‘Winners that night’

1989 Class A Boys’ Basketball State Champion offers story, advice
Liz George — Enterprise Staff Writer
Thursday, March 7, 2019
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Enterprise file photo by Tom Shands

In this photo from 1989, Kelly Koontz (22) drives the ball during the Class A Boys’ Basketball State Tournament game against Anaconda.

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     The Rangers pose with their state championship trophy following their win against Anaconda at the 1989 Class A State Tournament. 

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   Mike Hamilton (32) goes up for a layup against an Anaconda defender.

The year is 1985. A small group of Livingston eighth graders watch in awe as Park High School plays hard in the Class A Boys’ Basketball State Tournament. The varsity Rangers dominate on the court and take home the state trophy.

The eighth graders who watched their high school idols win a state championship had just won a championship of their own at the St. Mary’s Tournament, but the young basketball players already had their eyes set on the future.

“We all said that we wanted to follow in the footsteps of those great teams in front of us,” said then eighth grader Kelly Koontz.

And just like that, a pact was born.

“We were going to win state our senior year,” said Koontz.

Two years later, in 1987, the boys’ resolve was challenged. The railroad pulled out of Livingston that year and took local families, and members of the eighth-grade pact, with it.

“A lot of people that were part of (the railroad) went to Lincoln, Nebraska and other places,” sighed Koontz. “There was a lot of disruption in Livingston when the railroad pulled out.”

Despite the rough blow to the team, the pact boys that were left behind refused to let the loss keep them down for long.

“There was a ton of effort. We played a ton of basketball all year round. We had a talented group our junior year, but we didn’t win it,” said Koontz. “Then in our senior year, 1989, we ended up coming together and the basketball gods smiled upon us.”

The basketball gods weren’t the only ones smiling that year. After only two losses all season, crowds decked out in purple and gold cheered on the Rangers as they took first in their conference and at the divisional tournament.

There was only one thing left to do: compete in the state tournament.

In the weeks leading up to state, the boys maintained their focus and drive.

“I remember the feeling of being part of a team that set that goal five years earlier. There was a miraculous lack of nerves. It was just a confident calm,” said Koontz.

Heading into the final game, the Rangers felt ready. One by one, the boys gathered in the locker room. They taped their ankles and laced up their shoes. The feeling before the game is one Koontz says he will never forget.

“We were remarkably calm,” said Koontz. “There was just a calm confidence that the work had been put in and we knew that we were destined to walk away winners that night.”

As the boys left the tranquil atmosphere in the locker room and ran out onto the court, they were met by rowdy and enthusiastic fans.

“The environment was raucous. We always had a great rivalry with Livingston and Anaconda. The stands were full and I think everyone was really excited to watch a great game,” said Koontz.

The championship game against Anaconda was fast paced and challenged the Rangers peaceful attitude.

In the fourth quarter, the Copperheads sank five 3-pointers and closed the gap the Rangers had built up. The score was 66-64 with just 3:02 left to go.

The Rangers didn’t let the onslaught of 3-pointers faze them. They pushed on through the adversity as they had done so many times before.

Suddenly, the buzzer sounded and the game was over. In an instant, a pact made between a group of eighthgraders in a small, mountainous railroad town came to fruition. The 1989 Rangers won the state championship, defeating Anaconda 79-70.

“It had actually happened,” remembered Koontz. “Something that we had been working toward for a long time. I just remember a sense of relief and just thinking, ‘We did it.”

Koontz walked around the court with his teammates. He thought about how, at one point in time, winning the state championship his senior year seemed so far off. But now, it was a reality. “It was pretty surreal,” Koontz said.

Now, thirty years since that night, the Park High Rangers have a chance to win the state championship once again.

“Here’s a piece of advice somebody gave me before I played in the state championship game,” Koontz said. “Whatever you do, don’t make it and lose. Enjoy every second of it and don’t lose. Win it.”

The Rangers face their first test of the state tournament against Hamilton at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 7.

With the same calm enthusiasm one might suspect the 1989 Rangers had, Koontz said, “I hope they now can replace us as the most recent state champions.”