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Rivalry hits hardwood: Beulah, Hazen face for 3rd time this season to play for Region 7 championship

Press Photo by Royal McGregor Hazen senior forward Austin Cieslak, right, blocks Heart River freshman Zane Besler during a Region 7 quarterfinal game on Monday at Knights of Columbus Activities Center.1 / 2
Press Photo by Royal McGregor Beulah junior guard Jett Hettich, left, goes up for a layup against New England sophomore guard Brady Bender during a Region 7 semifinal game on Tuesday at Knights of Columbus Activities Center. 2 / 2

The Beulah and Hazen boys basketball teams have to travel virtually the same distance to play in the Region 7 championship.

But, carpooling isn’t even an option.

Needless to say, the Bison and Miners rivalry runs deeper than the nine miles that separate the two towns.

“It’s quite competitive when we meet in any sport,” Hazen head coach Randy Johnson said. “There’s no question about that, because of the location of the schools and the size of the schools being similar.”

For the first time as Region 7 opponents, top-seeded Beulah and No. 3 seed Hazen meet in the championship game at 7:30 p.m. today at Knights of Columbus Activities Center.

However, this time the rivals aren’t playing for a trophy made out of coal. The Bison and Miners are looking to punch one of their tickets to the North Dakota Class B state tournament.

“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had a game that has had this much riding in the game with this being a qualifier to get to the state tournament,” Beulah head coach Jeremy Brandt said. “That ups the ante a little bit.”

The “Coal Bowl” football trophy is currently sitting with two-time Class A state champions Hazen, but the basketball meetings between the two schools is split at one game apiece.

No. 6-ranked Hazen won the first meeting 76-56 on Jan. 10, but Beulah responded with a 74-67 victory in the regular-season finale on Feb. 18.

The Miners (18-5) had a less-than-stellar start to the season. Beulah went 3-5 in its first eight games, but has since rattled off 15 straight wins — including a pair of double-digit wins in the Region 7 Tournament.

“The biggest problem at the start of the year was our defensive intensity,” Beulah senior forward Randi Julson said after a 64-46 semifinal win on Tuesday. “It just wasn’t there. After a couple butt-kickings, we finally got into gear and we realized that we have to play defense if we are going to win.”

The Bison (19-4) entered the Region 7 Tournament after back-to-back losses to close out the regular season.

Hazen survived a quarterfinals scare against Heart River 63-60 on Monday and responded with a convincing 58-41 semifinal win over Dickinson Trinity on Tuesday.

“It’s very important and one thing our kids will have to do is play with a sense of urgency,” Johnson said. “Realistically, that defensive intensity will spark your offense and make your offense run a lot better.”

The Bison have relied on the strengths of 6-foot-3 senior forward Austin Cieslak, who is averaging 19.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in two Region 7 games. Hazen has also witnessed the emergence of 6-3 freshman forward Wyatt Carr.

Though Cieslak, who is signed to play football at the University of North Dakota next fall, garners attention in the post, Johnson said the senior is very unselfish.

“(Cieslak) has been a great leader for us all year,” Johnson said. “One of the big things is that he’s very unselfish. He’s always an individual that, when he has the ball, obviously he looks to score. But he also looks for his teammates. That’s feed on everybody else. He’s been a big key for us. He’s really grown into his own.”

Beulah has a different approach. The Miners have a trio averaging double figures in points at the Region 7 Tournament.

Leading the way for the Miners is sophomore forward Casey Walcker with 13 points, while senior guard Cole Messerschmidt averages 12.5. Junior forward Luke Blood is posting 11.5 and Julson averages 9.5.

“Our kids understand their roles better now at this point in the season and they play really well together as a team,” Brandt said. “They’re becoming a team. That’s been a big step for them this year.”

Despite the differences in strengths of each team, the head coaches agree it’s going to be a battle.

“It always is when we play each other,” Johnson said. “Bottom line is we have to go out, play hard, play aggressive and play together. We’ll let the chips fall where they may and things will take care of themselves.”

Brandt added: “We know each other very well and usually every year, we’ll play each other at least twice. Some years it’s three or four times. We are very familiar with each other. We expect to have a battle. It’s usually a hard-fought game.”