The Turner boys basketball team simply hasn’t won very much in recent years. It’s not for lack of trying. And the Turner girls, well, the Tornadoes haven’t fielded a varsity team in the two years prior to the 2012-13 season. So wins weren’t even possible.
The problem in Turner isn’t about talent, it isn’t about a love of basketball, it isn’t about dedication, heart or desire, and it isn’t about coaching. It’s simply a numbers game, and it’s happening in rural towns all over Montana. Enrollment in places like Turner just isn’t what it used to be, and that translates to struggles at the varsity level of high school basketball.
However, as the District 9C basketball tournament got under way Wednesday afternoon at the Havre High gymnasium, I saw something different from both the Turner boys and Turner girls — something I haven’t seen in a while, and a while is actually getting to be a long time for me considering I’ve been covering the 9C for almost 12 years now.
What I saw from both Turner teams Wednesday was steps in the right direction, albeit small ones.
Yes, the Turner boys lost 70-36 to Chinook on Wednesday and things were even more difficult for the Turner girls, as the Tornadoes were beaten by the Big Sandy Pioneers with the clock running for much of the second half.
But I decided to put the final scores of Wednesday’s games aside and look a little deeper, and what I saw were two Turner basketball teams truly heading in the right direction. I saw two Turner teams which weren’t just there to be a part of the 9C experience. I saw two Turner teams that, no matter how overmatched, came to win. The Tornadoes weren’t on the floor Wednesday to be a red carpet for the Beeters and Pioneers, no, they were on the floor to compete and to play basketball. Turner showed up Wednesday, and will again on Friday ready to try to win 9C tournament games, that much you could see in the effort, intensity and competitiveness in which both Tornado teams played with.
Something else I noticed is, Turner’s top players on both sides have time to keep getting better. In other words, the Tornadoes have some young, skilled players, who through this season, this week in Havre, and beyond will keep the basketball movement moving forward in the tiny town way up north.
The Turner boys play just one senior, while on the opposite end, two 8th-graders got into the game as well. In between, exciting scorers like Dylan Welsh, Lucas Reed and Bret VanValkenburg are either sophomores or juniors, and the Tornadoes are also starting a freshman to boot.
“We are a young team,” said Turner head coach Kevin VanValkenburg of his Tornaodes, who won four games during the regular season. “And I think we’ve improved every game this year. I think today was a great experience for our team. Every game is, because we are so young. And I thought we played pretty good in stretches. So definitely, today was a very good experience for this team.”
The Turner girls, which didn’t compete in the 2011 or 2012 9C tournaments, are even younger. The Tornadoes have four 8th-graders on the squad, including leading scorer Ella Billmeyer. Turner does have three seniors, and they are all valuable, but Turner’s young girls are certainly helping the move to make girls basketball in Turner relevant again.
And yes, the Tornadoes were on the wrong end of the scoreboard in what was their first 9C tourney game in three years, but the passion in which they played, the determination in which they played with and the fact that you could see them competing hard and not just being happy to be out there, surely means this version of Turner basketball is moving forward and moving up.
“I always instill in my girls, the only way you are going to get better is to play teams that are better than you,” Turner head coach Kelly Cederberg said after the loss to Big Sandy. “I always tell them to never give up and give it their all, and they will be a better player because of it.”
And Turner did just that on Wednesday, in both games. The Tornadoes competed and they never gave up, and they’ll do it again on Friday. They’ll do it because they don’t want to just be a part of the show, they want to be successful in the big show.
Numbers may still play a role in how basketball shakes out in Turner. But for at least this week in Havre, the Tornadoes are making people take notice, and the entire 9C is better off because of it. In other words, Turner is 9C basketball and here’s to hoping the Tornadoes will be here for years to come.