Brookings-area prep teams could set up epic tourney season

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BROOKINGS — For fans of high school sports, there is no better month on the calendar than March.

With teams vying for position and the potential of a Cinderella run, there’s a reason why the term “March Madness” extends beyond the NCAA basketball tournaments. But while a trip to the state tournament is special for any program, there’s an extra level of excitement when a team can compete for a state championship.

With a few weeks to go, it appears that several area teams could bring home a state title next month and set up for an epic March.

It starts in Flandreau where the Fliers’ girls basketball team is currently the top-ranked team in Class A. The Fliers are anchored by South Dakota State commit Claire Sheppard but you would be fooling yourself if you believed she was the lone reason for their success.

The Fliers are a deep team with seniors Lily Klein and Lizzie Pavlis playing key roles in their success. Junior Sadie Iott and eighth-grader Morgan Sheppard have also contributed as Flandreau has plenty of offensive balance for a March run.

But the kicker has been the Fliers’ defense which has been one of the best in the state. Armed with incredible length the Fliers recently had a stretch of nine straight games allowing 30 points or fewer and boasts one of the state’s top defenses late in the season.

At 17-0, the Fliers are virtually a lock to play in next month’s state tournament one year after finishing in sixth place. While last year’s tournament was a short drive up I-29 to Watertown, this year’s trip would be even shorter as the Fliers would play at Frost Arena in Brookings.

The stage would not only give Brookings residents a chance to see a future Jackrabbit but also give Flandreau a chance to see their team claim a state championship with plenty of purple and yellow in attendance but the Fliers aren’t the only team that could see this play out.

The Sioux Valley boys basketball team has become a perennial powerhouse in Class A and has been a frequent participant in the state tournament. While the Cossacks have yet to claim an elusive state championship, they also have the firepower to make another run this spring.

Like the Fliers, the Cossacks are powered by a fellow SDSU commit in Alec Squires but they have plenty of depth around him. Maxwell Engebretson and Maverick Nelson have provided plenty of scoring punch from the perimeter and senior Hudsyn Ruesink has provided muscle in the middle of the offense that’s averaging 62 points per game.

The Cossacks dropped back-to-back games after a 14-0 start but they still rank fourth in the latest Class A boys basketball rankings. It’s also noteworthy that Sioux Valley’s recent losses have come against top competition as De Smet (No. 3 in Class B) and Hamlin (No. 2 in Class A) are also legitimate title contenders.

The landscape should have the Cossacks as favorites to head to the Class A tournament in Rapid City but if fans are looking for something more local, they could make a trip to the Larson Ice Center.

The Brookings Rangers’ boys hockey team has sat atop the South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association for three straight years but they’re looking for something more this spring. After winning their third straight state title last year, the Rangers came up short in a quest for a national championship that has set the tone for this season.

This journey has gotten off to a tremendous start as Brookings has a perfect 14-0-0 record in conference play and won the Minnetonka Junior Gold Tournament in November. But the start is even more impressive considering the nature of this year’s team.

The Rangers lost Breck Hirrschoff, who is playing with the Sioux Falls POWER this season after leading the state in scoring a year ago but has been fueled by Owen Schneider (22 goals, 17 assists, 39 points) and Jacob Kahle (20 goals, 15 assists, 35 points) who both rank in the top 10 in scoring.

With a defense anchored by defenseman Luke Honkomp (four goals, 27 assists, 31 points) and goalies Egan Jensen (7-0-0, 0.86 GAA, .937 save percentage) and Addison Ronning (7-0-0, 1.86 GAA, .881 save percentage), the Rangers will not only look for a fourth straight title while hosting this year’s state tournament, but they’ll look to finish the job with a national championship.

These teams serve as the main course to feed fans’ hunger for March but they’re far from the only thing on the menu. The action on the mat is also heating up as several wrestlers could be claiming state titles this month.

Brookings wrestlers Tate Helmbolt, Nolan Miles, Gabe Stern Johanna Steinlicht and Maizy Mathis could be in the running for a championship in Sioux Falls but area wrestlers such as Sioux Valley’s Tate Steffensen and Owen Vandeweerd could also make a push to get to state.

With a slew of other area teams and wrestlers that could go on a run, it’s setting up for an exciting March. Some team’s paths may not be clear now but that’s what makes this the most thrilling time of the year and it could have a little extra for some of the area’s prep athletes.