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BOYS BASKETBALL: Rugby enters state Class B tournament as the No.1 seed

RUGBY, N.D. — Basketball wasn’t the in thing to do when Mike Santjer arrived here.

That was seven years ago. He was an assistant basketball coach the first two seasons, and now is in his fifth season as the Panthers’ head boys basketball coach.

“We had some really good football teams when I got here,” Santjer said. “We had good track athletes. But for basketball, there were no expectations. It seemed like Rugby always was second or third in the district. We were competitive, but we never made the next step up.

“We always had good athletes. We just didn’t have enough good basketball players.”

That “step up” has been made.

Rugby not only is in its third straight 20-win season; it is making its second straight trip to the North Dakota Class B boys high school basketball tournament, which runs today through Saturday at the Alerus Center. And the unbeaten (25-0) Panthers are the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

The turnaround under Santjer was quick.

His first team went 8-15. That was reversed in year 2 to 15-8. That was followed by a 21-5 season, last year’s team going 25-3 and making the program’s first state appearance since 1997, placing sixth, to this season’s unbeaten record.

Along the way, basketball has grown in popularity, according to senior and third-year varsity player Chris Hamilton.

“We’ve always had real good athletes playing basketball,” Hamilton said. “The last few years, we’ve gotten more basketball athletes.

“Football is still big in Rugby. As long as Mr. Grochow (football coach Scott Grochow) is coach, football always will be big. But there seems to be a lot more kids playing basketball (than in past years). And as the team has gotten better, we’ve seen more interest in the community. This year, there were a couple of games where our gym was packed.”

The evolution into a state power began about the time Santjer arrived. But the coach doesn’t take credit for the groundwork that was laid. It started, he said, with a group of parents who were active in the sport, taking their elementary-school sons to youth tournaments.

When those athletes got to junior high, the school’s coaching staff became more involved.

“Basketball became a sport kids wanted to dedicate their time to,” Santjer said. “They had a great time playing. These guys are gym rats. And we really pushed to get our summer program going stronger, getting them to more team camps.

“It’s fun when kids are calling and saying, ‘Hey coach, can we get in the gym to shoot.’ We get that a lot, kids constantly asking to get into the gym to play.”

The work has paid off. This season, the Panthers average 73.1 points a game. Even a year ago, Santjer said, Rugby didn’t approach that kind of scoring.

“We had some good basketball players last year, but we really had some phenomenal athletes,” Santjer said. “We pushed the pace and worked hard on defense.

“This year we have a lot more kids who are good athletes and understand the game. They can adjust on the fly. We’re capable of scoring 70 to 80 points in a game. In the past, we had to hold teams to under 50 points, to keep the game low scoring, because we weren’t able to put up a lot of points ourselves.”

The Panthers have a big three. Brad Heidlebaugh averages 24 points and is a threat whether shooting from the perimeter or using his post moves inside. Tanner Bernhardt (14.8 ppg) has made 66 treys and is strong off the dribble. Zach Miller (11.8 ppg) is strong in the post.

“Our goal last year was getting to state,” Hamilton said. “We felt we had the talent. We knew we’d be a good team again. But our main goal was to win the district championship game. I don’t know if any of us saw us going 25-0.”