Panthers basketball takes sixth at state
Decked out in orange and black, Rugby High fans made the trek to the Minot Dome March 18-20 to cheer on their Panthers at the North Dakota High School Activities Association State Basketball tournament.
The Panthers had arrived in town a day earlier to prepare for a battle in game one against the Edgeley-Kulm-Montpelier Rebels, who would later finish the tournament in second place.
Things looked promising when Panthers forward Isaiah Bundy-Smith tipped the ball to guard Trey Welstad but EKM’s Dalton Madke showed Rugby the Rebels had a penchant for stealing, and the Panthers spent the next three quarters fighting for possession. After a bucket by Welstad kicked off Rugby’s scoring drive, guard Warren Walker sank a three-point shot. Walker would lead in first half point totals, with four buckets from inside the shooting lane, one free throw and another three-point shot. Sophomore guard Eric Foster sank one bucket and drew a foul for two free throw points. Forward Isaiah Bundy-Smith added one bucket to the Panthers’ first half total.
For EKM, buckets came from forward Jorgen Paulson, Madke and Alex Huber. Rebel forward Adam Nitschke sank a three-pointer. After leading the Panthers 18-14 in the first quarter, the Rebels grew their lead with ten points from Paulson, six from Huber and four from Paxton Mathern. The first half ended with a 37-23 Rebel lead.
The Panthers stormed back in the third quarter, outscoring the Rebels with 17 points to their six. Early in the fourth quarter, a Walker bucket tied the game for the Panthers at 43 apiece.
The Rebels stayed on the Panthers’ tails, overcoming them by a narrow margin. With 36 seconds left in the game, the Rebels led by only three points, 63-60. After a Welstad three-pointer, the Panthers missed chances for more shots, and trips to the free throw line by Rebels Huber and Chayse Entzi sewed up the game for EKM with a slim 67-63 win.
“We just dug ourselves too deep of a hole,” Panthers coach Mike Santjer said the day after the game. “The third quarter, we came back. We got it to the point the game was tied but we kind of ran out of a little gas at the end and EKM made some big time shots when they needed to.”
The Panthers would respond with what Santjer said was “kind of a gut check on the kids about their heart and after (their loss to EKM), there’s no doubt today those guys have some big hearts. They weren’t going to roll over and not give it their all.”
Rugby returned to the court for the semifinals the next day against the Powers Lake Ranchers with sights set on a win. Panther boosters in the stands filled even more seats than the day before, creating a roaring sea of black and orange.
Forward Cole Slaubaugh led the Panther offensive, scoring the first bucket of the game. Powers Lake answered with aggression of their own thanks to shots made by guards Tyson Engel and Noah Fredrickson. At the end of the first quarter, the Panthers trailed the Ranchers 25-15.
The Panthers turned the game around.
“It took us a little bit to get going, but we had to find that fire within ourselves and work together as a team especially in the defensive end with some stops, which turned into some offensive buckets,” Welstad said of the game. “I think we wanted the win more today because we didn’t want to go into that seventh place game.”
The second quarter, Panther defenders kept the Ranchers away from the hoop, while Welstad added ten points to the Panthers’ total with two three-point shots and one bucket drawing a foul good for two extra points. Slaubaugh put 12 more points on the board, totaling 22 for the first half and marking his 1,000th career point.
With 27 points added between Slaubaugh, Welstad and Walker, the Panthers ended the first half with a 42-37 lead.
Rugby’s lead widened in the second half with Walker adding 11 points to the scoreboard, Isaiah Bundy-Smith scoring eight points and Foster, two points.
The game ended with a 74-65 Panther win.
“Cole Slaubaugh played a heck of a game,” Santjer said after the win. “He got his thousandth point tonight in the state tournament. That’s unbelievable for a career just to get to a thousand. He’s kind of the guy that kept us in it a little in the first half.”
“In the second half, we came out and it was just a lot of fun. (Slabaugh’s 27 points) might be the highest number of points he’s ever scored in a game.”
Fresh from battle and rubbing bruises on his forearms, Slaubaugh said he owed his career milestones to “a lot of work. It really is a dream come true to play in this tournament. I’ve had this dream since I was really young,” the former Wolford School student said. “I just had to work hard, I guess. I wasn’t real great offensively yesterday, but I had to redeem myself today and get my teammates going. We knew we had to get a win today.”
Like the Panthers of the class of 2020, Slaubaugh was denied a chance to play at state by the global COVID outbreak. He said he was glad to realize his dream in 2021.
Slaubaugh added, “I have a couple of friends from Wolford here today. My family’s here. I think we’re planning on going out somewhere in Minot on Sunday.”
Slaubaugh said his former principal at Wolford School, Larry Zavada, was rooting for him as well. “Mr. Z’s actually in Montana right now. He said he would be here if he wasn’t in Montana.”
Welstad, another transplant to the Panthers, said his family from Glenburn was at the Dome to cheer him on.
The final day of the tournament, Rugby battled the Dickinson-Trinity Titans.
The Titans greeted the Panthers with a full-court press. A heavily-guarded Slaubaugh managed to score only four points in the first quarter. Welstad drew a foul on a bucket, scoring one good free throw. The Panthers’ momentum faltered when Walker took a tumble and injured his ankle. He would stay out of the game for the next several minutes as Minot’s Trinity Health therapists checked him out and taped his foot. Rugby fell behind by seven points in the first quarter, then trailed by10 as the Panthers went into the locker room at halftime.
Meanwhile, Tannor Soehren and Aiden Haich each shot four unfettered buckets for the Titans, followed by Cole Fitterer with six, Nathaniel Jilek with five, Jacob Daniel with four and two apiece from Trenten Bertelsen and Nicholas Deschamp.
For the Panthers, Slaubaugh led the offensive with 11 points, followed by Bundy-Smith with six , Walker and Welstad with three apiece and Foster with two.
Dickinson-Trinity would continue to charge ahead in the second half, leading in the points total for quarters three and four.
The Titans increased their lead to more than 20 points, clearing their bench in the fourth quarter. When the final buzzer sounded, the Titans had a 72-47 fifth place win and the Panthers took sixth place for the 2021 season.
Panther players expressed gratitude for their trip to state. Younger players expressed optimism for 2022.
“Hopefully we get to come back next year,” Foster said. “All the sophomores and juniors enjoyed the experience. We want to come back next year.”
“(The full court press) caused some problems,” Foster said. “It was kind of hard today. We’re all tired, because it’s our third day and we’re all working hard. It’ll definitely help next year with this experience.”
Foster said he already looked forward to starting baseball season.
Slaubaugh and Bundy-Smith said they looked forward to track and field season.
“I do high jump, triple jump and long jump,” Slaubaugh said. “I’m actually the high jump state champion. I get a week off, then it’s go time.”
“State was everything I dreamed of, I guess,” he added. “It was fun.”
“Other than not playing it last year, this is my first trip to state,” Bundy-Smith said. “We’re very lucky to have had the opportunity to come to state. Every year, only eight teams get to go. We didn’t get to go last year and haven’t made it since 2015. So, it’s a really big accomplishment, especially with everything that’s gone on this season within our team, so we’re all just extremely happy to have made it here.”
“I still have track and field to go,” Bundy-Smith said. “I do mainly discus and shot put, but I have javelin, too. I’m weighing my options to see what I want to do for college,” Bundy-Smith added.
Bundy-Smith had missed seven regular season games due to illness. “I’m glad I got to play my last games with these guys,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m happy with the season.”
Santjer also had high praise for the 2021 Panthers.
“The whole season is an unbelievable success for these guys,” Santjer said, adding, “I couldn’t be prouder. All the adversity we went through in the middle of the season with injuries and we didn’t know if anyone was coming back, so for these guys to make it and come together as a team at the end and persevere through all the other stuff, it’s been fantastic.”
“We had Trey from Glenburn and Cole from Wolford, Cole was on our team last year and he was able to play with that team all year through districts and regionals, but they weren’t able to play at state. It’s an exciting group,” Santjer said of the Panthers. “They’re a bunch of neat kids and I wouldn’t trade any of them.”
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