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Perennial powers keep returning to Hanson Classic

St. Thomas More's Aislinn Duffy, left, blocks a shot by Ethan's Karly Gustafson, right, during a prep girls basketball team last year at the Hanson Classic. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

For the past 10 years, every time mid-January rolls around, St. Thomas More girls basketball head coach Brandon Kandolin knows his team will be challenged.

The Cavaliers have competed in the Hanson Classic at the Corn Palace since 2008 and Kandolin has come to rely on the annual event for his team to measure itself against a tough opponent.

"That's important. We can count on a game on the schedule that is going to test us," Kandolin said. "That's what you want halfway through a season. You want to play quality teams to hopefully grow your team and see what you need to work on."

In recent years, the Hanson Classic has been the toughest game on STM's schedule, including the state tournament. The No. 1 Cavaliers (9-1), who saw their 48-game win streak snapped with a 46-44 overtime loss to West Central on Friday, have steadily become one of the biggest basketball powerhouses in South Dakota.

But STM isn't the lone perennial power team to benefit from the Hanson Classic. Class B power Sully Buttes, which has won back-to-back state titles and reached the championship game four times in the last six years, is another team that depends on facing a high-quality opponent every year at the Hanson Classic. Both STM and No. 1 Sully Buttes will highlight the final two games today at the 35th edition of the Hanson Girls Classic with the Chargers facing Hanson at 7:30 p.m. and the Cavaliers taking on Warner at 9 p.m.

"(Sully Buttes head coach Mark) Senftner, in my opinion, is one of the best coaches in the state," Hanson Superintendent and Activities Director Jim Bridge said. "He lost good kids last year and he lost good kids five years ago, look where he's at. His team is still there at the top. They don't beat themselves. They do all of the little things to get you."

STM and Sully Buttes are just two recent examples as Bridge noted the list of perennial powers competing at the Hanson Classic can go on and on. But Bridge did admit part of the event's success depends on keeping top-rated teams coming back. According to him, the top teams in the state seek big games and big crowds, while in return, the crowds seek talented teams.

"Every year it's a bit of a crapshoot. Some teams are always good, but then you have to guess what teams can matchup with them," Bridge said. "You hope the weather is decent and people show up. That's why everyone wants to come, to play in front of a crowd."

Looking back at his team's first Hanson Classic appearance, Kandolin said the Corn Palace was the first collegiate venue his team played in. Over the years, Kandolin became aware of the quality of games being played at various classics around the state, and the Hanson Classic was at the top of the list. He made it a point to try and get those type of games on the schedule.

"As we started to get a little bit better, I was hoping we could get in one of those. I wanted to see what competition was out there," Kandolin said.

Ten years later, the Cavaliers have claimed five Class A state championships, including the last four. In three of those five state championship seasons, STM lost a game at the Hanson Classic (a 42-36 loss to Wagner in 2012 and three losses to Crofton (Neb.) in 2014, 2015 and 2016).

"Every year, it seems like we've had fantastic games. I can't think of many that were double digits," Kandolin said. "In this run that we've had, three of the four losses we have in the last four years have come to Crofton (Neb.) at the Hanson Classic."

In nine games at the event, the Cavaliers are 4-5.

"Last year, we played Ethan and that was the closest game we had all year," said Kandonlin, whose team pulled out a 53-51 win over the Rustlers. "We only won by two points. With that atmosphere, you just never know what can happen and you have to be prepared physically and mentally."