His son did not attend a public school in Kalispell but wanted to play basketball during his teenage years, so Timothy Peterson signed him up to play on the Flathead Valley Home School team.
But when Peterson arrived at the program’s preseason meeting four years ago, the prospects were dim. There was no varsity boys basketball coach, no home court to practice on and barely enough players to put together a varsity team.
The group of parents asked Peterson, who had coached baseball for 10 years, if he would take over coaching duties for the program. Peterson had never coached basketball. He didn’t know the first thing about the sport. But his son wanted to play and the program was in need, so he agreed. He recruited a friend as an assistant and the two began trying to rebuild the program.
“We were both on the Internet nonstop, day and night, trying to learn about basketball,” Peterson said. “We read a lot of books. But really for us it was just the Lord giving us wisdom. And for me as a coach, your whole purpose is to uplift and strengthen the kids and encourage them. You can really put wings on these kids.”
A couple of months later, the boys were playing in the championship game of the Montana Christian Athletic Association state tournament.
Four years later, the Crusaders are one of the strongest MCAA programs in the state and enter this week’s finale as the defending champs.
The Flathead Valley Home School Crusaders (14-6 overall) are the No. 2 seed from the West at this year’s 10-team MCAA tournament in Helena, which runs Thursday through Saturday. The Crusaders will try to repeat for the first time since 2003-04.
“We all feel ready and if we play our game I think we can do it,” Peterson’s son Nate, one of the team’s senior starters, said before a recent practice.
Another strong local team, Stillwater Christian (14-5) is the West’s top seed for the third year in a row, setting up a possibility that the valley’s two teams could meet in the title game for the second year in a row.
Last year the FVHS Crusaders upset rival Stillwater by three points in the state championship. The victory came after two straight years of losing in the title game and capped a remarkable turnaround for a program of teenagers united from across the valley.
“These kids were just phenomenal last year,” Peterson said. “They were just joined at the hip. It’s different in the home school community. We’re a basic Christian organization and when God joins them together and when they join together, they find out what can happen.”
Kalispell is home to two of the best athletic programs in the MCAA. Since 2002, FVHS and Stillwater have combined to win six of the last nine girls basketball titles and five of the last nine boys basketball titles.
The Stillwater Christian girls basketball team is the defending MCAA champion and, like the boys team, is the top seed from the West this week.
“For us it’s a lot more than just basketball,” Stillwater boys coach Ted Clark said. “We’re working on developing Godly character and challenging the young men to honor Christ in their play and their academics. We’re trying to teach life lessons, not just basketball lessons.”
Peterson and his coaching staff have adopted that same mindset with the FVHS program.
The Crusaders are playing as well as they did a decade ago, when the team won back-to-back titles in 2003-2004. There are now over 20 players on varsity and junior varsity. The Crusaders sport new jerseys and no longer have to bounce around the region practicing at any gym that will have them. The program raised enough money before this season to rent out West Valley School’s full-court facility for practices and a few home games.
The Crusaders still spend most of their season traveling to play against other MCAA teams across the state as well as a couple of sophomore and JV teams from Class AA schools, such as Missoula Hellgate and Big Sky.
FVHS Athletic Director Diane Van Buren estimates there are roughly 400 families that home school in the area. The local home school association has been around since 1993, Van Buren said, and offers three sports – boys and girls basketball and volleyball. Boys soccer players have been able to compete on Stillwater’s team in the past.
“We make do with what we have and the kids have a great time and build some social relationships,” Van Buren said. “Sports are always great for building character. You come across some of the frustrations that you’re going to deal with in life.”
Before each practice, Peterson reads a Bible verse. He talks about its message and meaning and how the boys can adopt it, both inside and outside the gym.
Four years ago, Bible verses were about the only blueprint the team had.
“The first year we got to the state tournament mostly on heart,” Peterson said. “We didn’t have any shooters or offense. Just straight defense.”
The team had won only a couple games the year before and surprised everyone at state in 2009. FVHS met Foothills Community Christian School from Great Falls in the title game, but the Crusaders’ defense was not enough, and the boys lost. The result was exactly the same the following year. But Peterson saw a change happening.
“We watched these kids develop and grow and put their heart into it,” he said. “We teach them that you develop your individual skill in the offseason and then it’s about team skill during the season.”
Last year the team’s offensive prowess began catching up with its defensive intensity. The Crusaders averaged close to 60 points per game – and nearly surpassed 100 in one game – and at state the boys eliminated their nemesis, Foothills, in the semifinals. Then came the memorable title game against Stillwater, a milestone that has been remembered and built upon this season.
“I really wanted to play basketball in high school but being home schooled I didn’t know if I could. Then I found out they had a program,” Logan Prier, one of the Crusaders’ senior starters this year, said. “I’ve never been a part of something like that (state championship).”
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