The Ronan boys and girls basketball teams had a once-in-a-lifetime experience playing in the Alaska Airlines Classic last week. Not only did the Chiefs and Maidens become the first Montana teams ever to play and win in Alaska at the tourney, but they also put up some confidence-building performances against schools three to four times their size.
The journey began last year, when Ronan hosted a Zoom call with the filmmakers of the documentary “Alaska Nets.” After holding a fundraiser at Ronan High School featuring the documentary, they were named a finalist in a contest to win a trip to Alaska.
During the Zoom call, the school held a pep assembly to show why the school should be chosen out of over a thousand schools to win. During the call, it was announced that both basketball teams had won the trip to Anchorage.
“There were a lot of firsts up there,” girls basketball coach Steve Woll said. “We were the first Ronan team to play in Alaska, the first team to have a shot clock up there. It was absolutely amazing, the people there were so nice to us, and they really treated us like royalty.”
Ronan also played in front of 2,000 fans for one game when West Anchorage brought all their school and community to the matchup. Woll said since both schools had the same colors and fight songs, it felt like a home game.
“The place was going nuts; it was like a divisional or state atmosphere-like game,” Woll said. “Lots of kids don’t get that atmosphere.”
Overall, Alaska played amazing hosts to the visiting athletes.
“West Anchorage did a great job accommodating us with gym time, a room for film. They did our laundry, offered us space for dinner, anything we needed they were sure to provide,” said Chiefs head coach DJ Fish said. “They did an awesome job, and we appreciated everything.”
Getting up to Alaska was unlike any other road trip in Montana. Fish noted that Alaska felt much like Montana and said the kids were stoked to travel and represent Ronan.
The girls traveled to Alaska first, as their tournament started earlier. They contended with a three-hour time-zone change and much less sunlight during the day.
“There were lots of connections up there to Montana, lots of people knowing or being related to people from Montana,” Woll said. “Lots of Montana Griz gear up there.”
Ronan boys’ buses left at 3 am to go to the airport for the flight up to Anchorage. After landing and checking into Hotel Captain Cook, the boys watched the girls play and then had Moose’s Tooth Pizza.
“I’m not sure if we had anyone awake by the time bed checks came around,” Fish said.
The girls spent free time riding a gondola on a ski mountain, driving along the Alaskan coast, and going to the zoo. Practices were held in the mornings, and they played their games at night after sight-seeing. Woll said this helped keep the kids on their regular internal clocks.
The boys team checked out the downtown area and bought souvenirs when they weren’t playing basketball. The Chiefs also ate at local eateries, explored the mall, and did some sight-seeing at Beluga Point. They also drove to Flat Top, which overlooked Anchorage, nearby mountains, and the ocean.
“Overall, the trip was great,” Fish said. “I don’t think I’ll ever have another experience like it as a coach, and I’m not sure if many of these guys will have it as high school players. The staff at the tournament were sure to thank us and were very appreciative of how well our guys conducted themselves. Our coaching staff and players appreciate everyone who had a hand in making this possible and thank those who keep working hard at it.”
Both coaches felt that the tough competition and the team-bonding would help the Chiefs and Maidens in the home stretch of the Class A season. Woll said the experience showed his players what it’s like to be a traveling professional athlete and that it created a lifetime of memories, friendships, and acquaintances on other teams.
“We just have a big thank you for everyone involved in this effort,” Woll said.
For game recaps, see page 1B.