BOZEMAN — On Monday, the undefeated Dodson boys basketball team will return to practice for the first time in two weeks, and fifth-year coach Frank Benson has no idea what to expect.
He’s concerned about the fitness and rhythm of his seventh-ranked team, yes, but he’ll also wonder about the short-term fallout from COVID-19. Twelve of the Coyotes’ 18 boys players — from a Class C Hi-Line school with 35 total students — have been afflicted with the coronavirus to varying degrees.
Fatigue, foggy heads and even the ominous myocarditis weigh on him.
“I’m a little worried,” Benson said Friday night from Great Falls, where he was receiving an antibody test as a former COVID-19 victim and five-time quarantiner himself. “We’re going to kind of go slow. I think we’re going to start by not running as much in practice and just see. We’ll ease into it a little bit.”
COVID-19 has been serious business in this community of less than 100 on the northeast tip of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. So is basketball, but the five canceled home games dating to a 56-49 victory at Lustre Christian on Jan. 16 pale compared to the suffering on the reservation.
“We’re doing better, our players are doing better, but some kids’ parents are not doing well,” Benson said. “It’s tough on the reservation because it’s killed a lot of people. It’s really hurt our reservation at Fort Belknap and puts an alarm on these people a little bit. We made it through football (co-op with Malta), and then all of a sudden this happened.
"It was crazy.”
Adding to the angst is the realization that 59 cases have been traced to Dodson’s games against Frazer on Jan. 15, according to the Valley and Phillips county health departments. A CDC strike team subsequently came to Dodson to conduct mass testing.
Benson said one of his players turned up “really sick” on the Monday after the Lustre Christian game. Then another player tested positive. And a player at Lustre Christian. And girls basketball coach Clayton Kill Eagle. And five of Kill Eagle's players.
“It was, ‘We better check this out’,” Benson said, “and then more kids got sick and all of a sudden we have an outbreak. Our superintendent did a good job of shutting it down.”
Dodson isn’t alone. Nashua, Frazer, Hays-Lodgepole, Lustre Christian, Wolf Point, Harlem and Poplar are among the programs on or bordering Hi-Line Indian reservations that have gone quiet.
Dodson has conducted remote learning ever since and will do so until Feb. 8, Benson said. In the meantime, while the ill basketball players recuperated, the healthy athletes have tried to train on their own, with an eye on making history.
Benson said the Coyotes’ third-place finish at divisionals a year ago, led by current Dawson Community College player Corbin Lone Bear, was their best since 1966. They finished fourth at state in 1948.
Some players have been running. On Friday night, a handful of athletes out of quarantine and an assistant unlocked the gym for the first time in two weeks. Come Monday they’ll all be back for the sport they love, except perhaps for one of the first players off the bench, whose father is hospitalized with COVID-19.
“This group, they’re biting at the … they’re ready to come back,” Benson said.
Benson said his team will practice in two pods for the short term. He’ll slowly bring them back, with an emphasis on fundamentals.
The Coyotes then “jump right into it” with a rescheduled nonconference affair with Saco-Whitewater-Hinsdale on Feb. 4, three days after that first practice. One day later, they face top-ranked Scobey.
The regular season ends in two weeks. Enough time to restore the rhythm and momentum?
“I think we have enough time until postseason to get back on track,” Benson said. “The first day of practice, I don’t know. I don’t have a book on this. I’ve never been through it. We’ll just try to do all the little things right. I might have to re-teach them.
“I’m hoping they’re hungry. These kids really love basketball.”
Through it all, Benson has tried to maintain a sense of humor. Amid the challenges, it’s about all one can do.
“You got to have fun,” he said. “Basketball’s fun. We’ve got to come back and have fun.”