No. 1 and unbeaten Four Winds-Minnewaukan has chance at history
The Indians return to the state tournament with a perfect 24-0 mark, despite graduating four starters from last season's team.
FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – The Four Winds-Minnewaukan boys basketball team and coach Rick Smith have accomplished a lot in the last 10 years.
The Indians have played in the North Dakota Class B state championship game four times from 2013 to 2017 and won it all in 2016.
They’ve been in every state Top 10 poll since the start of the 2018-19 season.
Yet, Four Winds-Minnewaukan can accomplish something this weekend it has never done: Complete an undefeated, state championship season.
The 24-0 and No. 1 Indians begin the state tournament Thursday against Stanley at 6:30 p.m. in Minot.
“Us guys never really talk about (the undefeated season), but I think it means a lot to us, knowing that people after last season weren’t thinking we would be as good as we are now,” Four Winds-Minnewaukan senior Jacolby Pearson said. “It means a lot to us to go undefeated and win a state championship.”
It has been a remarkable year for Four Winds-Minnewaukan, considering the Indians lost eight seniors and four starters — including 6-foot-10 all-state pick Bronson Walter — from its state tournament appearance last year.
“From the beginning of the year, there were lots of question marks out there and people not knowing exactly what to think about the upcoming team,” Smith said.
The Indians’ schedule started hot against ranked opponents in Enderlin and Dickinson Trinity.
“We threw them in the fire off the bat, and they’ve responded each and every game,” Smith said. “You can’t ask for more than what they’ve given us. Did I think we’d have an unbeaten season? No, not with only one starter coming back and most of our points gone and the bulk of our defensive players gone.
“I thought we would be a good team but to be where we’re at I didn’t see it coming but man, oh, man, the kids worked hard in practice and worked at their weaknesses and through another tough Region 4 tournament and here we are.”
Jayden Yankton, who's averaging 27 points per game, was the only returning starter.
Sophomore Deng Deng, though, has busted onto the Class B scene, averaging 17.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Sophomore Dalen Leftbear is averaging 11.6 points, while Pearson, a 6-3 left-hander, is at 15.7.
"(The return to the state tournament) doesn't surprise me because I know the work we put in this summer," Pearson said. "(Balanced scoring) helps a lot. If Jayden isn't having the best shooting night, teams still need to focus on me and Deng and other guys. It puts a lot of pressure on defenses to stop us."
This is the Indians' second chance at a perfect season. Four Winds-Minnewaukan went to state in 2006 with an unbeaten record before losing in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Dickinson Trinity.
Four Winds-Minnewaukan at a glance
Coach: Rick Smith.
Record: 24-0, No. 1 seed.
Quarterfinal opponent: Stanley. Game is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Minot State Dome in Minot.
Regular rotation: Soph. Deng Deng 17.0 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game, 2.8 steals per game; soph. Dalen Leftbear 11.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg; sr. Jayden Yankton 27 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.2 apg; sr. Jacolby Pearson 15.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg; jr. Kelson Keja 5.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 4.2 apg.
State tournament history: Four Winds-Minnewaukan played in state championship games in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The Indians won the state title game in 2016.
Coach Smith says: “I think it's a balanced field with good head coaches and guys who have been there before and know how to get kids motivated. You're going to see tight ball games.”