniors Shalee Martin and Ziesch, and juniors Molly Kahl and Julia Scherbenske have all found their roles within the team.
Kahl (8.0 ppg.) and Martin (8.5 ppg.) are capable of scoring double digits each night, and freshman guard Kelsey Dockter has come off the bench to average 7.4 points per contest.
“Eli just demands so much attention, but we are very balanced,” Welder said. “We didn’t need someone to score 15 points a night for us when we knew Eli would get hers. The main thing is that these girls move well without the ball.
“About half-way through the season the team began to gel and we starting playing really good basketball, and that progressed through the district tournament and into regionals.”
A staple that has returned to the team, even with some new personnel and the addition of new co-coaches Welder and Scott Wolff, is solid team defensive, especially half-court ball pressure. Kidder County has earned a living swarming to the ball and creating havoc in the backcourt, and this season is no exception with 332 team steals.
“We didn’t want to change much. We did bring in a few new things, but defense was the No. 1 thing we wanted to keep the same,” Welder said.
Standing in the way of Kidder County in today’s quarterfinals at 2:45 p.m. is back-to-back Region 5 champion Standing Rock (19-5). The Warriors finished eighth in the team’s first appearance at state last season and has a formidable 1-2 scoring punch in the form of juniors Shauna Long and Ryan White Bull, as both players averaged over 20 points per game last season.
The Warriors are on a 17-game winning streak and the only two North Dakota teams Standing Rock has lost to this season are Hazen and Beulah. The Warriors’ remaining losses are to teams from North Dakota’s sister state south of the border.
“They’re on a good roll and they’re playing good basketball right now,” Welder said. “I’ve looked at a few tapes and Long can score from anywhere. She’ll be taking up most of our attention, but White Bull is no slouch, either. They’re going to be a good test for us.”
But Welder believes his team will be up to the challenge of defending its state title.
“These girls have played in a lot of big games,” Welder said. “We’ve told them to go out and have some fun.”
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or be email at firstname.lastname@example.org