By Tim Eberly
Hasty dialing on cell phones in the northbound school bus Sunday transmitted word of the imminent arrival.
People on the receiving end residents of Chester, a 850-population farming community 60 miles west of Havre already knew their girls basketball team had captured its first-ever State C championship in double overtime Saturday in Belgrade. The returning players just wanted to relay their arrival time 5:30 p.m. to coordinate the ensuing parade through town.
Word spreads quickly in Chester, as approximately 80 cars were waiting in town for the ambulance, lights and sirens on, to escort the team into town. When the bus entered Chester, cars and trucks joined in, forming a vehicular conga line that paraded around the community.
"A stream of cars went by for quite a while last night," said Scott Swank, owner of Chester's Roadhouse Bar & Casino. "They're awful proud here in Chester."
Not that the show of support surprised the players. Chester has been behind them all year. For almost half a decade, a severe drought has sapped the moisture and the spirit from the town, along with many of the farming communities along the Hi-Line. Basketball provided an escape from the reality of the wounded economy.
"It's the first good news we've had in a long time," said 55-year-old Ron Wolery, owner of B 'n' W Foods in Chester. "It's hard when you have had droughts like we've had and you go to work every day and everybody's down and out. All we've had for the last five years is bad crops and no rain."
So when the Coyotes, with five senior starters in their fourth year on the program, engineered a 83-75 triumph in double overtime against Harlowton (24-3) in the title game the 100th career victory for the graduating seniors and four-year coach Linda VanDyke the celebration reverberated through Chester.
"Everybody was talking about it," said Noel Watson, 37, owner of Hi-Line Hardware. "It made everybody come together as a town. It's a good distraction. It gives you a focus on something other than business."
At noon today, in the Chester High gymnasium, school administrators planned to raise the championship banner into the rafters. "I think it will be wall-to-wall" with people, said VanDyke, who has a 100-6 career record. Students will sing the school song, speeches will be made and players will be praised for their dedication.
"They were on a mission," said Chester High Principal Bill Schlepp, whose daughter, Amanda, is a junior backup on the team. "I think there was a lot of pressure on these kids. I think they handled it pretty well."
Chester's record 26-0 after the title win stands as testament to the players' ability to withstand pressure. But, of course, VanDyke had been grooming the seniors since she moved to Chester in 1994.
Working in the library and substitute teaching at the high school, VanDyke met Jim Graham, who teaches physical education and business at Chester High. Both had daughters the same age who were cultivating an interest in basketball.
VanDyke and Graham united their daughters, along with six of their friends from the sixth-grade, and began working on their fundamentals. As sixth-graders, the girls competed in a seventh-grade league and advanced to the state title game after capturing the regional tournament in Havre.
"We do reminisce about it and talk about how much they improved," VanDyke said.
Six of those eight players are members of the state championship team, and five of them are the starting unit. Though all five seniors are captains, VanDyke's and Graham's daughters 5-foot-9 center Michele VanDyke and point guard Jamie Graham are the most consistent. VanDyke, who averaged a team-high 22 points and 12 rebounds this season, recently signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Montana next winter the first female basketball player from Chester to earn a full scholarship from a Division I program. The heady Graham, whose older brother, Jeff, is a freshman shooting guard on Montana State University-Northern's men's basketball team, has been recruited by several area NAIA teams. Seniors Maci Tempel (10 points against Harlowton), Heidi Cicon (18 points and 14 rebounds 13 of them offensive), Chasi Buffington and Katy Engstrom all played on that junior high team.
"They're like sisters," Bill Schlepp said. "They pal around together. They do a lot of things with each other."
After finishing third in the state last season, the Coyotes took a 18-0 regular season record into the postseason, where they reeled off eight straight wins.
"We actually struggled in every game we played there," Linda VanDyke said.
For instance, Michele VanDyke, who had a game-high 25 points, put the Coyotes into overtime against Harlowton with a putback after two offensive rebounds. But with the game tied at 66, VanDyke missed a free throw that could have won the game with two seconds remaining.
After the first overtime, Chester fostered an 11-4 run, including four free throws from Graham, in the second overtime to seal the victory.
"Having something like this gives us something positive to celebrate," Linda VanDyke said. "Our main entertainment for this community is basketball and school activities. That's what these small towns thrive on."