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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Lake City vs. Lakeland boys an example of a strong 5A/4A matchup

| December 10, 2020 1:30 AM

A buzzer-beater in the first meeting last year in Rathdrum.

A three-overtime game in the rematch at Lake City.

A game last Saturday at Lakeland that went down to the final seconds.

Lake City and Lakeland, two high school boys basketball teams in different classifications but with similar goals, are developing quite the rivalry between the schools 9 miles apart.

Or, at least, guaranteed entertainment.

"Yeah, but we’re ending up on the wrong end of the stick," said Lakeland coach Dave Stockwell, whose Hawks lost all three of the aforementioned games — but could have easily won all three.

Many of the 5A and 4A teams in the area play each other twice anyway in most sports — in the past as nonleague games.

This year the seven Inland Empire League teams — the four 5A schools and the three 4A schools — voted to play each other twice in volleyball, soccer, basketball, baseball and softball, with all games counting in a combined league standings, with those standings used for seeding into the 5A and 4A regional tournaments.

So Lake City and Lakeland were already slated to play twice in boys basketball. With no Washington teams to play this year in nonleague games, the Timberwolves and Hawks added a third game, the one played last Saturday and won 65-63 by Lake City, which didn't count in the IEL standings.

"I was glad to get em on the schedule a third time," said Lake City coach Jim Winger, who is also the school's athletic director. "That’s a big deal for us; I can’t imagine what the next two will be like. I think that’s what’s going to be great about the league this year — those games are going to count, and you’re going to get tested a lot."

LAKE CITY qualified for state last year for the first time since 2014, with three freshman starters. Throw in a transfer from Moscow and some experienced seniors, and the T-Wolves have their sights set even higher than last year.

Lakeland lost a best-of-3, knockdown, drag-out fight with Moscow for the region's lone berth to state last year in 4A. With nearly everybody back, and the addition of talented forward Jalen Skalskiy, who didn't play last year, the Hawks are considered the team to beat in 4A Region 1.

It wasn't always that way.

"Lakeland, when I took this job, was the doormat — everybody wanted to play us," said Stockwell, in his 10th season as Hawks coach. "I don’t think they want to play us as much anymore. I think we’re better this year than we were last year."

The addition of Skalskiy helps "just a ton," Stockwell said.

"And Jimmy (Winger) wanted to play us (a third time) … he’s trying to get the best competition he can, too," Stockwell added.

If you're looking ahead, Lakeland is scheduled to visit Lake City on Jan. 22, and Lake City returns to Rathdrum on Feb. 2.

"They were probably our hardest matchup that we played (last year) besides Post Falls, so it’s nice to be able to play them three times this year; it’s always good competition," said Lake City sophomore guard Kolten Mitchell, who hit eight 3-pointers and scored a career-high 34 points last Saturday. "I think it’s turning into a little bit of a rivalry, but everyone just wants to win."

FOR NINE years (the 2000-01 through the 2008-09 seasons), the 5A and 4A teams played together in one league, then went their separate ways at regionals.

Usually the larger 5A schools won the combined league.

But in 2004, 4A Moscow and 5A Lewiston tied for the league title. And in 2005 Post Falls, then a 4A school, won the league.

That year, Post Falls' coach was Dave Stockwell, and the Trojans were led by his son, senior guard Scott Stockwell.

So Stockwell — Dave, that is — likes the return of the combined 5A/4A IEL, where the seven schools play each other twice, instead of the four 5A schools playing each other twice, and the three 4A schools playing each other twice.

"I don’t like the four-game league (in 4A). But I like it in that, maybe we have trouble with Moscow or Sandpoint, but maybe, matchups are different, you do really well against the 5As. You can still lose to those guys (other 4As) and still have a better winning percentage in league and have the No. 1 seed.

"It’s a 12-game league, not a four-game league."

Stockwell likes the fact all the games — even the ones against 5As — count for seeding to regionals.

He also likes the improved competition, especially for the 4A schools.

"By playing Lake City and Coeur d’Alene and Lewiston — we haven’t played Post Falls in a couple of years — if we happen to make it to state, I don’t see how anybody down south can be THAT much better than those 5A schools," Stockwell said.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter @CdAPressSports.