Earlier this season, Joliet coach John Nelson said his team eyes one venue as the centerpiece to achieving two goals: divisionals and state.
On Thursday, one of those two goals will be complete.
The J-Hawks will be joined by seven other teams Thursday through Saturday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark as the Southern Class B divisional tournament starts, with three berths in the state tournament on the line --also at the Metra.
Joliet, along with Lame Deer and Townsend, enter the tournament as district champions. Colstrip, Lodge Grass, Shepherd, Roundup and Whitehall round out the field.
Joliet defeated Roundup 47-35 in the District 4B championship game.
Now that Nelson and his team have achieved their first goal of reaching the Metra, the goal is to be back next week for a second time at the state tournament.
"(There's) a lot of excitement for sure," Nelson said, laughing. "Last week practice was good, but you didn't have anything to look too terribly forward to. Then, boy, practice (Monday) was intense. They said they're ready to go and they're excited about this."
The J-Hawks (15-4) will take on the Colstrip Colts (13-7) at noon Thursday, the first of the boys games. Joliet and Colstrip met in the first game of the year, with Joliet winning 59-47. Nelson, in his first season as the boys coach, is trying to help lead the team to the school's first state appearance in three years.
Nelson, however, said the players have been dialed in from the start and have made his job easy as the new coach.
"They don't get flustered," Nelson said. "They make my job simple."
He added, laughing again: "I'm trying to get out of their way to be honest with you."
As an opportunity to bond as a team and prepare for the tournament, Nelson and his team watch the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary "Survive and Advance", the story about North Carolina State head coach Jim Valvano and his team's Cinderella run in the 1983 NCAA Tournament.
"I had a couple of kids look at me halfway through and say, 'I'm ready to play now,'" Nelson said. "That's one of the better documentaries ESPN has ever done."
Lame Deer (15-6) won the District 3B tournament after defeating Colstrip 69-47 on Feb. 18. The Morning Stars have won six of their eight games in February and will take on Shepherd (12-10) in the opening round at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. They will be without coach Tom King Jr., who was placed on administrative leave the week of the district tournament. Lame Deer Superintendent Gerald Chouinard declined to comment on the reason.
District 5B champion Townsend (16-4) will host Lodge Grass (13-8) at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Bulldogs topped Whitehall 57-55 in overtime in the 5B championship game, after losing the previous two matches with the Trojans.
"Whitehall was the team to beat in our area," Townsend coach Clint Watson said. "We were down seven with three minutes to go. We put a press on them and capitalized on it."
He added, laughing: "I was just as surprised as anybody that we won because we were down."
Watson said his team is a threat to have any scorer go off for a big night, which makes the team unpredictable.
Townsend is also the only team from this divisional that played in last year's state tournament.
"We're better passers and shooters than last year," Watson said. "I feel like we're right in there. Confidence level is good. They're a good group."
Roundup (16-4) will take on Whitehall (15-5) in the final boys game of the night at 8 p.m. Roundup began the year winning five in a row, but lost three after that, including to Joliet. The Panthers followed that with 11 straight wins, including over Huntley Project, Malta, Joliet and two wins over Shepherd.
"Those losses kind of woke up the players, so to speak," Roundup coach Rick Griffith said. "We were doing things right to win five in a row but the losses kind of snapped us back to reality and we slowly got around to doing what we needed to do."
After losing its first game of the season, Whitehall won 12 in a row, taking a strong position in District 5B.
"I think we got a really tough draw (against Roundup)," Whitehall coach Zach McLean said. "Anytime right now all the teams are good and it’s going to be a challenge. Roundup is tough and we're looking forward to the tournament."
Whitehall is no stranger to tough teams. The Trojans defeated Anaconda and Missoula Loyola earlier this year. Both have punched tickets to the Class B state tournament.
On the girls side, Colstrip’s goals are likely two-fold. Not only are the Fillies seeking to qualify for state, they also have a perfect season intact.
Colstrip has won its first 20 games, but because of a topsy-turvy 4B District tournament, the 3B champ Fillies have what amounts to a tough opening draw in Red Lodge. The Rams are a 15-win team themselves, and one of their five losses was just by five points to the Fillies the second game of the season.
And that topsy-turvy 4B? Shepherd and Roundup, who were the sixth and fifth seeds, wound up playing the district championship game and are looking to extend their postseason success one more week.
Three Forks comes to Billings at the winner of the 5B. The Wolves are 17-3, and have won their last 11 games.
Thursday’s opening games: Shepherd vs. St. Labre, 9 a.m. in a matchup of last year’s third-place game at state; Three Forks vs. Lame Deer at 10:30 a.m.; Colstrip vs. Red Lodge at 3 p.m.; Roundup vs. Big Timber at 5 p.m.
— Mike Scherting of the Gazette contributed to this story