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Win 'em all - setting the stage

March 15, 1969. 8:30 p.m.
The Barn, as many called the Montana State University Fieldhouse, dominated the south end of the Bozeman college’s campus. It had opened 11 years earlier with the distinction of being the largest clear span wooden structure in the world. Constructed as much to host college rodeos as basketball, the fieldhouse sported a dirt floor over which a parquet floor was placed for basketball games. That produced about a two-foot rise from the dirt base to the hardwood, resulting in a boardwalk-like path that players walked to get on the court, where they had been told to wipe their shoes on mats on the sidelines to avoid tracking dirt onto the playing surface.

On this state championship night, though, few members of a packed house inside the arena gave much thought to the fieldhouse’s architectural charms or its undeniable funky character. Some might instead have been thankful for the warmth generated by a crowd estimated at 10,700 people, especially if they had shivered in temperatures as cold as 24 degrees below zero earlier in the week in Bozeman.

The buzz from spectators, the chants of cheerleaders exhorting fans to shout their support and bands playing school songs and popular tunes at mega decibel pitches mingled to produce high anticipation. It peaked upon the crowd’s sight of the opposing teams.

No one knew, or knows, for sure but the Locomotives probably had claimed the hearts of a fourth or more of the spectators. Just as the Laurel band started playing its trademark song, “I’ve been working on the railroad,” the Locomotives sprinted onto the floor for their final warmups. A roar erupted from the bleachers.

Locomotive fans from Laurel had either made the 140-mile pilgrimage from their southcentral Montana hometown of about 7,000 that day or had driven to Bozeman a couple days earlier when the state tournament started. It likely wasn’t a highly productive week at the rail yards and an oil refinery that provided the bulk of local employment – gone to the tournament” was a common reason, spoken or unspoken, for employees not showing up.

Tournament attendees from other cities and towns jumped on the Laurel bandwagon as the Locomotives kept winning, swelling their fan base.

Together, the longtime fans and the new ones rose to their feet and gave a deafening cheer for the scrappy little Locomotives. Their 25-0 record made them the only defeated team among Montana’s larger high schools. Still, many wondered if Coach Don Peterson’s squad really had a chance of beating a formidable opponent. Lined up against the Locomotives were the Kalispell Braves, who drew from a school with an enrollment at least four times larger. The Braves had won 23 of their 25 games so far, drawing on their expense from the year before when they were state title runners-ups as a largely-junior squad.

Even a casual spectator who might not know those details would only have to glance at the court to see an apparent obvious advantage for the Braves: physical size. Junior center Brent Wilson, a 6-foot-11, 245-pounder, and 6-7 senior forward Don Groven led an imposing lineup that also included 6-4 senior Greg Ellingson. Laurel’s starters – and, for that matter – its bench topped out at 6-2.

It seemed a classic David vs. Goliath matchup.

To add to the ultimate drama, few, if anybody among the largest crowd to ever watch a basketball game in Montana knew they were witnessing the last Big 32 championship to ever be played. The six-year-old league brought together the state’s 32 largest schools for basketball competition only; they played in separate Class AA and Class A classifications during football season. Enrollments ranged from nearly 2,000 students for the state’s largest high schools, Billings Senior and Billings West, down to less than 200 for the smallest school, Butte Central, although the Maroons then were an all-boys Catholic school that nowadays also enrolls girls.

A few weeks later, in April 1969, the future of the Big 32 highlighted the agenda of a special meeting of the Montana High School Association, the governing body for prep athletic and academic extracurricular activities in the Treasure State. MHSA representatives from the affected schools voted, 19-13, to disband the league. This decision came in spite of its proven popularity among high school basketball fans: about 41,000 people had attended the 1969 Big 32 tournament, a three-day gate total that still stands as the Montana high school record.

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Jamie Larson