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Key conference stretch adds extra layer to Packer-Mustang rivalry

West Fargo’s Hunter Lyman (40) and Sheyenne’s Christian Kuntz (0) fight for the rebound during the Saturday, December 22 game at West Fargo. Locked in a three-way battle for the top seed in the EDC, the Mustangs and Packers meet again in Sheyenne Friday. File photo.

History suggests Friday won't be the last time West Fargo and West Fargo Sheyenne square off in boys basketball this season.

Since launching a varsity program in 2014-15, the Mustangs have participated in four East Region Tournaments and two State Tournaments. Each postseason appearance has included a matchup with the rival Packers, a trend Sheyenne coach Tom Kirchoffner expects will continue this season.

"Every tournament there is, we end up playing them," he said. "It always happens."

And though it may not prove to be the rivalry's most significant chapter this season, there will likely be more on the line than bragging rights when the teams square off at Sheyenne High School this weekend.

Entering Tuesday, the Mustangs, Packers and Fargo Davies were locked in a tight race for the top seed at the East Region Tournament. Sheyenne (14-1) moved a half-game ahead of the Eagles (13-1) and a game-and-a-half up on the Packers (12-2) following a 79-60 win over Fargo Shanley Monday.

Davies and West Fargo had home games against Wahpeton and Devils Lake respectively on Tuesday.

The race for the top seed is set to intensify further, as the teams at the top are all set to play each other over a seven-day period.

The Mustangs, who lost 77-62 to the Eagles at home on Jan. 4, will face them again in Fargo Feb. 12. Three days later, the Packers host an Eagle team they beat 78-72 on the road Jan. 10.

Believing he has the talent to make a deep playoff run, Packer coach Adam Palczewski is eager to put his team through a potential, gruelling tune-up for the postseason.

"I like that kind of challenge where every night you step on the court you have to bring your best effort," he said. "That's the way it should be and I wouldn't want it any other way."

A sense of urgency may be kicking in a bit sooner for the Packers than the others atop the EDC. Aside from trailing Sheyene and Davies in the loss column, West Fargo's chances for a regular season conference title would all but evaporate with another loss to the Mustangs, who beat them 85-73 on Dec. 21.

The biggest improvement Palczewski hopes to see Friday is in his team's perimeter defense, which he called "atrocious" in the first meeting. The Mustangs, who are second in the EDC with 113 made 3s, hit 9-of-18 from behind the arc in the first meeting with West Fargo, which has the worst 3-point defense (38.5 percent) in the EDC.

Though each coach wants to preserve certain parts of his game plan for potential future meetings, there aren't a lot of schematic surprises between the two.

As usual, Kirchoffner plans to use a "run-and-gun" style led by guard Christian Kuntz, who had 18 points and five assists in the first meeting. The Packers, meanwhile, will try to take advantage of a major size edge, feeding forward Luke Lennon, who put up 27 points and 11 rebounds against Sheyenne in December.

While both sides put stock in getting the top EDC seed, each is aware it doesn't guarantee a deep postseason run. This was evident in last year's Region Tournament, when top-seeded Davies failed to so much as qualify for state.

Saying it would be a symbolic victory for a Mustang program still in relative infancy, Kirchoffner is mostly seeking necessary improvements to end the regular season.

"(Getting the top seed) would be nice because we've never done it before," he said. "We're always talking about milestones so it would be nice to complete that.

"(But) you've really got to be playing your best basketball when it comes to tournament time. There's always going to be upsets, you just have to make sure you're not the one being upset."

Similar sentiments were coming out of the West Fargo locker room.

"We've just got to try to treat it as another game," Packer guard Braxton Bruer said. "It's not the EDC Tournament and it's not really going to decide things right now. Championships aren't won in February. We've just got to try to get whatever position we can."

Friday's game tips off at 7:30 p.m.