A shared state championship

Members of the Lodge Grass Indians and the Fairfield Eagles pose for portraits after being awarded first place in the 2020 Class B Boys' State Tournament in Butte. The last day of the state tournament has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One person in Silver Bow County has tested positive for coronavirus. There are now four cases in Montana.

BUTTE — As Fairfield and Three Forks battled for a spot in the Class B state championship, the news that Montana had four confirmed coronavirus cases unfolded.

Word and speculation began to spread around the Butte Civic Center, as MHSA officials talked about what the plan might be. Cancellation? Press forward? Nothing was made official until halftime of the Eagles and Wolves' clash.

Fairfield head coach Jordan Ratliff had heard the possibility of cancellation just moments before his game started.

“It was a sickening feeling knowing that, after that game," Ratliff said. "There wasn’t going to be a true champ."

Ratliff then went over to his opponent's head coach, Terry Hauser, to explain what he heard. The Wolves' head coach talked about what Ratliff said, and added his personal opinion at that point and time.

“Jordan Ratliff told me they might cancel it before it even started," Hauser said."I said, ‘Well shoot, everybody is here, at least play this out and see. Then we can at least do what we did tonight, the kids deserved to play one last game. I’m glad they did that.”

As the (then) semifinal unfolded, uncertainty arose everywhere except for on the court. The Wolves and Eagles played an extremely close first half that was separated by just three points at the break.

Then, the MHSA made it official: all state basketball tournaments were canceled, and all championships would feature co-champions, but nothing was announced inside the arena as the game played on.

The potentially high stakes of the Three Forks and Fairfield's semifinal were now very real, they just didn't actually know it yet.

As a dramatic game progressed, Lodge Grass head coach Josh Stewart was informed of the situation.

The Indians had just earned an emphatic win over Rocky Boy, scoring 45 points in the second half to ensure a spot in a title game that Lodge Grass had not been a part of for 30 years.

Instead of getting one last chance to prove they were the very best, the Indians were now coming to the realization that they were sharing a title.

“It’s disappointing," said Lodge Grass sophomore Ty Moccasin. "It’s been too long for Lodge Grass, 30 years. It’s just too long and I have no words for it and I wish the outbreak didn’t happen. Every practice, all my sweat.

"I wanted to get a banner for Lodge Grass. Everything happens for a reason, everything happens for a reason. Next year we’re coming back harder and better.”

Fellow Indians sophomore Damon Gros Ventre, who put up 35 points in Lodge Grass' win for a share of the title, had similar feelings but acknowledged that it was a necessary decision.

“We wanted to get it done right with a win and a higher score than the other team, but it’s unfortunate this had to happen. It’s heartbreaking. Safety is first, at the same time I wish we could’ve played this game out.”

As the Butte Civic Center crowd processed information trickling out of word-of-mouth and phone alerts, Hauser's team began to fall behind Fairfield.

The Eagles were beginning to break away. Fairfield's defense and consistent late shooting put the Wolves in a dire place, and Hauser made the call to tell his team with a handful of minutes remaining.

“I found out it was canceled with about five minutes left," Hauser said. "[Fairfield] was up by eight or ten, and I called a timeout. I probably shouldn’t have, but I told my kids, ‘This is it, fellas, this is it.’"

"They went out and hustled, but airballed a few shots and I thought, ‘Dangit, probably shouldn’t have done that.’”

Three Forks' best efforts weren't enough, and as starters began to come off the floor for the Eagles with just a couple minutes before the final buzzer, standout senior Keeley Bake first heard the news.

The guard kept a positive attitude as he pressed through watery eyes as he detailed his response, showing respect for the situation and what actually matters when you're a part of a team.

“I found out with maybe a minute left in the game, but it’s different when it’s finally announced to you. Kind of overheard it from other people… It’s good though and it’s not all about the trophies either, it’s playing with your buddies. Something I’ll never forget for sure.”

The final buzzer rang. Fairfield 58, Three Forks 39.

As fans cheered, the Eagles and Wolves shook hands. The event's announcer called for attention, and began to break the news.

Hands immediately went to the heads of Fairfield's team as anyone who wasn't aware of the circumstances was now taken back by the announcement.

This included Eagles junior Conor Murray, who similar to his teammates around him, battled the conflicting feelings of winning a state title and having a state tournament ended with both tears and a smile.

“I didn’t know until the announcement," Murray said. "It’s a good feeling to be a state champ, but at the same time you want to have your first place and your second place."

Freshman Owen Cartwright also struggled to process the news, and simply wanted to thank Fairfield seniors Bake and Gaice Blackwell for everything they brought to the Eagles program.

“I want to say thank you to [the seniors] for everything they did for us and for helping us out.”

But after shock and sadness, there came a moment.

As the Lodge Grass team was welcomed back onto the court for the official announcement as Class B state co-champs, they embraced Fairfield.

Both sides bonded in a moment that went beyond basketball and will remain forever linked in the record-books as co-champions.

The two teams initially posed for separate team photos at first, but soon merged together, clasping hands and showing a sign of respect and mutual dissatisfaction that the Eagles and Indians wouldn't collide on the court.

"It was cool what happened with Lodge Grass," Ratliff said. "They're a great team, I know it would've been a battle, up-and-down game."

"Both teams deserve it. It's one of those times where there's a winner and a loser and you go up to the guy and say, 'You deserve to be there too.' At least we're both there... It's kind of surreal to be in this moment."

In that moment and the ones after, no one quite seemed to know what to do. Like many athletes around the country this week, seniors struggled to come to grips that they had just played their final games while others tried to focus on next year and getting back.

Both teams and fan bases milled around the floor, taking pictures with the brackets, the closest thing they could find to document what they had just accomplished since no trophies had been handed out.

They lingered there with their communities, trying to wrap their minds around the abrupt end, what it all meant and on a practical note, a plan for getting home as a spring snow storm had already and was forecasted to continue to impact the roads.

The route back to Fairfield from Butte included snow covered roads, ice, wind, severe driving conditions and even road closures in stretches according to the MDT road report. Lodge Grass had ice and black ice and with snow in the forecast for Butte and spreading the following day, travel could grow increasingly difficult.

“We just made the call a little bit ago," Fairfield superintendent Les Meyer said. "The roads are bad up there and parts closed and we could probably go around and get it, but we had figured on staying here anyway since we had won on Thursday night so we have everything paid for rather than put them on the road at this point in time and we just made the decision we’re just going to stay and go home tomorrow."

Fairfield is forecasted to receive about a foot of snow in the storm that could last through Sunday morning.

"Our policy is when you’re done you go home," Meyer said. "That’s what we do 98% of the time. This is one case where we’ll stay."

And people continued to stay on the floor, not quite ready to leave the moment or the season.

From the west half of the court, a song began to rise as members of the Lodge Grass community sang and dancing began in celebration of a state championship 30 years coming, even if it came in a way no one expected.

“We’re just a little disappointed because we worked hard for this," Lodge Grass junior Malachi Little Nest said. "All season we wanted to be state champions, it’s been so long and this is disappointing.”

Lewis Walks Over Ice, Ty Backbone, Cameron Three Irons and Kendall Old Horn started with the Lodge Grass district victory song which when translated means, “Valley of the Chiefs.” They only sing it after big wins and talked after about how happy they were to sing it again having learned it from the generations who came before them, a tie to their heritage.

Similarly, the players of this generation kept memories of the last great Lodge Grass teams front-of-mind in their quest to bring it back and add a sixth boys basketball championship.

The singers continued with a handshake song and a few by request that were love songs for social dancing, and as they continued smiles began to spread across the players faces again.

They joined hands with their families of all generations and danced as orange confetti swirled around their feet the gym floor and before the last people left, they stopped to watch.

Evan Reier is a sports reporter with the Montana Standard and 406mtsports.com. Hit him up with info @evanreier on Twitter or via email at Evan.Reier@mtstandard.com.

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