HARLEM — Laramie Schwenke had a relentless drive as a point guard at Malta and MSU-Northern. She led the M-Ettes to an undefeated season and a Class B championship in 2008 and was an all-conference selection with the Skylights in 2011-2012.
Now in her third year as head coach of the Harlem Lady Cats, she’s channeled that same drive into building a successful program.
“I’ve told them nothing comes without putting work in,” she said. “Keep working, take it one step at a time and we can reach our goals.”
The Lady Cats have seen unprecedented success this year. Harlem lost its season opener to the powerful Box Elder Bears and hasn’t lost since. The Cats have a 9-1 overall record and a perfect 6-0 mark in the always-competitive District 2B. It’s a stark turnaround for a team that won just six games last year and has never finished higher than third in its district.
“She would always preach what came out of hard work,” said junior Skylee Dirden about Schwenke’s lessons. “Everything that she’s been saying is kind of coming true. It’s been good, she helps us out a lot.”
Last year, Schwenke played several freshmen and sophomores, and the gamble paid off this year. The team starts two juniors and two sophomores with plenty of varsity experience. Though Harlem has already clinched a first-round bye at the district tournament, the team doesn’t want to stop there.
“We want to place at Northern B divisionals and make it to state, and try to place at state,” said junior Autumn Eagleman. “All of us want that. It would be making history, and it would just be amazing to see that change and to see how the community and others would look at us.”
Hard work and young talent have put Harlem in winning situations, but it’s the heart that takes over when a game is on the line. That was never more obvious than when the Lady Cats found themselves down by 19 points to then-undefeated Poplar earlier this month.
The team fought back one possession at a time and was trailing 53-52 with just 6.7 seconds on the clock and the ball out of bounds. Sophomore guard Taeshon Scheaffer found Eagleman wide open on the wing, and the junior forward knocked down the biggest shot of her life in front of a packed house for a 55-53 win.
“I wasn’t sure about the shot, but I had confidence and the team had confidence in me as well,” she smiled. “And then afterwards it was loud, it was just amazing.”
“It was so crazy, it was just showing off our heart,” added senior Payton Healy. “That was all from our hearts. We had nothing, we just had to do it from the heart, and it’s really cool to experience a win like that.”
But it was more than just an emotional win. It was a rallying point for an entire community. Just one day earlier, Harlem classmate and member of the boys team Jeremy Tincher passed away of hypothermia while walking on the highway between Harlem and Fort Belknap.
There was a big “Jeremy #14” banner hanging from the gym walls, and he was never far from the mind of the players and fans.
“We did it for him,” Eagleman said. “And we wanted to make sure that we succeeded and didn’t want to let anybody down, and for us we didn’t want to let ourselves down either. We just wanted to do it for him.”
Sports can’t heal pain, but they can certainly provide a respite.
“The school was in a lot of pain,” Schwenke said, “so I truly think the win helped.”
The tight-knit Harlem community has gotten behind the Lady Cats, and it has the team believing that this year could be a turning point. Harlem girls basketball has arrived.
“The games have been way better,” Dirden said. “The atmosphere makes us play harder, because we’re making our fans proud, and that’s something we’ve always wanted to do. But this year it seems like, more than anything, the crowds are really loving to come watch us.”
Proud fans, proud coach, driven team.