POPLAR – Frank Bosh Gourneau III has spent much of his adult life trying to change the culture of the Poplar boys basketball program.
As a player at Poplar in the early 2000s, Gourneau never endured a losing season. He’s spent the past seven years on the coaching staff, slowly implementing a turnaround. The Indians had grown accustomed to winning one, two, three, or maybe four games during a season. Now, in Gourneau’s fourth season as the head coach, Poplar is District 2B’s regular-season champion, earning the No. 1 seed for this week’s district tournament and an automatic berth at the Northern B divisional tournament.
“Being the assistant prior to the head coach, I was able to work with my junior varsity, who stuck right into my role of varsity players,” Gourneau said. “We started putting together eight-, nine-, 10-win seasons. They wanted to win. There’s great community support, and everyone is getting on the same page.”
The turnaround, which is far from complete, hasn’t been easy. Poplar has long struggled to get boys to even go out for sports. The Indians canceled last fall’s varsity football schedule due to a lack of players, but Gourneau has seen a steady increase at his basketball practices.
In his first year as the head coach, Poplar finished the season with just 13 kids for its three teams – C squad, junior varsity and varsity. That number climbed to 15 in his second season and 20 players last year. This year, Gourneau still has 26 kids in the program.
“Kids are starting to come out and wanting to be on the team,” he said. “It used to be, ‘I don’t want to go out if I’m not going to be on the varsity.’ Now, it’s, ‘I want to be on that team.’ It’s not one C squad, JV, varsity, it’s the whole team. We’re all one. No matter what level you play at, we’re all one team.”
For the players on the team, the demands are high. Gourneau said his players are going to class, getting good grades and staying out of trouble. The majority of them wear dress shirts and ties on game days.
“I shouldn’t get reports from teachers and I never do. I rarely have an incident I have to deal with,” Gourneau said. “It’s just having high expectations of ourselves when we represent our town and school.”
Nobody embodies that responsibility more than Gourneau’s captains, Damon Sadler and Kenny Smoker.
Sadler, a senior, has played for Gourneau all four years of his high school career and developed into the team’s biggest leader. On the court, he’s one of the more dangerous scorers in Class B, adding his name to Montana’s list of 30-point scorers this season. As the Indians’ shooting guard, Sadler flashes uncanny abilities for someone with his 6-foot-4 frame and can score from all three levels.
“He can knock down the outside shot, good percentage from 3-point range,” Gourneau said. “When somebody gets up on him, he’s got a very fast first three steps. He can get around pretty much anybody. There’s not many guards his size, so his ability to stop and just rise up and hit a jump shot is pretty effective.”
Smoker is a junior and now a three-year starter at point guard and acts as Gourneau’s “coach on the floor” with his court awareness and ball distribution.
Darryl Joe, Wynn Main and Dion Hopkins fill other roles in the starting lineup and Chris Colgan and Logan Young bring defensive pressure and scoring off the bench, but all carry similar traits: They play hard and understand the expectations of the program.
“They’re a good group of kids that work hard,” Gourneau said. “They’re really close to one another. From freshmen to seniors, they always hang out with one another. They’re just a good group of kids.”
Which is probably the biggest part of changing a program’s culture.