Bemidji State head men's basketball coach Matt Bowen feels the Beavers are heading into the most critical stretch of the regular season with this weekend's games against Wayne State and No. 24 Augustana at BSU Gymnasium.
The Beavers (5-5 overall, 2-2 NSIC) return to conference play to host Augustana on Saturday at 6 p.m. and Wayne State at 4 p.m. Sunday. The women's games precede the men's games at Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
"I think that a winning season is within reach for us and five of the next seven games we have are at home," Bowen said. "Over the stretch of those games the league is really going to separate itself. We want to see the playoffs and I think we're good enough to play in the playoffs."
It will be a challenging but reachable task for the Beavers, who have shown mixed results while fighting through adversity this season.
The Beavers have lost four of the last six games, including Tuesday's 84-75 loss on the road at Northern Michigan.
But one of the wins during that stretch was notable: an 88-87 overtime win over No. 17 Winona State on the Warriors' court.
That win came a week after Bowen suspended juniors Sergej Baskow, Brady Fairbanks and Jimmy Johnson indefinitely for a violation of BSU's Student-Athlete Code of Conduct. There is no timetable for their return.
"It's been a pleasant surprise so far because the team has responded very well ... statistically we've seen some drastic improvement," Bowen said. "We're very competitive, probably the most competitive we've been since I've been here. In every game we've had an opportunity to win and that's not something I could say last year. If we're good enough to win in Winona - where only two or three teams have won in the last five years - then we're probably good enough to beat anyone."
Senior guard Seth Haake is leading the Beavers and playing at an all-conference level. He's averaging 16 points per game (20 in NSIC play) and ranks second in team rebounding behind Bryce Tesdahl.
Tesdahl (10 ppg), Patrick Cassidy (9 ppg), Lance Rongstad (8 ppg) and Jake Lindstrom (7 ppg) have all elevated their games to try and carry the team since the suspensions.
"Lance is one of those players that is really taking advantage of the opportunity he has because at the beginning of the season he would not have had the chance to start," Bowen said.
BSU football fans will recognize Rongstad, who served in a backup quarterback role in the Beavers' dynamic offense and ranked second in team rushing.
Bowen feels the Beavers will match up well with Augustana (9-1 overall, 2-1 NSIC), which is led by Cody Schilling. The Augie sophomore was the driving force behind Ellsworth's state championship teams in 2007-08. Ellsworth beat Cass Lake-Bena in the 2007 state title game.
As much as Bowen likes the matchup against the Vikings, he feels the Wildcats (4-6 overall, 1-2 NSIC) will pose problems with their height advantage and post game.
The suspensions hurt the team in terms of size and depth, which will be a concern throughout the second half of the season. With only 10 players on the active roster, Bowen admitted any injury or illness could prove troublesome.
"The league is very even this year but the reality is that there are four teams that are above everyone else: Mankato, St. Cloud State, Augustana and take your pick between Southwest Minnesota State and Winona State," Bowen said. "Then there is everyone else. The top eight teams make the playoffs and there are 10 teams that will be fighting for the rest of those available spots and it's going to probably take at least 11 wins to get there. We need a lot of things to go right because our margin of error is very small. But when things are clicking, I think we are good enough to do that."
The turnaround of the Bemidji State women's basketball team has been one of the biggest surprises of the winter sports season in Bemidji.
The Beavers (8-3 overall, 2-2 NSIC) are coming off a major victory over No. 11 Minnesota State University, Mankato: an 80-72 win two weeks ago in the final game of the first half of the season.
The win proved Bemidji State is for real and the two-win season of last year is safely a distant memory.
The Beavers are tied for seventh place in the conference standings with three other teams and are only two wins out of first place.
This weekend will be another strong test for BSU.
Ahead of the Beavers in the standings is Wayne State (9-1 overall, 2-1 NSIC) in a tie for fifth place and Augustana (9-1 overall, 3-0 NSIC) in a tie for first place.
The Beavers carry a four-game winning streak into the second half of the season and have won of six of the last eight games.
The only two losses during the stretch came on the opening weekend of conference play in the beginning of December.
One was a double-overtime loss to Moorhead and the other was a four-point loss to Minnesota-Crookston.
BSU has not lost since that weekend and are winning with a balanced high-pressure offense combined with a surprisingly strong defense.
Freshman Katie Pettit (12 ppg) and sophomore Sydney Epema (11 ppg) are the starters leading the offense.
Junior transfer Anna Hebrink has been a strong addition to BSU this season and her 54 rebounds rank second on the team only to freshman Emily Kaus' 81 rebounds.
Kaus ranks sixth in NSIC rebounding and is the only freshman on the list of leaders. She ranks second in the league in blocked shots (26).
Junior Colleen McKay provides a nice boost in the post for the Beavers off the bench and when she subs in for Pettit or Kaus, she can create matchup problems for opponents. She has hit 56 percent of field goals this season for the Beavers - the highest on the team.