BY AARON PATTERSON
Last year’s 71-50, season-ending loss to St. Joseph-Ogden in the Westville Regional Championship marked the fifth time in seven seasons the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils had been eliminated in the postseason by the Spartans. But last year was supposed to be their year. The Blue Devils were ranked No. 7 in Class 2A, and took a streak of 16 wins into the title game. It still didn’t happen.
The Spartans stunned the Blue Devils, and left them going back to Bismarck with a bad taste in their mouths. That taste still lingers, and there is nothing more Bismarck-Henning wants than to get back to this year’s regional championship game and get another shot at St. Joseph-Ogden.
Their journey toward what they hope results in their first regional title since the 2007-2008 season began on Monday with a 55-42 win over Hoopeston Area in a quarterfinal of the Class 2A Hoopeston Regional.
“I have a bad taste in my mouth from last year and getting blown out by St. Joe,” Bismarck-Henning senior guard Austin Toler said. “St. Joe’s a great team.
“I want to go out with a bang this year. It was tough losing to St. Joe last year with being ranked seventh. I just want another shot at St. Joe so bad.”
There is a possibility Toler and the Blue Devils will get another shot at the Spartans, who were ranked seventh in last week’s poll. That chance would come on Friday, once again in the regional championship. But first, they will have to contend with No. 10 Westville, which has already defeated Bismarck-Henning in this year’s Vermilion County Tournament. The Blue Devils (25-6) earned a season split with the Tigers eight days later.
As badly as Bismarck-Henning might be determined to get another shot at a regional championship, interim head coach Jon Clapp is confident his team will go into Wednesday’s contest against Westville focused only on its conference rival.
“I’ve stressed to them that we just can’t look past anybody right now,” Clapp said. “Even tonight, you can’t look past anyone. Strange things happen in a regional. I’ve seen it before.
“A few years ago, Paxton had a team that won very few games during the year and they beat us in the regional championship. You can’t take any game for granted. You’ve got to value every possession, and you’ve got to play until the buzzer sounds.”
Bismarck-Henning took no chances against Hoopeston Area (5-25) when it jumped out to an 11-2 lead four minutes, five seconds into the game. The Blue Devils held a 27-17 advantage at halftime after junior Chase Connelly strapped his team on his back scoring 15 of his 17 points in the first half.
“I don’t even know what they were doing,” Toler said. “They were just leaving him open. I think they were in a triangle-and-two, so I just threw to Chase and he killed them — the first nine points, I think.
“Chase is one of our best shooters, especially when he’s wide open. We thought they would go to man, or maybe a box-and-one against me, but they left him wide open, and he let them have it.”
Connelly made his first four attempts of the game and helped Toler record four of his game-high five assists in the first half. As a team, the Blue Devils shot 49 percent from the field, and made 12 of 19 free throw attempts. Defense created most of their opportunities, recording 10 steals with Toler (five) and Andy Bott (three) accounting for eight.
Toler scored a game-high 20 points with 12 coming in the fourth quarter, Bismarck-Henning forward Wilde Garowski finished with six points and eight rebounds.
Mason Layden led Hoopeston Area with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Brennan Crose scored 11. Daniel Lawson also had nine points, five rebounds, and three steals.
The Cornjerkers went on a 9-2 run late in the third quarter to pull to within 33-31 with the help of two threes by Crose, but the Blue Devils immediately responded with an 8-0 of their own to end the period. Bott and Dustyn Ingram each hit treys during the stretch.
Bismarck-Henning knows it will need another solid performance on Wednesday against the hungry Tigers who have not won a regional title since 1994. Westville’s last regional title game appearance was in 1999.
“Westville’s tough, and we’ve got to come out and play,” Toler said. “We’ve got to make sure our defense is on key, and our offense. We’ve just got to make sure we play hard.”
Wednesday’s game is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.