The Box Elder girls basketball team claimed its first Class C state title in 20 years when it beat Winnett-Grass Range at the Butte Civic Center in March. The Bears are looking to make it two in a row.
Box Elder returns a large chunk of its state championship team, including state tournament MVP Lillian Gopher. Gopher is joined by all-state teammate Joelnell Momberg, along with Eve The Boy and Sarah Parisian, who each played substantial minutes last season.
“It’s been really competitive and exciting. The intensity has been in every drill,” Box Elder head coach Joel Rosette said of his team’s early-season practices. “The kids have been working hard. I can see us getting better each day. … We want to keep building into late February and hopefully into March.”
For Box Elder to get back to the state tournament, it will need to navigate through the Northern C, one of the most competitive divisions in the state.
Until last year, Belt had played on Saturday night at the state tournament for 10 consecutive seasons. Winnett-Grass Range beat Box Elder in the Northern C championship just a week before last year’s state title rematch.
With Gopher on the court, though, Box Elder will likely be the favorite to emerge. Gopher was a terror for opponents at last year’s state tournament. She pressured opponents and forced turnovers on the defensive end, and facilitated the offense on the other end.
“(Gopher) is a great leader,” Rosette said. “She’s been there, been to two state tournaments, been a part of two state championship games. She brings a lot defensively, she knows all of our offense. It’s like having another mouthpiece out there on the floor, so it’s great to have her. We’re excited for her senior year.”
One thing Box Elder does not have is a girl standing above 6-feet tall. One of the top challengers to Box Elder’s championship status could be Manhattan Christian, which will have three girls standing 6-foot or taller.
Senior Kelsey Heidema (6-0), junior Kelly Van Kirk (6-2) and freshman Kiersten Van Kirk (6-3) will be the driving force to a successful season for Manhattan Christian. The trio of 6-footers can score in a variety of ways, whether it be putting the ball on the floor or spot-up shooting. Defensively, teams will struggle to score over the bigger Eagles.
“We have a lot of size,” Manhattan Christian head coach Jeff Bellach said. “I think we can use our length and our size to our advantage once we get into the flow and start playing together a little bit. … We’ve got some girls that can play multiple positions, so I think that’s an advantage. Kiersten, she’s 6-3, she’s left-handed and she can put it in the hole. That’s exciting, as a freshman, to have that kind of talent. We’ll do what we can to try and get her and Kelly and (Heidema) the ball.”
Manhattan Christian will have a tough road ahead. Ennis broke through to the state tournament last season and returns key pieces from that team. Charlo returns a young team with outstanding athletes that could cause havoc on the defensive end. But those teams will likely have to go through Box Elder if they want to be crowned the champion of Class C.
“(Box Elder) is loaded. They’re the real deal,” Bellach said. “I think they’re definitely the team to beat. Belt’s going to be good again, Ennis is very talented, but Box Elder will be tough.”