OTTUMWA – Hank Plona had an idea. It was supported by Indian Hills athletic director Brett Monaghan.

Two years later, with a lot of planning from two of the top regions in junior college basketball, a new tradition is about to begin. Plona, 2-0 to kick off his fifth season as IHCC’s head men’s basketball coach, will bring his Warriors on the road to take part in the inaugural Iowa-Missouri Challenge facing Three Rivers on Friday and State Fair Saturday on the Roadrunners home court.

“Iowa Western, Southeastern and Marshalltown are also coming down to play. Missouri State-West Plains, Moberly Area and Three Rivers are all coming up to State Fair,” Plona said. “We haven’t played Three Rivers since I’ve been here, but they’ve got a hall-of-fame head coach in Gene Bess that has guided the program. Saturday is going to be a true road test against State Fair.

“It’s going to cool experience for us. There will be a lot of college coaches seeing some very competitive teams.”

Fans of junior college basketball on both sides of the Iowa-Missouri border are quite familiar with the great rivalries that have developed over the years. For several years, the two regional champions would routinely clash in postseason play with a trip to the NJCAA national tournament on the line.

Currently that’s not the case with the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference champion facing the Region 13 champions from the Dakotas while Missouri’s Region 16 champ heads to Illinois for a district final. Still, with strength of schedule helping to determine the eight at-large berths to the national tournament, the eight games being played Friday and Saturday at State Fair could have huge implications by March in determining who advances to Hutchinson, Kansas.

“Strength of schedule was part of it, but also we saw the NCAA Division I schools participating in similar events with the Big 10-ACC Challenge and the Big 12-SEC Challenge,” Monaghan said. “With five Division I teams in Iowa and five Division I teams in Missouri, we just thought it might be a unique opportunity.”

The inaugural game of the Iowa-Missouri Challenge will feature Southeastern taking on Missouri State-West Plains on Friday at 2 p.m. The Blackhawks will also open play on Saturday against Three Rivers at 1 p.m. Southeastern knows just how important this weekend could be in the long run after being denied a national tournament berth last year despite beating tournament at-large qualifier IHCC in the Region XI championship game.

“I think its a long time overdue,” Southeastern head coach Lorenzo Watkins said. “When I heard from Hank and Pat, I just told them we need to get it done.

“This will give us a good chance to display our teams in a great environment. It’s early enough in the season to really find out where your team is at, and the level you have to play at to win your respective league and get to the National Tournament.”

Moberly Area, who like Indian Hills opened with a top 10 ranking in the NJCAA preseason poll, will face Marshalltown in Friday’s second game and Iowa Western on Saturday in the penultimate game of the challenge. Pat Smith, head coach of the Greyhounds, was one of the first contacts made by Plona and Monaghan to get this two-day, eight-game JUCO basketball extravaganza off the ground.

“Teams these days are hardened for good games and to get two Division I games in a tough environment is tremendous,” Smith said. “It takes away a couple of home games you can get, but I think it’s well worth it. We’re playing two good teams including Marshalltown and an Iowa Western team we wouldn’t normally play.”

The winning region will be awarded a traveling trophy from Iowa-Missouri Challenge. The event is already scheduled to be held in 2020 at Loren Walker Arena in West Burlington, at the West Plains Civic Center in Missouri in 2021 and at the Kanesville Arena in Council Bluffs in 2022.

“Both regions have great Division I basketball teams and it’s a great opportunity for exposure for both our student-athletes and our leagues to showcase NJCAA basketball,” Monaghan said.

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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