Tonight's a big night for the Freeman High School girls as they take on Avon in the SoDak 16. The Flyers will face the Pirates at the Corn Palace in a game scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.
The winner moves on to the State B Tournament at the Huron Arena March 7-9. This is the fifth time in the past six seasons that the Flyers have been one win away from the state tournament.
Avon has been to the state tournament the past three seasons; the Pirates were fourth in 2016, seventh in 2017 and eighth in 2018.
The Flyers played in the state tournament in 2009 and 2010 but haven't been back since, although they've been painfully close. Here's a look back at how the last five seasons have ended for the Freeman girls, during which time they have amassed an 81-33 record.
In what would set the benchmark for the years of disappointment to come, the Freeman girls suffered a devastating 40-44 overtime loss to Gayville-Volin in a loud and wild atmosphere inside the Summit Center. Even in the huddle, head coach Curtis Sage said afterward, you had to yell to be heard. Gayville-Volin led for much of the game, but Freeman rallied in the fourth quarter and outscored the Raiders 17-9 to send the game into overtime.
The end of regulation was marked by a no-call on Erika Sage as she went up for a shot underneath the basket as time expired that would have sent her to the free-throw line with a chance to win it. While there was clearly contact, "(the refs) had decided they were just going to swallow their whistles," Curtis Sage said afterward.
Freeman finished the season 15-8.
In what was the biggest loss of any of the big postseason games from the five-year run, Freeman was taken down by Viborg-Hurley in the 2015 Region 5B final 56-33 at the Summit Center. The game was marked by sub-par shooting and turnovers early that put the Flyers in a hole, and it snowballed from there. Freeman also played with an Erika Sage who wasn't 100 percent and was forced to sit out the entire fourth period.
The loss was particularly frustrating because Freeman had defeated Viborg-Hurley during the regular season and had won the district championship in an 18-point blowout over Parker.
Freeman finished the season with a 17-6 record.
It looked like the 2016 Region 5B final would be the game that would send the Flyers back to the state tournament. Freeman connected on 11 three-pointers and held a seven-point lead over Irene-Wakonda with four minutes to play, but the Eagles mounted a late comeback and stunned the Flyers with a 61-58 win at the Summit Center. The game saw eight ties and 11 lead changes.
"It's not our time," Curtis Sage said afterward. "We can compete, but we're not quite ready to play at that next level."
Freeman finished the season 17-6 but would return the core of its team next year; only Taylor Hermsen was lost to graduation.
This was the only year in the last five that the Flyers didn't make it to the state-qualifying game. Instead they ran into a red-hot Parker team in the District 9B championship, who shot down Freeman 76-63 thanks to 66 percent shooting from the field and 90 percent from the line. The Pheasants went on to win the region title and finish sixth at state.
Here's part of the Courier's report the following week:
"The loss sent the Flyers home bleary-eyed, with unexpected baggage to carry, probably some regret and, most likely, wondering how in the world Parker was so good at just the right time."
It was the final prep basketball game for the outstanding Erika Sage and ended Freeman's season at 16-6.
Last season was the first for the new postseason format, which saw two teams come out of each region and play in the Round of 16 — later named the SoDak 16 — as a state-qualifier. The Flyers went in as the No. 14 seed and faced No. 3 seed and two-time defending state champion Sully Buttes and lost 56-59 in a double-overtime thriller in Huron. "It hurts," head coach Curtis Sage said afterward. "We've been through this too many times."
The game will be remembered for a last-second three-pointer from Karli Maske that sent it into a second overtime.
Freeman finished the season 16-7.
This past regular season was the best of what has now been a six-year run, with Freeman playing to a 16-4 regular season record and two easy wins in the Region 5B qualifier to move the team to 18-4. The Flyers are the No. 6 seed in the SoDak 16, which is the best position they have been in, and feature a senior class of five that has been through it all.
But Avon is no pushover. Well-coached and fundamentally sound, the Pirates have been perennial state tournament qualifiers for many years and bring a 17-5 record into this year's SoDak 16. That includes a 13-game winning streak fueled by outstanding senior guard Lauren Sees, who averaged nearly 28 points during her team's final nine games of the regular season.
The Flyers will need to rely on their outstanding defense to contain her and hit some shots of their own in tonight's showdown. If that happens, Freeman should be dancing in Huron next week.
School officials don't believe the game will be livestreamed, but there will be a radio broadcast on Q107.3, and the Courier will be tweeting. The Courier's Twitter handle is @freemancourier.
Freeman Public is calling for a whiteout from its fans meaning that, if you're going, wear something white.
2019 SODAK 16
No. 1 Ethan vs. No. 16 Dupree
No. 2 Faith vs. No. 15 Waverly-South Shore
No. 3 De Smet vs. No. 14 Sanborn Central/Woonsocket
No. 4 Corsica Stickney vs. No. 13 Castlewood
No. 5 Warner vs. No. 12 Faulkton Area
No. 6 Freeman vs. No. 11 Avon
No. 7 Ipswich vs. No. 10 Bridgewater-Emery
No. 8 New Underwood vs. No. 9 White River