Currently riding an 18-game winning streak, the Class A fourth-ranked and North sub-section champion Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks are on the cusp of advancing to the state high school boys' basketball tournament for the first time since 1991.
However, the team standing in the 26-2 Blackjacks' way has racked up 19 consecutive victories. The second-ranked and South sub-section champion Southwest Minnesota Christian Eagles, who are 25-1 overall, are seeking their first state tournament berth since 2002 when the program won the fourth of four straight state titles.
The two top-seeded ballclubs meet tonight in the Section 3A championship game, with tip-off scheduled for 8 p.m. at Southwest Minnesota State University's R/A Facility. The winner will play in the Class A state tournament quarterfinals on March 22 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
"It should be a lot of fun, and we're looking forward to the opportunity," Dawson-Boyd head coach Cory Larson said. "Our kids have worked very hard to get to this point of the season, enjoying each game and using their competitive spirit to be successful. We have stayed focused on the little things and are deserving to be in this position by the way that we have played all year long."
The Blackjacks, who average 74.5 points per game and allow just 47.4 points per game (third in Class A), have won 12 of their games by 30-plus points and own an average margin of victory of 29.8 points. Dawson-Boyd, which won the Camden Conference title with a 14-1 league record, has scored 80-plus points 10 times and has eight wins by at least 40 points.
Dawson-Boyd's only two losses came midway through the season, both on the road in a week's span. The Blackjacks were defeated 74-63 by Montevideo on Jan. 6 and then lost 65-64 to MACCRAY on Jan. 13.
Nathaniel Huot, a 6-foot junior guard, leads the Blackjacks in scoring with 16.8 points per game. He has knocked down a team-best 65 of Dawson-Boyd's 219 three-pointers this season.
Five other Blackjacks have connected on at least 10 shots from long range, including Zach Stelter (6-1 senior forward), Joey Lee (6-1 sophomore guard), Josh Wager (6-0 senior guard), Michael Lee (6-3 freshman forward) and Jack Hansen (6-0 senior guard).
Seniors Evan Robertson (6-4 forward) and Jon Tensen (6-4 post) offer some size down low for Dawson-Boyd, which features a balanced offensive approach based on quickness and athletic ability.
Joey Lee and Stelter average 13.8 and 12.4 points per game, respectively. Robertson (9.6 ppg), Hansen (9.3 ppg), Michael Lee (6.5 ppg), Wager (4.3 ppg) and Tensen (2.6 ppg) are also capable of scoring in double figures on any given night.
"We are pretty quick and athletic, as we like to get out in transition and run the floor when we can," Larson said. "We are not overly tall, but our guys tend to play bigger than their actual height by using their overall athleticism and leaping ability. We have six guys who can shoot the ball well from the perimeter, and we typically do a nice job of playing unselfishly."
Joey Lee dishes out an average of 6.3 assists per game, while Stelter and Robertson share the team lead in rebounds with 7.3 boards per game.
"We returned plenty of experience from last year's team that went 19-6, so we had high expectations coming into the season," Larson said. "A lot of these guys were also on our football team that won the state championship this last fall, which has helped in terms of their confidence and determination to keep working hard and strive for success on a consistent basis.
"It's a credit to the type of kids that I am coaching," Larson continued. "They love being athletes and going out to compete at a high level during each practice and game. This really is a great group of kids who are willing to put the hard work in and do the things necessary in order to learn and get better."
While Dawson-Boyd's resume is indeed impressive, so is Southwest Christian's. The Eagles' lone loss of the season came Jan. 6 at Worthington in a 79-78 thriller that went down to the wire.
SWC's numbers with regards to points scored per game, points allowed per game and average margin of victory are very similar to Dawson-Boyd's, as the Eagles won 18 of their games by 20 points or more.
Zach Huisken, a 6-9 senior post, is the centerpiece for SWC with his ability to dominate in the painted area. Seniors Andrew Top (6-4 forward), Keeran Sampson (6-4 forward) and Damon Vander Maten (6-0 guard) are also key contributors.
Juniors Dominic Nibbelink (6-1 guard), Klint Knutson (5-9 guard) and Eric Talsma (6-3 forward), along with sophomore Leighton Sampson (6-4 post), are the other big-time performers for the Red Rock Conference-champion Eagles (17-0), who can score in a variety of ways and do get after teams defensively.
"I am very impressed with Southwest Christian," Larson said. "They have just about everything you need, from the big guy in the middle to all kinds of shooters and slashers. They are a very fundamentally sound and disciplined group that poses many problems for teams to deal with.
"We will have to be active defensively and continue to do the things that we do well," Larson added. "Both teams are going to play hard and give everything they got, so it's just a matter of competing and hoping you come out on top at the end. It should be a great matchup."