CHINOOK — This time last year, the Chinook Sugarbeeters were entering the Northern C boys basketball divisional tournament as one of the favorites in Class C. They had only one loss, having just won the District 9C championship.
But everything quickly changed.
The Beeters lost to Heart Butte in the semifinal round and then to Belt in the consolation final to see their season come to an end, two wins short of qualifying for the state tournament.
“I was really mad. I know everybody else was pretty upset,” recalled Chinook’s Cord Schneider, now a senior. “It would’ve been a pretty good deal to make it last year, but we didn’t, so I think that gave us more incentive to make it this year, especially go all the way.”
Boy, has it.
With that extra motivation, the Sugarbeeters have kicked it up a notch this year, running roughshod over District 9C. They’ve won their past 10 games by at least 24 points, including wins by 27 of more in all three of their district tournament games. Chinook is 21-0 entering this week’s Northern C divisional tournament in Great Falls.
“None of us want to lose at all. We all play with a chip on our shoulder. Just go out there and beat everybody who we play,” said Isaac Bell, another Chinook senior.
Bell might be the most recognizable name on Chinook’s roster after he exploded for a 51-point effort in a win over Harlem last season. But Bell doesn’t hang his hat on one game, and this team doesn’t rely on one player.
Look at the scoring summary from any of Chinook’s 21 wins this season, and you’ll likely notice different scoring leaders on different nights. Bell might lead the team, or maybe it’s Schneider, who poured in 26 points in the Beeters’ win over North Star in the District 9C semifinal round.
Hunter Neibauer led the team with 16 points in the championship win over Fort Benton. Four players scored in double figures that night.
“We can all kind of do something and balance each other and help each other out. That way, teams can’t collapse on one guy and try to shut down one guy. We’re all a threat,” said Neibauer, a senior.
“I think we all play together very well for a team,” Schneider added. “We share the ball. I mean, there’s nights where there’s five guys in general in double digits, and that’s pretty hard to defend.”
Chinook’s team aspect comes from years spent developing a brotherhood. They band together on the hardwood, off the court and in the classroom, and returned all but one player from last year’s roster. They also essentially added Neibauer, who suffered a torn ACL last season.
Neibauer was cleared in October and has helped bring a competitive edge to the team.
“It’s great competitiveness here during practice,” said senior Trajan Hannum. “We’re always trying to make each other better.”
“I’m a really competitive guy, like to work hard,” Neibauer said. “It’s a terrible feeling to be on the bench when you know you could help your team succeed a little bit more.”
The Beeters have found plenty of success this season, but they know it’s all for naught if they don’t perform this weekend. Chinook last won a state championship in 1986 when it was a Class B school and hasn’t played at a state tournament in a number of years.
Many expect that to change this season, and the pressure might be greatest internally.
“We were all pretty pissed (after losing out at divisionals last year),” said Hannum. “All of us different aspects of it, but we knew coming into this year we had a chip on our shoulder and that’s how we’re going to play.
“We’re really hoping to go far. We want to win it. We’re going to do everything we can to win it. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to try to go far.”
Chinook will play either Sunburst or Winnett-Grass Range in a first-round game of the Northern C divisional tournament at 11 a.m. Thursday.