The West Fargo boys basketball team came into the season with a chip on its shoulder after finishing runner-up to Mandan at last year's North Dakota state Class A tournament.
This year, that chip grew a bit bigger.
The Packers fell once again to the Braves at the state tournament, and this time the loss kept them out of title contention altogether.
But all was not lost for West Fargo, as the No. 1 East Region seed duplicated its conference title-game victory by defeating rival Fargo North 60-56 for third place. It was an honorable end for a team that, coming into the season, faced some uncertainty after losing seven seniors to graduation.
The Packers kicked off the three-day tournament by facing West Region No. 4-seed Minot. The Magicians led by four points after the first half, but couldn't fend off a 30-point second-half rally.
The West Fargo win set up a repeat of last year's title game against the Braves. The West Region No. 2 seed - which finished the tournament runner-up to No. 1 Bismarck - hit the ground running and doubled the Packers' points through the first half. The Packers didn't have an answer for the Braves' stifling defense, which held West Fargo to only 11-of-56 from the field before defeating them 55-28.
Reeling from the lopsided loss, the Packers needed to come out strong against their conference rivals in the third-place matchup. Until the EDC title game, West Fargo had not beaten the Spartans all year, so they would need that same intensity this time around.
The Packers didn't disappoint.
Pitting two equally matched teams, the score was tied 24-24 halfway through the game. But West Fargo surged behind Austin Nelson, Justin Schock and Grant Ringdahl, who accounted for more than half their team's scoring.
In the end, West Fargo prevailed thanks to an all-around team effort. Taking third place solidified the team as a cohesive force, one that was somewhat uncertain early in the season. It took leadership from a group of able veterans who knew what it meant to play in the big game to help the Packers climb the ranks all season.
Chase Farkas was one of those leaders. The 5-foot, 9-inch junior guard came into the season as the top points leader among his returning teammates. During the regular season, Farkas was second in points with a 10.3-per-game average, while amassing 258 total. He also finished the state tournament with a combined 18 points, tying fellow senior Spencer Flaten.
Flaten is a senior who excelled both offensively and defensively. During the regular season, the 5-foot-10 guard snagged a team-high 53 steals, and was second in rebounds only to fellow senior Nelson. Flaten finished the season ranked second in the EDC in steals after averaging more than two a game, and was one of the top 3-point shooters with a 36.4 percent average.
For his efforts, Nelson was honored as the only West Fargo player named to the All-Tournament team. He amassed 41 points for the tournament, which included an 11 point, 12 rebound double-double against the Braves. Nelson finished the regular season leading his team in points with 286 (11.9-per-game average) and total rebounds with 123 (5.13 per game).
Dan Hoy made big impacts all year. The senior was third on the team in points after accruing 213, for a 8.52-per-game average. Senior Chris Williams rounds out West Fargo's top five points scorers with 142, and was third on the team in rebounds with 106.
West Fargo coach Greg Limke also was honored by being named North Dakota state Coach of the Year. In his ninth year coaching the Packers, it is the second time Limke has been given the title (the other came during the 2007-08 season).
The Packers' future also is bright. Though it again will suffer from the loss of seniors coming into next season, it will be returning several strong veterans.
Besides Farkas, junior Justin Schock will be a leader on the court next season. The 6-foot-8 center was just the presence the Packers needed under the net. His ability to catch lobs for clinch layups, while swatting away prospective baskets from the opposition made him a key cog in West Fargo's game plan (he was No. 2 in the EDC in blocks with 28).
Schock finished the regular season No. 3 for the Packers in total rebounds with 111, and fourth in points with 196. He also was ranked in the top 10 for free-throw percentage, averaging more than 50 percent along with Nelson.
It is no small stretch of the imagination to believe West Fargo has the potential to make it back to the state tournament for another consecutive year. Behind a quality coach and strong-hearted players, the Packers have hope for years to come.