Sep 20, 2013 1:00 PM by Richie Melby (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Every Montana high school has its own sports following, but which fan bases are the most passionate? I set out on a journey to find the "Top Sports Schools" regarding fan passion over the past few years. With the help of statewide coaches, media members and fans, the quest is coming to a close. Our final stop lands us at the most enthusiastic Class C schools.
4. Twin Bridges
Nominated: Chinook, Harlowton, Drummond
The lights in the post office are off. The café sign is flipped to "CLOSED." Not a single vehicle is cruising down Main. It's game day in a Class C town.
"Sports are kind of the game in town, the big show in town," said Belt football and girls basketball coach Jeff Graham. "That's why a lot of the people follow them."
Small town fans think more of sporting events than they do of weddings - and actually encourage those in attendance to stand and protest. Towns like Belt may not have the population of Billings or Great Falls, but when it comes to packing stands, nobody parties like Class C.
"I think Class C towns have a higher percentage of fans that follow the sporting events," said Graham. "The traditional schools continue to have a good following. It might not be the high numbers like (Class AA) but I think Class C definitely gets the higher percentage of (fans) from the towns."
"A lot of it has to do with the idea that everyone knows who the kids are," explained long-time Charlo coach Bret Thompson. "It might be a neighbor, cousin, or friend of a friend...that's what you're getting when these teams go on the road.
"Everyone wants to see what the program is going to do for the year."
Communities like Belt have been fortunate over the years. Dusty trophies line the hallways with markings dating to the 1970s and beyond. Today's crop of Huskies has fulfilled expectations, adding shiny new plaques to the already cluttered trophy case.
"Kids have a lot invested in their community. They have a lot of school pride," said Graham. "I think it means a lot more to these kids to wear their (school) colors than it does at bigger schools."
"We have people that are still wearing the Charlo purple they bought in the 1960s and 1970s," added Thompson. "It's the idea that they want to be a part of something good.
"We have been lucky here. There have been some pretty successful teams and our community really likes being a part of that."
Charlo, like Belt, has a rich history in the Montana sports record books. Thompson has manned the sidelines for 28 years, and says fans still sit at the coffee house reminiscing of the ‘good old days.'
"I have been here just long enough to hear locals talking about football in the 1970s," he said. "That really put Charlo on the map. Now we hear it but we're getting compared to it. People just want to be a part of it: past, present and future."
Those are the faces you will find in small gyms. Grandparents that played in the schools' early days. Parents that passed skills through the family tree. Even those familiar town folk with no obligation to cheer - other than the thrill of being part of something big. A fanatic.
"If you go to a Class C track meet, you will see people there that go every year. It doesn't make a difference if they have their own kids or not," said Thompson. "It's the same way in basketball and other sports.
"I can go to a tournament over here and see people that were there when I was in high school."
Thompson and Graham each have Class C backgrounds. Prior to leading Charlo to state titles, Thompson roamed the Superior High hallways. Graham was an All-State football, basketball and track star in Chester. Each segued brilliantly from playing surface to sideline. And despite pressure to win big and win now, it's a transition all too familiar.
"You're used to the big crowds and that support," said Graham. "I think how tight we are in these communities plays a big role in that.
"There is a lot expected of Class C coaches. The community expects you to produce winners, but they want you to be respectful and represent them really well."