No. 9 Lingleville and No. 10 Huckabay are more than just arch-rivals. They are the top-ranked teams in Region III of Class A Division II and the prohibitive favorites to be the top two teams in District 17.
League play begins tonight in 17-A Division II, with Lingleville visiting Gordon and Huckabay traveling to Strawn, both at 8 p.m. following 6:30 p.m. girls contests.
If second-year Lingleville head coach Kade Eckert's thoughts on the district race are correct, tonight's Huckaby-Strawn game will be the first of many big ones to come in the league. That's because they are among the four teams he believes will vie for three playoff spots.
"I think it will be a four-team race for three spots. Lipan and Huckabay have the great tradition, they have good teams and they're well coached," said Eckert. "The wild card in there is Strawn; they are extremely athletic and may have the best player in the whole district."
First-year Huckabay head coach Bryan Blackwell, a past Brock assistant, has spent this week preparing for Strawn.
"We have a defensive game plan in place, and it basically comes down to everyone doing their jobs," Blackwell said. "I don't think he's a player we can expect to shut down. We just have to get stops as a team."
Blackwell believes the district race is even more wide open.
"It's a competitive district. There's not a team you can look past or not prepare for," Blackwell said. "Everyone is competitive, it's wide open."
That may prove true, but no team in the district is as hot as the reigning league-champ Indians of late. They have won eight straight, two of them against 2A foes and two against 1A Division I competition.
Eckert says Lipan has also faced a tough slate.
"Lipan's record doesn't stand out at you, but of the 15 games they have played, 10 or 11 have been against 2A schools, so they have seen a different level of competition than most of us," said the Lingleville coach.
While Huckabay rides its winning streak into district, Lingleville is coming off a week Eckert hopes is just a "lull." The Cards had their 11-game win streak snapped by Garden City, then knocked off Rising Star despite going 1-27 from outside the arc.
"I think it's been a good week of practice so far," Eckert said. "Last week, it was our energy and focus level that were down. With our guys and the amount of success we've had, those things are easily changeable. We worked on changing them this week in practice, and hopefully we're ready."
On deck are the annual matchups between the Cardinals and Indians. Huckabay won both last year to secure the district title, but Lingleville went further in the playoffs, reaching its first regional tournament since 1985.
The rivals play at Lingleville next Friday and in Huckabay on Feb. 4.
"It's a great rivalry, and you always want to have that," said Eckert, who is 37-12 entering his 50th game tonight. "You want a team that is your rival, that you know when they come to your gym or you go to their gym, it's going to be packed with people expecting a good show."
Blackwell is new to the age-old rivalry and downplays it.
"Obviously I knew a little bit about it coming in, and the more I'm around the people here in Huckabay the more I hear about the rivalry," Blackwell said. "For me the rivalry is with every team in the district. We're not looking ahead to Lingleville, we're focusing on Strawn because we know we have to take them one game at a time."
Blackwell also says the focus should be on the next opponent, not the polls.
"The polls are a good starting point I guess for people to look at, but what I tell my guys is to control what you can control," Blackwell said. "As far as polls, whether we're 10, 28, whatever, it's all about preparing for the next team."
Eckert says it's also about peaking at the right time, though doing so is far from exact science.
"Ideally you want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season going into the playoffs, which is what we were able to do last year," said Eckert, whose first Cardinal team was eliminated by state champ Roxton in the Region III semifinals. "I don't really have a formula for it. I can't tell you if you do this and that you will peak on 'x' day after 'x' number of games. But if you've done what you need to prepare all season, it should work out where you do peak at the end."
Experience helps, and that's something Huckabay and Lingleville both have a lot of.
"We have good senior leadership, and even the young guys have been on the varsity in the past," Blackwell said. "Hopefully that means we have guys who will step up when it's called for and not be afraid of any situations."