The target on the back of the Rugby boys basketball team was big enough after winning the Region 6 title last year, but it continues to grow with every win the Panthers rack up this season.
So far this year, seven teams have taken their best shot at Rugby and all have fallen short of handing the Panthers their first loss of the season. Rugby is one of 11 remaining undefeated Class B teams in the state. Despite being the defending region champion, Rugby isn't feeling the pressure as Des Lacs-Burlington entered the season as the region favorite.
"Everybody wants to be the team that puts the first blemish on your record," Rugby coach Mike Santjer said. "Coming into the season, we knew DL-B would be ranked high again. Everybody would like to beat us, but I don't know if we're the main target in the region."
Rugby junior guard Tanner Bernhardt looks to pass as Bishop Ryan senior Austin Eggl defends during a game earlier this month at Bishop Ryan. Bernhardt is averaging 17.4 points per game.
The third-ranked Panthers (7-0) have steamrolled six of their seven opponents. Only Bishop Ryan played them within 10 points. Rugby is averaging 73.7 points per game with an average margin of victory of 32. The Panthers opened the season by winning the CNDC championship in convincing fashion. Rugby defeated Rolla by 42 and Dunseith by 45 before beating St. John 74-60 in the title game.
"We do a really good job of sharing the ball," Santjer said. "The kids have put a ton of time in during the summer. They've done all the things they need to do to get back to where they were last year."
The Panthers haven't skipped a beat despite losing leading scorer and senior athlete of the year Kyle Lovcik. Rugby has just two seniors - guards Chris Hamilton and Jaedon Haman - but doesn't lack big-game experience. Junior forward Brad Heidlebaugh and Hamilton started last year with Haman coming off the bench.
Heidlebaugh leads the team in scoring with 24.3 points per game. He tallied a season-high 30 points against St. John. Heidlebaugh's 6-foot-4 frame makes him difficult to stop, but fellow 6-4 forward Zach Miller makes it easier. With Miller on the floor, opponents can't double team Heidlebaugh due to the size advantage Rugby has inside. Miller averages 10.7 points per game.
"When they're both in the game they're both capable of scoring," Santjer said. "It allows Brad to step away from the block a little bit and play on the outside, which is a nightmare for opponents to guard."
Rugby's bigs aren't the only ones putting up points. Junior guard Tanner Bernhardt averages 17.4 points per contest.
"Tanner has matured so much over the last year," Santjer said. "He's smarter and stronger. He gained a lot of confidence this summer playing AAU ball. He makes a lot of right decisions. He's so athletic in the open floor. He's put a lot of time in and has played very well for us."
The Panthers faces another stiff test when they host No. 4 Four-Winds-Minnewaukan on Jan. 6.
Rebuilding Aggies finding early-season success
The Velva girls basketball team lost many essential pieces from last season, but the Aggies have found ways to win so far this season.
Velva defeated Rolette-Wolford 51-43 on Friday to capture the Sawyer Invitational after knocking off Berthold and Our Redeemer's Christian School in the first two rounds. Senior guard Cassidy Peterson was named tournament MVP.
The Aggies (3-0) lost seven players from last year's team that finished 22-3 and gave Class B state champion Bishop Ryan its closest regular-season contest - an eight-point game in late January. Among those lost to graduation were Jaylen Newman and Emma Keller. Newman averaged 15.1 points and seven rebounds per game and Keller anchored the defense with 5.2 steals per contest.
Newman and Keller both play at Williston State College and have excelled in their first years. Newman is averaging 11.3 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game. Keller averages 10.1 points per contest. Newman was named Mon-Dak player of the week Thursday.
Velva is left with just two seniors - Peterson and center Sarah Wherley. The seniors combined for 35 points against ORCS and 32 against Berthold.
The biggest obstacle facing the Aggies is their height. Its tallest player - freshman forward Jonnah Lee - stands at 5-foot-9. The Aggies average a little shy of 5-7.
Despite its losses from a season ago and its small roster, Velva is still a favorite in District 11 in front of Rugby and TGU. Rugby placed fifth at the CNDC Tournament on Saturday and TGU finished second to Rolla.
Area athletes putting up monster numbers
The boys basketball season is less than a month old, but there have already been a number of dominant performances on the court.
There have been 19 30-plus point performances and 25 double-doubles reported so far this year amongst area athletes. Berthold's Austin Lee, Westhope-Newburg's Hunter Braaten, White Shield's Cameron Howling Wolf and Sawyer's Colton Lund have scored 30 or more points twice and eight others have hit the plateau once. Lee and Braaten share the highest mark with 36 points.
Drake-Anamoose senior Tanner Volson recorded three double-doubles in one week. He finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds against New Rockford-Sheyenne, 16 points and 17 rebounds against Harvey-Wells County and 10 points and 11 rebounds against TGU. Rugby's Brad Heidlebaugh put up 30 points and 13 rebounds against St. John and Four Winds-Minnewaukan's Trayvon McKay compiled 31 points and 10 rebounds earlier this season.
Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.