BELGRADE — The Poplar boys weren’t used to the position they found themselves in over the weekend.
Following their 68-58 win over Rocky Boy to claim the Northern B boys basketball title, senior guard Kenny Smoker handed the game ball to tournament workers in Shelby after the trophy presentation.
Shelby athletic director and tournament manager Mike White saw what happened and called out: “Hey! You guys get to keep the ball. It’s yours!”
Smoker sheepishly ran back to the stands and retrieved the ball, dribbling it a few times and grinning ear to ear.
Another memento from what’s been a magical season thus far.
“We’ve been working for this since I was a freshman, but we always come up short,” Smoker said. “But it feels good to finally bring home a trophy for the town.”
The Poplar boys are making their first trip to state since 1985, according to head coach Frank Gourneau. And they didn’t qualify through the back door via a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. They claimed the regular-season District 2B title, the district tournament title, and after qualifying for state with a 70-68 overtime win over Fairfield in the Northern B semifinals, they stayed focused, won the divisional title and earned the No. 1 seed at the state tournament in Belgrade.
And that’s a source of immense pride for the team and the community.
“This is great for our kids, more importantly it’s great for our town,” Gourneau said. “After (we qualified), I didn’t want to go to sleep because I thought I was going to wake up and it was going to all be a dream. The last time (we made state) was 1985, but we got some special pieces put together this year, and they did a great job. Kids put in a lot of hard work for our community and our community believes in us, our reservation.”
The many problems facing youth in the Poplar community and on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation are well-documented. And a basketball title goes a long way toward healing and providing a positive outlet for players and fans alike.
“We were told that nothing big has happened to Poplar in 30 years and it just went through our minds, ‘Why not us?’” said senior forward Wynn Main. “We work so hard to come through here to divisonals, and we came here and got it done.”
Smoker, who is co-captain of the Indians along with Main and senior Darryl Joe, agreed.
“It means a lot, it really means a lot,” Smoker said. “With all the struggles of the community – (winning) means a lot. It shows that there is hope in there.”
Now it’s off to state in Belgrade for a first-round matchup with Three Forks on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
Poplar (20-3) has the least amount of postseason experience among the eight-team field. Making it out of its division is a big step. In the past 14 seasons, 12 Class B state champions have hailed from the Northern B.
And what the Indians lack in experience, they make up for in belief.
“People don’t have to believe in us,” Gourneau said. “But our town believes in us, and we believe in each other and we’re just a tight family. Leave no doubt. That’s what it is, people doubted us – we’re just going to leave no doubt.”