The Neelin Spartans varsity boys’ and girls’ basketball teams took different routes to get to the provincial AAA high school championship in Swan River, but they’re in the same spot at the event.
Both Spartan squads begin the tournament today as the fourth seed. Neelin’s boys got there by winning the city title before disposing of the Virden Golden Bears and Swan Valley Tigers, who are hosting provincials, in their interzone games. The Spartan girls also won the city title, but dropped their interzone game to the Golden Bears and received a wildcard berth to provincials.
Virden’s varsity girls are the top seed at provincials and are looking for their first ever AAA basketball banner.
Although his team backed into provincials, Neelin coach Don Thomson isn’t worried.
"(Getting the wildcard) was more of a reward for our effort over the last two years," he said. "We worked hard for it and I think our competitive schedule and our wins, and even close losses we had against good teams, really helped us."
There is potential for the Spartans and Golden Bears to meet in the semifinals should both win their quarter-finals. The Spartans will open the tournament against the Westgate Wings this morning at 9:30, while the Golden Bears, who won a bronze medal last year, face the host Tigers.
Thomson knows Virden will be tough to beat, but he doesn’t want to look that far ahead.
"We’re definitely not looking past Westgate," he said. "This is an experience for these kids. Some of these kids I’ve had for four years. It’s the end of a long journey. We’re going to get in there and play."
Meanwhile, Neelin’s varsity boys may be without one of their best players when the Spartans take on Flin Flon’s Hapnot Kopper Kings in their quarter-final at 1:30 p.m.
Guard Brock Hiltner is questionable for the weekend after tearing his lateral collateral ligament in the opening game of the city final. Hiltner is one of Neelin’s best defenders, but Thomson saw other players step up during the rest of the series and the interzone games, and he hopes players like Andrew Paul, Noah Patton and Andrew Norman can continue to do so at provincials.
"I don’t think we’ve played anybody this year that plays as hard and physically as (Brock) can," said Thomson, who also coaches the boys’ team. "That’s probably the one intangible.
"The rest of the kids have chipped in by adding more points and things like that. It’s really the defensive mindset that we lose, but hopefully the rest of the kids pick it up."
Meanwhile, the Glenboro Panthers enter the provincial A boys’ championship in Somerset as the top seed, as do the Hamiota Huskies in the A girls’ provincials in Sprague. At the AA girls’ provincials in Teulon, the Souris Sabres are the highest-ranked Westman team at No.2, while the Boissevain Broncos are the third seed in the AA boys’ event in Warren.