The Ronan men’s and women’s basketball teams had a unique experience playing in the Alaska Airlines Classic last week. The Chiefs and Maidens not only became the first Montana teams to play and win in Alaska in the tournament, but they also turned in some confidence-building performances against schools three to four times their size.
The journey began last year, when Ronan arranged a Zoom call with the makers of the “Alaska Nets” documentary. After holding a fundraiser at Ronan High School with the documentary, they were named finalists in a contest to win a trip to Alaska.
During the Zoom call, the school held a rally to show why the school should be chosen out of over a thousand schools to win. During the call, it was announced that both basketball teams had won the trip to Anchorage.
“There were a lot of firsts there,” said women’s basketball coach Steve Woll. “We were the first Ronan team to play in Alaska, the first team to have a shot clock there. It was absolutely amazing, the people there were so nice to us and they really treated us like royalty.”
Ronan also played in front of 2,000 fans in a game when West Anchorage brought their entire school and community to the matchup. Woll said that since both schools had the same colors and fight songs, it felt like a home game.
“The place was going crazy; it was like a divisional or state game,” Woll said. “A lot of kids don’t understand that atmosphere.”
In general, Alaska was an incredible host for visiting athletes.
“West Anchorage did a great job accommodating us with gym time, a room to film. They did our laundry, they spaced us out for dinner, anything we needed they were sure to provide,” Chiefs head coach DJ Fish said. “They did an amazing job and we appreciate everything.”
Getting to Alaska was unlike any other road trip in Montana. Fish noted that Alaska was a lot like Montana and said the kids were excited to travel and represent Ronan.
The girls traveled to Alaska first, as their tournament started earlier. They competed with a three-hour time zone change and much less sunlight during the day.
“There were a lot of connections up there with Montana, a lot of people knew or were related to people from Montana,” Woll said. “Lots of Montana Griz gear in there.”
The Ronan boys’ buses left at 3 am to go to the airport for the flight to Anchorage. After landing and checking in at the Captain Cook Hotel, the boys watched the girls play and then ate Moose’s Tooth Pizza.
“I’m not sure if we had anybody awake when the bed controls came in,” Fish said.
The girls spent their free time riding a gondola up a ski mountain, driving along the Alaskan coast, and going to the zoo. Practices were held in the mornings and they played their games at night after sightseeing. Woll said this helped keep the children on their regular internal clocks.
The boys’ team visited downtown and bought souvenirs when they weren’t playing basketball. The Chiefs also ate at local restaurants, explored the mall, and did some sightseeing at Beluga Point. They also drove to Flat Top, which overlooked Anchorage, the nearby mountains, and the ocean.
“Overall the trip was great,” Fish said. “I don’t think I’ll ever have another experience like this as a coach, and I’m not sure many of these guys will have it as high school players. The tournament staff will surely thank us and were very appreciative of how well behaved our Guys. Our coaching staff and players appreciate everyone who helped make this possible and thank everyone who continues to work hard at it.”
Both coaches felt the tough competition and team togetherness would help the Chiefs and Maidens down the stretch of the Class A season. Woll said the experience showed his players what it’s like to be a traveling professional athlete and created a life of memories, friendships and acquaintances in other teams.
“We have a big thank you to everyone involved in this effort,” Woll said.
For game summaries, see page 1B.