Maple River gearing up for first state tournament in 32 years

Feb. 29—TOWER CITY, N.D. — Nathan Hoots can't say enough about the Maple River girls basketball team.

"We have a really great group of kids," Hoots, the head coach for Maple River, gushed. "They cause me very little stress on the day-to-day portion — they cause me a ton of stress during games — but on the day-to-day this team makes me smile every single day.

"I get another week to gloat about how awesome they are to anyone who will listen and even if they don't want to listen — I am going to tell them about how awesome they are," he said. "To be here with them and their families is going to be pretty awesome."

Hoots has helped guide Maple River to its first-ever NDHSAA Division B Girls Basketball State Tournament. The Maple Valley portion of the Maple River co-op's last trip to State was in 1991. Hope-Page hasn't seen a state tournament court since 1987.

"It has been a long time," Hoots said. "You can certainly feel it in our communities in the way that they have supported us since the beginning of this whole postseason run and especially in the last 72 hours.

"Every time I look at my phone I have 17 new emails and texts from people saying: 'Just let me know what I can do,'" he said. "It's a lot but I've felt the support every single moment since that buzzer went off."

Thursday will begin Maple River's run at the state tournament. The Raiders will face off against No. 2 seed Bowman County in the opening game of the tourney. The Raiders and Bulldogs are slated to tip off at 1 p.m. at the Jamestown Civic Center.

Regardless of how the standings end up this weekend — it certainly has been a season to remember for the Raiders.

"This was by far the most successful regular season we've had in my tenure which goes back seven years," Hoots said. "The first four years of my coaching career we were at five wins or less, two years ago we had seven wins, last year we had 13 and then this year, coming into the district tournament we were at 16-3."

Maple River was the No. 1 seed entering the Region 1, District 1 tournament having beaten Sargent County during the regular season. The Raiders dismantled eighth-seed Hankinson in the quarterfinal round of the district tournament and then defeated Wyndmere/Lidgerwood in the district tourney semis by 11 points.

In the district championship, the Raiders faced Sargent County.

"Things did not go well for us in that game," Hoots said. "They came out and punched us in the mouth right away and we ended up losing by 20-plus. That was our first loss since Dec. 20 so that was kind of a reality check for us to get back and start working on things."

Hoots said the week between the district championship game and the regional quarterfinal game against Linton/HMB was one of the most productive and focused the team has had all year.

It showed in the squad's win over the Lions.

Down 35-30 after three-quarters of play, the Raiders buckled down and came back to defeat No. 3 seed Linton/HMB in the Region 1 tournament quarterfinals 48-40.

A win over the Lions did nothing but add pressure.

Maple River faced Edgeley/Kulm-Montpelier — the defending Region 3 champion — in the regional semifinals.

"They did to us what Sargent County did to us," Hoots said of EKM. "They punched us right away and we just did not recover. I think we got it as close as 12 but we ended up losing by 16. They are a tremendous team."

Maple River was facing elimination had they not been able to mount a fourth-quarter comeback against LaMoure/Litchville-Marion in the third-place game of the regional tournament. Hoots said the Raiders were bolstered by a couple of big shots then clutched up and drained free throws to win by one and eliminate the Loboes from playoff contention.

Under the new three-class system, Maple River's win in the regional third-place game set them up against No. 1 ranked Langdon/AEM in the state qualifying tilt.

"We kind of felt like we were playing with house money," Hoots said of the team's feeling before playing the Cardinals. "We knew that in years past we wouldn't have had this opportunity and we knew that all of the pressure was on the No. 1 team ranked in the state — not on the team that had to finish third in their region to get to that game."

For the first two and a half quarters, the Cardinals had their way with the Raiders. Hoots and his squad were down by as many as 18 in the third quarter.

"We were down 16 and I took a timeout and I told the girls, 'We have to score on pretty much every possession the rest of the game,'" Hoots said. "I think we only had one turnover the last quarter plus overtime. We didn't score on every possession but we certainly scored on the majority of them."

Maple River made seven 3-pointers in the second half to force overtime and ended up winning by three in overtime.

"Everybody contributed," Hoots said. "It was a really quality team effort against a team that has been to state for six years in a row. Beating the quality of teams that we have in this postseason has been really encouraging. It gives us confidence going into the state tournament."

Maple River made the drive into Jamestown on Wednesday and is using the extra half day to prepare for what will surely be a grueling, exciting and emotional three days over at the Civic Center.

"I would tell (the girls) to enjoy every moment," Hoots said. "This could be the first of many or it could be the last that these girls are ever in. We never want to take any of this for granted. There's going to be a lot of stress this week but it's all good stress. It's all because of their hard work.

"Our season could be done right now but instead we have an opportunity to have another week of playing with our friends," he said. "We get bonus basketball. We want to try to win one day at a time and see what happens."