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RYAN BAKKEN,Grand Forks Herald, Published March 01 2012

Crowd traditionally pulls for underdog at ND B boys tourney

GRAND FORKS — Minus the sun and sand, the North Dakota State Class B Boys Basketball Tournament doubles as spring break for the state's rural residents.

The event is not only a celebration of the most popular sport in the state's smaller towns, but also of the end of winter. Friends and family rendezvous at "The Class B" — no need to mention the tournament specifics.

Because of that tradition, perhaps half of the crowd doesn't have an initial rooting interest. That changes as the week develops, however, as fans adopt a favorite. Their traditional choice is an underdog, for one reason or the other.

The ultimate example of that phenomenon came in 1977, when a supermajority of the 7,400 fans inside the Bismarck Civic Center cheered for Epping in the championship game against Hillsboro. Epping, with only 26 high school students and in its lone state appearance, had the Cinderella DNA. And Hillsboro, as one of the state's larger Class B schools and seeking its third state title in five years, had the DNA of the villain, at least in the minds of the crowd.

Hillsboro Coach Ed Beyer expected a dramatically partisan crowd. But he didn't anticipate the booing of his team.

"We were the big team and had been successful for quite a while," he said this week. "Everyone in the world was against us, even our governor (Art Link).

"We got booed completely," he said. "It was a tough night for our kids to go through."

The Burros were comforted by winning the championship game 56-52. With four, Hillsboro is tied with Mayville-Portland-CG and Minot Ryan for the most Class B state titles among current schools.

So, who is this year's Epping?

With enrollments of more than 200, Grafton, Beulah and Central Cass likely don't qualify to become a sentimental favorite. Grafton and Beulah were Class A schools at one time and Central Cass, in the state's most populous county, is headed that way.

Bismarck Shiloh Christian, because of its puny enrollment of 79, would appear to be a candidate to an outsider. However, Shiloh is a private school in a Class A city, a double no-no for Class B folks. They are suspicious of all-star teams being formed and don't want Class B championship hardware gathering dust in urban trophy cases.

It's a growing aggravation as private schools are qualifying for state with greater frequency recently. Shiloh is competing in its eighth tournament since 1996 while fellow church institutions Minot Ryan (13 appearances overall), Dickinson Trinity (nine) and Fargo Oak Grove (nine) also are traditional powers.

As one education official put it this week: "A couple of years ago, we were one more Minot Ryan or Dickinson Trinity away from a three-class system."

Fans like to root for the underdog. That leaves out defending champion North Star, which has a mind-numbing one loss over the last three seasons. It also leaves out fellow unbeatens Central Cass and Berthold.

"Having three unbeatens in the Class B tournament wasn't that rare years ago," said Matt Fetsch of the North Dakota High School Activities Association. "But in these days where good teams will travel far to meet top competition, it's very, very rare."

Linton-HMB may qualify as a slipper-wearer by this season's record, a pedestrian 18-7, but not by history. The Lions have more tournament appearances (19) than any team past or present, three state titles and a coach (Dan Carr) with 624 career wins.

That leaves Divide County, in the northwestern corner of the state, as the only genuine Cinderella/Epping candidate. The Maroons have the second-worst record (18-7) and the lowest enrollment (78). Plus, they developed some karma by winning the region on a last-second shot.

"That's my take on it, too," Divide County Coach Jake Dhuyetter said. "We're the unknown team coming out of the unknown region. I have to say we're the biggest underdog here."