By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - The Rocky Boy Morning Stars have more to do this week than win a basketball tournament. They have to support the hopes of a community on their shoulders.
Rooting for the Rocky Boy basketball teams has been a shared effort this season, and a Wednesday afternoon pep rally and send-off at Rocky Boy High School gymnasium was no different. Along with faculty, staff and students, community members packed the room, cheering for the girls before they headed to the Class C state girls basketball tournament, which begins tonight in Belgrade.
The Stars will go to the Class C boys tournament in Great Falls on March 10.
The Morning Stars play the undefeated Reed Point-Rapelje Pirates tonight at 8:30. The Chester Coyotes, who defeated the Morning Stars to win the Northern C divisional championship on Saturday, play at 1 p.m. against the Ekalaka Spartans.
The last time the Morning Stars went to the state tournament was in 1990. It's been nine years since the Stars' last appearance at state.
The young girls team, half of them freshmen, are excited.
"It's been almost a lifetime for some of them" since the last time the girls team went, said Larry Singer, Indian Club supervisor at the high school. "It's good that the community can share those feelings," he added.
People came with advice for the girls that went beyond basketball.
"You're not only representing yourself, you're representing your whole community," said Corey Sangrey, a speaker at the pep rally. Sangrey was a member of the last Morning Star team to go to the state tournament.
Council member Kenny Writing Bird added that the younger students look up to the girls. "You're good role models for our young people here," he said.
The team has also been told that it will be facing greater obstacles than a non-Indian team might.
"We have had to work harder to get there," said Pep Club supervisor Zellah Nault.
The taste of a bitter loss is still on everybody's lips. The Morning Stars lost the divisional tournament championship to the Chester Coyotes after a string of foul calls brought Coyotes to the free-throw line many more times than the Morning Stars were there. By the end of the game, the Morning Stars had racked up 43 fouls to the Coyotes' nine, calls Rocky Boy spectators said they believe were not fair. The Coyotes won 54-39.
"The reffing is not what we hoped it to be, but you have to accept it," Nault said in an interview.
Principal Voyd St. Pierre said the girls could learn a lesson from that game. "You can't let officials control the outcome of the game," he said. "You determine the outcome."
St. Pierre knows there is another lesson. "Throughout life, they're going to have obstacles, they're going to feel like they've been treated unfairly and they're going to have to overcome that," he said.
Junior forward Deena Sunchild said the team has already come further than it thought possible. They thought they'd be going to state next year, when the young team matured, and success this year took them by surprise, she said. She's going into the tournament excited to play in this one, and not worrying about the last one.
"It's a new tournament, so we can start over," she said.
As a teacher, James Capps is proud that eight of the 10 players are all-state in academics, maintaining at least a 3.5 grade-point average.
"There's a stigma with Native American teams that they're just basketball players," St. Pierre said. Not so with this team.
"I think that's impressive," Capps said.
Though the girls are good role models, the immediate effect of the tournament is not necessarily good for academics. St. Pierre said there can be up to an 80 percent absentee rate during the biggest tournament days.
"Learning does stop," he said.
Warren Small works as a juvenile court counselor for the tribal courts, and he said he thinks the tournaments are good for the kids.
"It'll help our kids believe that there's a lot more out there that they can accomplish," he said. "It helps everybody. I don't know how to put it in words, how we feel about these kids. Hopefully by seeing that, it'll lead a lot of the younger generation to accomplish what they're doing."
St. Pierre said he thinks the Morning Stars are already setting an example. Students know the standards athletes are held to in order to participate: They must stay alcohol- and drug-free and maintain passing grades. He hopes the younger children tell themselves: "We need to keep our grades up and stay in school to be a Star."