Trip of a Lifetime: Maidens and Chiefs travel to Alaska

The Ronan boys’ and girls’ basketball teams had a once-in-a-lifetime experience at last week’s Alaska Airlines Classic. Not only were the Chiefs and Maidens the first Montana teams to play and win the tournament in Alaska, but they put on some confidence-building performances against schools three to four times their size.

The journey began last year when Ronan hosted a Zoom call with the filmmakers of the Alaska Nets documentary. After holding a fundraiser at Ronan High School featuring the documentary, they were nominated as finalists in a competition to win a trip to Alaska.

During the Zoom call, the school held a pep talk to show why the school should be chosen from 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 up there,” said girls basketball coach Steve Woll. “We were the first Ronan team to play in Alaska, the first team to have a shot clock up 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 for a game as West Anchorage brought his entire school and community to the matchup. Woll said that since both schools shared the same colors and fight songs, it felt like a home game.

“The place was crazy; it was like a divisional or state atmosphere-like game,” Woll said. “A lot of kids don’t have that atmosphere.”

All in all, Alaska was a great host to the visiting athletes.

“West Anchorage did a great job of providing us gym time and a room for movies. They did our laundry, offered us space for dinner, anything we needed they certainly provided,” Chiefs head coach DJ Fish said. “They did a great job and we appreciated everything.”

The road to Alaska was unlike any other Montana road trip. Noting that Alaska felt similar to Montana, Fish said the kids were excited to travel and represent Ronan.

The girls traveled to Alaska first as their tournament started earlier. They struggled with a three hour time zone change and much less sunlight during the day.

“There were a lot of connections up there in Montana, a lot of people knew or were related to people from Montana,” Woll said. “Lots of Montana Griz gear up there.”

The Ronan boys’ buses left at 3am to go to the airport for the flight to Anchorage. After landing and checking into the Hotel Captain Cook, the boys watched the girls play and then ate Moose’s Tooth Pizza.

“I’m not sure if we had anyone awake when the bed check came,” 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. The exercises were held in the morning, and in the evening after the tour, they played their games. Woll said this helped keep the children on their normal internal clocks.

The boys’ team explored downtown and shopped for 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,” said Fish. “I don’t think I’ll ever have that kind of coaching experience again, and I’m not sure a lot of these guys will do it as high school players. The tournament staff certainly thanked us and they did. I’m very grateful for how well our boys behaved. Our coaching staff and players appreciate everyone who helped make this possible and thank those who continue to work hard to make it happen.”

Both coaches felt the fierce competition and team bonding would help the Chiefs and Maidens into the home stretch of the Class A season. Woll said the experience showed his players what it’s like to be a traveling professional athlete and that it created lifelong memories, friendships and acquaintances on other teams.

“We just have a big thank you to everyone who was involved in this effort,” Woll said.

See page 1B for game summaries.

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