Heading into the state tournament last season, the New Town girls basketball team was looking to finish off what would have been a perfect season.
But after winning all 26 of their regular season, District 15 and Region 8 tournament games, the Eagles went 0-3 at state and settled for an eighth-place finish.
With all but one player returning from last year's team, the Eagles have their sights set on another region title and a better result at state.
MDN File Photo
New Town then-sophomore Gabby Wilkinson drives past a Kindred defender during last season’s Class B state tournament at the Bismarck Civic Center.
"That's something we set our goals on right after the end of the season that we want to work and try to get better as a team," New Town coach Orville Drosdal said. "We know that everyone else is doing the same thing. That's one of our team goals to get to state and then we put that out of our head and start taking it one game at a time."
The Eagles have three players returning who averaged more than 10 points per game led by juniors Baeleigh Brady (14.1) and Gabby Wilkinson (12). Brady led New Town with 47 3-pointers last year.
Drosdal said his team's biggest strength is its balance.
"We've got some kids who have a lot of varsity experience," Drosdal said. "We have a little bit of size, we have a little bit of speed and we have some shooters."
The Eagles showed they could put up big numbers offensively, averaging nearly 69 points per game. New Town registered 90 points in games against Trenton and Stanley.
But as strong as their offense is, the Eagles' defense is Drosdal's biggest concern entering the season.
"We definitely have to improve defensively and do a little bit better job of rebounding," Drosdal said. "Sometimes we tend to get a little sloppy with the basketball so we have to take care of the ball."
Drosdal said he expects the region to be similar to last year, meaning tough competition from the likes of Watford City, Parshall, Ray and Trinity Christian.
Ray also returns plenty of experience and could have the best chance to compete with New Town. Senior Kendra Heier begins her fifth year at the varsity level and led the Jays last season in points per game (12), rebounds per game (8), steals (87) and assists (97). Heier and junior Haley Hodenfield (11.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 59 steals, 74 assists) lead an offense that averaged 56 points per contest. Both Heier and Hodenfield were named to the all-district and all-district tournament teams.
Ray coach Kelli Heier, Kendra's mother, said team defense is the Jays' biggest weakness heading into the season. The Jays allowed 55.6 points per game in losses compared to 39.7 in wins. Ray played New Town tough in their first meeting last season, losing 62-56. The Eagles handled the Jays in their second meeting, posting an 81-55 victory.
"I'm hoping that they can hit their full potential," Heier said. "I hope they progress through the season and try to be in the top four at regionals and compete in every game."
Drosdal knows that New Town will have a large bull's-eye on its back this season after running through the region last year. It's a challenge that the Eagles are looking forward to.
"Everybody is going to be gunning for us so we have to be ready to play every night," Drosdal said.
Lakota-Adams-Edmore won the Region 4 crown last season and is the favorite to repeat this season. The Raiders (22-6 overall last season) return several starters including sophomore Fallyn Freije, who averaged a double-double with 21.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Carrington took the District 7 title over L-A-E, but the Cardinals lost a number of key players to graduation. District 8 favorite Benson County could give the Raiders problems, as the Wildcats return their top eight scorers from last year's team, including three that averaged more than 10 points per contest.
Shiloh Christian and Grant County are expected to fight for both the district and region titles for a second straight season. The Skyhawks - last season's region champion - have plenty of depth as well as a strong senior presence. Seniors Paige Emmel (16.6 ppg, 3 rpg, 61 steals, 95 assists) and Mikayla Forness (13 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 54 steals, 61 assists) were named to the all-district and all-region teams last season. The Coyotes - last season's District 9 winner - returns four starters, including first-team all-state selection Ashley Bentz (20.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 85 steals, 166 assists, 55 blocks). Turtle Lake-Mercer-McClusky benefits from a district that had just two teams finish above .500 last year. The Trojans have a good mix of young and experienced talent led by senior Chloe Bayless, who averaged a double-double with 13 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
Killdeer looks to dethrone Hazen as the District 14 champions and Beach as Region 7 representative in the state tournament. It will be a difficult task for a Killdeer team that finished 10-15 last season. The Cowboys are young, but they are tall with five players listed at 5-foot-9 or taller. Killdeer's height will give them the advantage over the much-smaller Bison. Hazen's top returning scorer - junior Ashton Carter - averaged six points per game. Regardless of who takes the top spot in District 14 spot, Beach should prove to be too much for them to handle in the region tournament. The Buccaneers, who finished third at state, went 24-3 last year and averaged 64.6 ppg. Two of Beach's three losses were against state runner-up Linton-HMB.