BEMIDJI -- For much of the 20th century, the Bemidji High School boys basketball program stockpiled the trophy case with championships.
Twenty-nine region or section titles belong to the Lumberjacks -- most coming from a BHS dynasty of 20 region champions between 1940 and 1965. But ever since 1985, the state tournament berths have stopped.
That could change on Friday.
“Bemidji has 29 state tournament appearances, but that’s a long time to go,” BHS head coach Travis Peterson said. “It’s been too long. But the boys, it’s another game for them. They don’t really look to the past as much as maybe we do.”
Peterson, then a Bemidji High School freshman, stormed the court the last time the Jacks won a section championship. In a much more hands-on role this time around, he’s one victory from bringing the crown back to BHS.
“I think they’re really focused on the present,” Peterson said of his team. “That’s what we talk about on game day: Stay in the moment. … It’s not always easy, but I think they’ve done a pretty nice job.”
Top-seeded Bemidji will battle second-seeded Sartell-St. Stephen on Friday, March 15, for the rights to the Section 8-3A title.
“We’ve been preparing all year for this game,” junior forward Colten Jensen said. “The way we came out and played against them the last time really helps with knowing how they run, how their offense flows.”
The Lumberjacks (22-4) topped the Sabres (20-8) by a 60-54 score in Sartell on Feb. 9. Junior guard Ben Hess believes his team can draw from the regular-season meeting, as well, but he also knows basketball can be different in March.
“I would say it helps to some degree. But at the same time, it’s still playoffs,” he said. “Everyone is going into each game like it’s their last one. … We’ve just got to do what coaches ask of us and give all the effort we can.”
Hess has also moved into a starting role for BHS following a season-ending wrist injury to senior Ryan Bieberdorf on Feb. 26. Peterson said Hess has stepped up to the challenge.
“With Ryan going down, his role is increased as far as time on the court,” Peterson said. “He’s taken a huge responsibility on our defensive end particularly. He’s done it very well. He was definitely ready for that role.
“Likewise, we’ve had a host of other guys that have had to (step up). They’ve done it. As a squad, they’ve risen to that level. I’m pretty proud of that.”
Bemidji most recently reached a championship stage in 2012, when it lost the Section 8-4A final to Moorhead. But with a 40-32 win over No. 8 seed Detroit Lakes and a 57-47 win over No. 4 seed St. Cloud Apollo in this year’s section tournament, the Jacks are back on the doorstep of a state appearance.
“I would say we want it quite bad,” Hess said. “We’re hungry. With the success this year with other (BHS) sports teams, we’re definitely looking to add one more. It comes down who gets more shots, who works harder that game and who focuses on the right things.”
The championship is staged for 7 p.m. Friday, March. 15, at Brainerd High School.
“I like our matchups, and it’s nice to have played them so we know how they’re probably going to try to match up with us,” Peterson said. “When it comes down to it, though, we’re just going to try to play our game. I think that’s what we’ve done all season.”
Although Bemidji hasn’t reached the state stage in over three decades, Friday has the potential to mark the dawn of a new Lumberjack era.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Jensen said of the championship game. “It’s been 34 years since we won, since ‘85. To get back to the state tournament would be sick.”