BOZEMAN – In Columbia Falls, basketball means something. It’s why hundreds of fans traveled 600 miles round trip in Montana’s unpredictable March weather to watch their team win the Class A boys basketball tournament last week. True, many towns love their high school teams, but few have the Columbia Falls kind of love.
But how does one measure such things? How do we gauge a bouncing ball’s impact on a rural community? Fan numbers and decibel levels at games only tell part of the story. And besides, no number can properly explain any love, especially a love shared by thousands, unwavering for half of a century.
“We like all of our sports, but boys basketball is No. 1 in our community,” said Randy Bocksnick, a local barber. “We love our basketball. I can’t even tell you what basketball means to this community.”
If Bocksnick can’t find the proper words and terms of measurement, nobody can. Bocksnick has followed the Wildcats for 46 years. He takes photographs at every possible game and he has never missed a divisional tournament. In his barbershop, which he has owned for all of those 46 years, a plaque proclaims “Super Fan.”
Last summer, Bocksnick was cutting the hair of head boys coach Cary Finberg when Finberg offered a proposition. Would Bocksnick care to be an honorary coach for a game during the season?
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, yes. I’ve dreamed about it,’” Bocksnick said last week in Bozeman, where he was following the team and taking photographs.
So at a Feb. 12 home game against rival Whitefish, Bocksnick was on the sidelines, carrying out his honorary coaching duties. Finberg invited him to share words with the players in the locker room. Not only can Bocksnick describe every detail of the game, he remembers the exact day Finberg first made the offer: June 1. It’s that kind of love.
“It was the highlight of my life,” Bocksnick said.
Like many fans, Bocksnick has followed the Wildcats through thick and thin. Like all fans, he prefers the thick. It’s a lot easier to get excited about teams that are winning and Columbia Falls has been winning for the better part of 50 years, with a few lulls that are largely forgotten today.
But during Finberg’s 15 years as head coach the program has soared to new levels. In 2003, the Wildcats won the first state title in school history with a 53-47 victory in overtime over Billings Central. They have since added Class A titles in 2005, 2006 and this year. In 2009 and 2010, they finished second and third.
With five championship game appearances in nine years, including four victories, the Wildcats have been arguably the most successful basketball program in the state at any level over that span. But getting the first title wasn’t easy. Columbia Falls was a perennial contender in the 1960s and 1970s and made it to three state title games in that period, losing the games by a combined nine points.
“We were always the bridesmaid, but never the bride,” said Ralph Johnson, who coached the Wildcats for more than 20 years from the 1960s into the 1980s. “It’s great to see Columbia Falls get a state championship. We waited a long time. I’m really happy for the fans and the town. They waited a long time too.”
Johnson was in the stands at Montana State University’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse watching Columbia Falls win its fourth Class A title on March 5. His grandson is Parker Johnson, a junior guard on the team. All three of his sons also played basketball at the high school.
Johnson traces Columbia Falls’ basketball fervor back to the Wildcats’ first championship game appearance in 1963 when they were in Class B. The Wildcats lost to Big Sandy 59-53.
“After that, the fans were pretty adamant,” Johnson said.
After Johnson’s departure, Finberg said the team continued to have solid seasons through the 1980s until hitting a rough patch in the 1990s. When Finberg took over as head coach in 1996, the team had compiled an 8-52 record in the previous three years and hadn’t won a divisional contest in longer than that. Finberg took the Wildcats to the state tournament in his first season.
“Columbia Falls was a basketball town when I was a kid,” Finberg said. “When I started coaching, our program was basically in the dumps and being a Columbia Falls graduate I was embarrassed.”
He added: “I wanted to bring the respect back to the community and the program.”
With respect restored, the town shows its gratitude every game. And in these hard economic times – and they most certainly are hard in economically depressed Columbia Falls right now – who doesn’t want something to cheer for? These fans cheer, and cheer loudly, no matter where their Wildcats are playing in this vast state. The support does not go unnoticed by players and coaches.
“Our supporters, I don’t think they miss a game,” said senior Chris King. “They come whether they’re 200 miles away, 300 miles away or whatever. I think if it was 1,000 miles away, they’d come. It makes you proud putting on that uniform and being a Wildcat.”
Senior point guard Nick Emerson, who scored 26 points in the title game, understands that being part of Columbia Falls’ rich tradition literally makes basketball more than a game.
“We’re not playing just for ourselves; it’s for our community,” Emerson said. “Every single one of them embraces us.”
Neither distance nor weather matters for these fans. They will show up at every game and they will never give up on these kids. They will not turn their backs on basketball. It’s loyalty. It means something. It’s that kind of love.
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