By Ryan Divish
Let's make one thing real clear. Jolene Fuzesy is not a Benedict Arnold. She is not some traitor who walked out on her old team when it was down and out for something or someplace better.
After last year, she doesn't owe the Malta M-Ettes anything.
And another thing, she isn't some hired gun, some rent-a-player brought in to help rebuild, repair and ultimately return the Havre High girls basketball program to its prominence of the 1990s.
No one recruited her, and contrary to popular belief, the Havre program was already returning to prominence before she decided to join the Ponies.
Jolene is none of those things. She is just a high school girl who can shoot the basketball pretty well. Okay, she is a little more than that, she's a high school girl who shoots the ball extremely well.
It's that talent and her passion for the game, that prompted her to leave Malta shortly after the volleyball season was over and enroll at Havre High to play for the Ponies.
In the process, she alienated herself and her family from her friends, her teammates, her old school and in a way, the town of Malta - all to come to a new town with a new school, a new team, a new coach and new teammates for a new start.
The whole situation seems overwhelming with the hurt feelings and frustration, but don't think for a moment that Jolene made the wrong decision. Realistically, it was the only decision to make.
IT'S STILL JUST A GAME
Sometimes in high school, kids forget that sports are supposed to be fun. That's why you play. It isn't for the coach who tells you to, or for your parents who expect you to.
You play because you enjoy it. Sure, you work hard in practice and you want to win and play well, but it still has to be fun. If it's not fun, then it's no longer an activity, it's a job. Unless, you're in the NBA, basketball shouldn't be a job. And anyone out of high school will tell you that jobs and fun don't often collide in the same sentence.
Basketball simply stopped being fun for Jolene last season in Malta. Yes, there were enjoyable moments, but for the most part the stress overcame the enjoyment.
"Every time I would walk on the floor, I'd worry about whether we'd get into fights with each other during the game," Fuzesy recalled.
The team, if you could call it that, was being divided by in-fighting, bruised egos and jealousy.
"They had people in Malta who felt they needed a certain amount of shots each game," said Havre High head coach Dennis Murphy.
Basketball isn't supposed to be like that. It's all about the team. On the floor, Malta seemed successful with Fuzesy and the M-Ettes winning games and using a truckload of talent to make it to the North-East B Divisional tournament.
Off the floor, a few players wondered aloud why Jolene was getting more shots than they were.
"I was starting to hate the sport," she said. "I never had that feeling about the game before. I can't remember if I ever smiled on the court once last season. There wasn't that many reasons to. It just wasn't fun."
But the smiles come easy and often this year. The game is fun again and it's not because Jolene is getting the most shots on the team.
Yes, she is leading the Ponies and the Central A in scoring at 27 points per game. But she isn't some selfish ball hog who's out there jacking up shots every time she touches the ball.
If you look closely, she is frighteningly efficient in her scoring. She ranks second in the Central A in field goal percentage, shooting 57 percent from the field, which is a ridiculous stat considering the majority of her shots come from at least 15 feet out. She scored 499 regular season points on just 320 shot attempts.
"I don't think she's forced many shots this season," Murphy said. "She shoots an extremely high percentage. Her points per shot attempts are very good. There are a lot of people who score 20 points a game but need 25 shots to do it. She doesn't"
If her field goal percentage is ridiculous, Jolene's three-point shooting percentage borders on the outlandish at 54 percent. There are people, who can't shoot 54 percent from the free-throw line let alone the three-point line.
"Shooting-wise, she is probably the best pure shooter we've ever had here in Havre," Murphy said. "If you look at the statistics there really is no argument. It's hard to compare statistics, but statistically she is also the best three-point shooter we've ever had.
Both Jolene and Murphy are quick to credit the other Havre players for her success. Fuzesy runs off a myriad of screens and is scoring option No. 1 in the Havre system - something that her teammates accepted.
"Our girls have been so unselfish this year," Murphy said. "But it's tough to argue with running things through Jolene when you look at her numbers. In Malta, they had people who needed to shoot so many times in a game. We don't have that here. We know that we're a better team when Jolene gets 18 shot attempts a game instead of 10."
"Coach explained our roles to us at the beginning of the season and everyone's accepted them," Jolene said. "It's like Amy (McLain), she knows who needs the ball where and in what situation. She's the point guard and that's her role. No one on this team thinks, 'Jolene scored 10 points in this quarter, so I better score 11 in the next.'"
While her teammates' unselfishness is not lost on Jolene, she does hate it when it's lost on the fans.
There is nothing that drives her more insane than hearing classmates, particularly boys, say things like, "Jolene won the game for you guys," or "If it wasn't for Jolene, you would never win."
"A lot of guys come up and say dumb things like that and it's not true," she said. "I know it's not true and the rest of the team knows it's not true, but they still don't need to hear that. When I score, it's not just because of me, I get screens and passes. Before I came here, I'd never gotten a screen set for me. Now I get them all the time."
A DIFFICULT DECISION
No matter how little fun Jolene was having in Malta, the decision to leave wasn't easy. Why leave everything that you are comfortable and familiar with in the middle of what's supposed to be the best year of high school for a game?
Jolene had plenty of reasons to leave. She's had to explain them over and over. But perhaps the simplest of all reasons was that she wanted the game to be part of her future.
"I grew up wanting to play at the next level," she said. "And I didn't know if what I was doing in Malta would help me be able to do that. My parents knew about Coach Murphy from the past and it was a doable situation, so I decided to leave."
Of course there were repercussions in Malta, there had to be. The top scorer in District 2B decided to leave school a few weeks before the season started and come to one of the M-Ettes biggest rivals. It certainly wasn't going to win Jolene a popularity contest any time soon.
"I kind of knew it was going to be tough," she said. "And it was. I basically had to tell people that it was all my parents' decision or people in Malta would hold it against me."
Even with the explanation there were whispers around Malta that Jolene and her family were being selfish. They mumbled that she was letting down her team for her own personal goals. They murmured that she's spoiled. All of which makes Murphy's blood boil.
"If you're very narrow-minded you think that way," Murphy said. "Jolene and her family did what they thought was best for her. If there is anybody out there who wouldn't do what's best for their child, I want to meet them."
Even in Havre, there were comments and questions. Like any small town, the rumor-mill operates with the most employees. Maybe Murphy recruited her, maybe she isn't a team player, maybe this won't be good for the team, all the gossip swirled before the season began and Fuzesy found herself still answering the same questions.
"I still have people ask me things like, 'Why'd you leave? it seems just dumb,'" she said. "Well you know what, it wasn't dumb because it's made me a better player and my goal of playing in college has been achieved. Sometimes you have to do things that others aren't going to like to achieve your goals."
Still, the people in Malta probably weren't particularly interested in Jolene's personal goals. They only knew that their team wasn't as good without her. What made the situation even more difficult was the Ponies' Jan. 3 game in Malta.
"I was pretty nervous about it," Jolene recalled. "I had a teacher tell me that they had something special planned for me when I came back."
But the something special wasn't nasty. They didn't hang her in effigy at half court. No, the real surprise was the loud ovation she got when she was announced during starting lineups. With that out of the way, Jolene dropped 35 points on her old squad and led the Ponies to a win. Perhaps, the most difficult aspect of the night was guarding her best friend Ashley Henry.
Even with the warm ovation, there were still some hard feelings under the surface, especially from some of the players.
"It was tough because they're still a little mad at me for leaving," she said. "They still take it pretty hard and talk about what it would be like if I was still there."
She could be there again. Fuzesy could still return to Malta after the season. But there would be repercussions.
She wouldn't be able to compete in track because of the MHSA's transfer rule, which would be a disappointment because she finished third at state in the 3,200 meters. But she'll be the first to admit that she misses her friends and everything that was comforting in Malta. Yet she worries how she would be received if she did go back.
"I really do miss my friends and I miss Malta," she said. "But I'm kind of afraid that I've ruined some of my relationships with people and my reputation in Malta."
Still, it's a decision she wouldn't change, even if it has been tough at times making new friends and fitting in with new teammates.
"At times I do feel a little out of place because they've been together so long," she said. "They'll start talking about this tournament and that and I wasn't there for that. But they understand that we're a team and on the floor we're like family even if we're not as close off the floor, and that's the important thing."
THE RIGHT DECISION
Jolene is the first to crush any ideas that Murphy recruited her to come to Havre and leave Malta. She knew all about the Havre High program from following Loree Payne.
You start to ask her if she had players that she looked up to and the words, "Loree Payne" come out before you can finish the question.
"Oh my God, I loved Loree Payne," she said with giddiness. "I loved watching her play. The people in Malta thought I was strange because I used to cheer for her when she came to Malta to play. I didn't care. I thought she was the greatest. I watched her play every time I got the opportunity."
And like her hero, Jolene will be playing basketball at the college level. She recently accepted a scholarship to Carroll College, turning down offers from MSU-Northern and UM-Western.
"I really liked what Coach (Shawn) Nelson has done there," she said. "I liked their style of basketball and the way they play. I've watched them play and the way they set screens for their shooters. I thought it would be a good fit."
Indeed, Carroll is a shooter's paradise with endless screens, curl cuts and open jumpshots, and Nelson believes Jolene will fit in perfectly.
"Jolene has the potential to be a great scorer," he said in a press release. "She has a pure outside shot and is very crafty around the basket. She is a total gym rat, who loves the game of basketball and spends countless hours trying to improve her game."
The latter statement couldn't be more true. MSU-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse recalls going to the gym at six a.m. for a morning work out earlier this year.
He walked in believing he would be the only one in the building. Instead, he was greeted to the sound of someone dribbling and shooting alone in the dimly-lit gym.
"I walk in there and there is Jolene shooting in basically the dark," Huse said. "There was like one light on in the building and you could hardly see, but she's just in there shooting away. I turned the lights on for her at least. I don't know many kids that would have been doing the same thing at six in the morning."
And that's what gets lost in this story of changing schools and changing teams, of hurt feelings and hurt teammates, of options and opportunity. At the core of it is still a girl who loves to play the game of basketball and plays it well.
Jolene Fuzesy made a difficult decision to leave everything and everyone she was familiar with for a game.
But it's a game that is, and will be, a major part of her life to come.
In life, the choices you make are your own. They can't be taken back, there are no redos.
She shouldn't spend a single moment second-guessing that decision. Because in the end, it wasn't just the right decision, it was the only decision.