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There are plenty of natural rivalries across the state when it comes to high school sports. Rapid City’s own matchups between Central and Stevens are right at the top of the list. Other games, such as those between Mitchell and Huron, are also big games for their respective communities, contests that draw big crowds and even bigger emotions.

But no rivalry in South Dakota reaches the level of tonight’s girls and boys basketball games between Red Cloud and Pine Ridge. The intra-reservation contests are so fiercely contested, and mean so much to a basketball-crazed area, that regular-season games couldn’t even be played between 1991 and 2005 for fear of violence breaking out. The natural rivalry between the two schools resumed seven years ago, and the girls and boys now play once during the regular season, 100 miles from either school’s home gym. With the realignment of Class A and the addition of Spearfish this season, the two teams can no longer meet in district championship games, as the girls did last year in a Pine Ridge win and the boys did in 2010 in a thrilling 61-60 victory for Red Cloud.

The reasons for the animosity go beyond basketball. There is the normal private school-public school dynamic, along with decades-old abuse allegations at what was then Holy Rosary Mission. The school changed its name to Red Cloud Indian School in 1969. Despite the games resuming, no one that I attempted to talk to about the emotional nature of the rivalry wanted to speak about it for fear of negative reaction. There are still those who simply don’t like Red Cloud people, and those who don’t like Pine Ridge people.

Although emotions run high and the actions of a few off the floor can at times be less than ideal, the emotions on the floor are an absolute joy to behold. There is no game in South Dakota played with more passion, as bragging rights on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are at stake for an entire year. The Thorpes currently hold all of those, having won both boys meetings last year — the two teams met up in the third-place game at the 2010 Lakota Nation Invitational before Pine Ridge won the regular-season matchup 81-65 — while the Lady Thorpes haven’t lost to Red Cloud since a 2001 district playoff game. 

And while there are those who use the rivalry to divide, there are many others who attempt to use the game to bring people together. Current Pine Ridge activities director and head boys basketball coach Lyle “Dusty” LeBeaux actually led Red Cloud to its only boys state basketball championship, when the Crusaders won the Class A title in 1995. That team was led by LeBeaux’s son, Jerome, an all-state selection who later coached the Pine Ridge boys until last season. When the two schools meet, it’s very often going to be a close, fast-paced game with all the emotion of a state tournament final.

“That’s just how this is,” Jerome LeBeaux said after leading Pine Ridge to a three-point win in a hard-fought LNI game between the two schools last season. “It’s respect, though. I love those guys over there (Red Cloud) and they’re my brothers.”

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But it’s not just the amped-up emotions on and off the floor that make the rivalry great. The basketball is usually very good, too. Pine Ridge has won three state titles in its history, taking Class B championships home in 1936 and ’41 and a Class A title in 1987. The two schools have 27 boys state-tournament appearances between them. Pine Ridge has more total appearances with 19, but all eight of Red Cloud’s have come since 1990, while just four of the Thorpes’ have. The girls have combined for 16 total state tournament appearances, with Pine Ridge having nine of those, but the Lady Thorpes have two state titles (1989 and 2009) to Red Cloud’s none.

If you haven’t ever taken in a game between the state’s fiercest rivals, do yourself a favor and get down to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Ice Arena on Saturday night. The girls game starts at 6 p.m. and the boys at 7:30 p.m.

I promise you won’t be disappointed in the effort.

Contact Padraic Duffy at 394-8428  or email him at padraic.duffy@rapidcityjournal.com.

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