SHELBY — Poplar boys basketball coach Frank Gourneau has shared a lot of messages with his team throughout the season. Ironically, the most important had nothing to do with Xs and Os.
“I always tell them, ‘Lose with class and win with class. Try to be as respectful as you can,’” he said.
That message seems to have carried weight.
As the final seconds ticked away during Friday night’s Northern B divisional semifinal between Poplar and Fairfield, a game tied 68-68 in overtime, Gourneau watched as his guard Kenny Smoker shot a desperation 3-pointer that went long but happened to find the fingertips of forward Darryl Joe, who gently laid the ball off the backboard and through the net to secure a 70-68 victory.
Though the crowd roared with applause and players jumped and shrieked in celebration, it wasn’t the game-winning heroics that made Gourneau proud, but what happened after.
As soon as Joe’s tip-in fell through the net and the final horn sounded, Fairfield guard Ryder Meyer fell to his knees, his head in his hands, in disbelief, frustration and sorrow. Poplar forward Wynn Main noticed and ended his celebration to bring Meyer, a multi-sport standout and future Montana Grizzly football player, back to his feet.
“During the game I always tell them, ‘We may not know them, but even if they’re your friends, during that time we’re kind of enemies, but on the outside of it, when that buzzer rings, that’s when you need to be classy and have good sportsmanship,’” Gourneau said. “This is a great group of kids, really, and I keep stressing to them to win with class, lose with class. Really, they’ve been there before, you know? They know what those emotions are, so to be able to help kids during that time is a good thing for them.”
“When we won the game, I just saw him go on the ground and I didn’t want him to feel bad for anything he did, so I just went over there and talked to him, tried to cheer him up a little bit. He’s a phenomenal player, and respect to the Fairfield boys, they are a great team,” said Main, who had 12 points in the win. “I know that we were celebrating and everything, but you have to pick your opponents up, as well, and tell them that they played a great game, show that everyone’s a winner. I just felt like I had to go over there and help him up, because I’ve been in that position before and people have helped me up like that, too, and it makes me feel happy that I was able to do that for someone.”
Main wasn’t alone in the display of sportsmanship, either. Three teammates, including Smoker, quickly surrounded and consoled Meyer, who was taken aback by their act of kindness.
“It just meant a lot, honestly. I was thinking about it on the way home on the bus ride, thinking about how cool it was for a team that we don’t play that often to have that kind of sportsmanship and respect. I respect Poplar a lot, that meant a ton,” said Meyer.
“The whole team felt like they had to come over and help him up, great sportsmanship. It was a great game, and we have much respect for everyone, even our opponents. We tell them it was a great game, we tell them that during the game, as well,” said Main.
“It’s tremendously important, really, because those kids respect each other,” added Gourneau. “They know what they’re capable of and what they’ve done through the season. All the emotions aside, just being respectful. In our culture, that’s how we’re born and raised, really, to help each other.”
Poplar went on to win the Northern B divisional title, a 68-58 win over Rocky Boy, clinching the program’s first trip to state since 1985, per Gourneau. While the athletes certainly carved their place in Poplar history for that feat, it was the simple gesture, the display of sportsmanship, that defines them.
“It’s all about sportsmanship. Everyone loves this sport as much as we do, so we want to show our opponents the love that they give to the sport,” said Main. “We’ve learned from our past games that we’ve lost and we’ve held our heads low, but people hold us and help us high. We all had to go over there to (Meyer) and show that he’s a phenomenal player and to help him and everything.”
“These little kids, they watch these games and they take in what we do, so we have to show our younger people how much sportsmanship really does matter and how much it can change people,” Main continued. “We just had to go over there, help him up, not because we were forced to, but because we wanted to. We wanted to go over there and help him up, because we knew what he was feeling and we didn’t want him to (feel that). We picked him up, made him feel strong, and I’m happy that my teammates came over there and helped him up. After that (we were able to celebrate). Win with class, lose with class.”