HELENA -- It all comes down to this.
The Frontier Conference will be settled by the two teams everybody figured would be there (with all due respect to Lewis-Clark State College).
The Saints host the Bulldogs on Monday at 7 p.m. looking to repeat for the Frontier Conference postseason title. SWX will broadcast the Frontier championships, bringing a little extra attention to an already rich rivalry.
The winner gets an automatic bid to the national tournament, though both are essentially locks to go anyway. This game is more about pride and bragging rights.
The two teams split the Frontier Conference regular season title, though the Saints earned the No. 1 seed and the rite to host playoffs with its 2-1 edge over the Bulldogs in the regular season.
It was little over a week ago when Carroll thumped the Bulldogs to earn that top seeding, a memory that surely wasn’t quickly forgotten by Western. Western coach Steve Keller, the former Helena High coach, wasn’t sure the Saints were 20 points better than his squad then, and now his Bulldogs have a chance to prove it on Monday.
And don’t think Western will be the only team operating with added motivation: Carroll College hasn’t forgotten which team the coaches gave the edge to back in October in the preseason polls. By one vote, coaches favored Western.
All the Saints did in response to that was open with the best start in school history, battle through a slump shortly thereafter, and then share the Frontier Conference regular season title with the Bulldogs.
A postseason title cannot be shared.
Even if the most apathetic fan could reason that this game means little to two NAIA-tournament-bound teams, it will mean everything for the Saints and Bulldogs.
“We’re hoping our great fans will come out and make some noise,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said.
Carroll is 2-0 against Western in Helena this season. The Bulldogs claimed a convincing win in Dillon. Who wins round four will make for perhaps the most drama of the Frontier Conference season.
Carroll, beyond the home court advantage, also benefits from having played just two games in the last nine days. Western will have played another game in that same span. Exactly how that translates into Monday’s championship remains to be seen.
Two of the best teams in the NAIA will square off. Both boast top-notch offenses. Though the Saints have the decided advantage in defensive categories, every Carroll-Western matchup creates ferocious contention on each possession.
It’s the Frontier’s version of March Madness. And it peaks Monday in the PE Center.