TWIN BRIDGES — Kailee Oliverson, who was once so shy she avoided competitive basketball — despite obvious talents — because the idea of all those eyes watching her made her shudder, had a skip day from school early last week.
She had to meet with the governor.
“A really cool experience,” the Twin Bridges High School junior dubbed her time with Gov. Steve Bullock in Helena.
Oliverson wasn’t there to talk about high jumping or jump shots, though Bullock no doubt was apprised of her prowess in track and with 406mtsports.com's second-ranked Class C basketball team. She was instead showcasing another skill, tied more to brains than brawn.
What began as exasperation over a 3½-hour wait between seating and eating at a Los Angeles restaurant during a family vacation ultimately resulted in an innovative smartphone app. In short, with help from Twin Bridges business/technology teacher Jody Sandru, Oliverson parlayed a growling stomach into a way to merge pager, menu and app to streamline the big-city dining experience.
“I’m kind of surprised no one else came up with this,” she said. “I guess in bigger cities they’re just used to waiting. But I was starving and it kind of made me mad. Up here you don’t have to wait for anything!”
For the ingenuity of her “Why Wait” app, Oliverson took first place in the New Business Idea category of the annual Montana Teenpreneur Challenge. The prize: $500 and lunch with the governor.
“That’s not something that randomly happens; you don't just get lucky,” noted Josh Keller, her first-year basketball coach. “It’s for people who put themselves in situations through hard work and dedication.”
And there are few better descriptors than “dedication” for Oliverson, a rangy 6-foot-3 all-round athlete whose hunger to achieve has served her well in athletics, too.
Oliverson has combined uncommon drive and talent to become one of the state’s top players at any level. She has averaged 21.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 3.6 blocks and 4.3 steals a game while playing every position for a team so dominant its starters rarely see much of the floor after halftime.
Last week, for instance, Twin Bridges trounced rival Sheridan 66-6. With seniors Mara Johnson, Audrey George, Cassie Williams and Brooke Schandelmeier ably supporting juniors Oliverson and second-leading scorer RaeAnne Bendon, the Falcons (13-0) appear to be on a collision course with defending state champion and top-ranked Belt come March.
“The expectations are all the way to the top with me, but we’re not going to look past anybody or anything,” Keller said. “We’re not in a rush to go grab any ending story.”
Said Oliverson: “We want to make the state championship. That's our main goal.”
And to think she once cringed at the thought of playing in front of the type of crowds that’ll be watching the Falcons in Belgrade on March 2-4 if their lofty aspirations are met.
As a third-grader, “Kailee was painfully shy,” remembers her father, Dave Oliverson, a Montana Highway Patrol sergeant based in the Butte district. “She absolutely was not going to play because she didn't want anyone to look at her while she was on the court.”
An evening of family Scripture study altered her course. Kailee interpreted one parable as suggesting an inevitable fiery eternity for anyone neglecting God-given gifts. Already, she was dominating her older cousins on the concrete outdoor basketball court on the family homestead outside of Cardwell, where her father grew up.
“I asked my mom, ‘What about my talents? I’m really athletic and stuff’,” Kailee recalled.
Britta Oliverson, a former educator and now manager of Montana's TNT fireworks stands while pursuing a master's degree, played along impishly.
"She asked, 'So if I don't play basketball, then I'll go to Hell?' " Britta Oliverson remembers. "Going along with it, 'I said, "that's one way to look at it!' "
“So yeah," Kailee remembers with a laugh, "I better play basketball.”
So at age 9, Kailee joined Cardwell's junior-high team. By high school, another decision loomed.
The family lives between Twin Bridges, Whitehall, Harrison and Three Forks, in an undulating no-man’s-land where Kailee runs mountain trails above the Jefferson River. She nearly opted for Harrison to play alongside a close friend, but she instead chose the tradition and coaching at Twin Bridges — along with the 60-mile commute that comes with it.
She rises at 5:45 a.m. weekdays, drives a younger sister to school amid a pinball gallery of deer and elk, watches the boys practice if they’re scheduled first (Keller coaches both teams), and often arrives home around 8:30 p.m. with time enough for a shower, supper and homework.
“It’s a pretty boring drive, but I love to sing in the car, so that makes it go by faster,” she said, acknowledging that her routine is exhausting.
Even so, Keller says, Oliverson routinely is the last player to leave the gym, though he often must banish the entire team so he can get home to Dillon at a decent hour. It’s all part of an ethic that drives the Falcons, and notably Oliverson, who could skate on her talent but refuses to do so and by all accounts derives her greatest pleasure from seeing her teammates shine.
After all, she envisions performing in front of even larger crowds one day. Montana and Montana State have watched her, and other NCAA Division I programs are interested.
Class C doesn’t provide much competition, but recruiters know of Oliverson through her Montana Hoops AAU squad that won a national title last summer at one of the team's five NCAA preview tournaments. She can play the point, protect the rim and hit 3-point shots.
As a sophomore last spring, Oliverson also won the state high jump title by two inches and was second in the 100 hurdles. The first time Keller saw her, she grabbed the rim with the middle of her hand from the standing position, without warming up.
“She’s been given unbelievable talent, but she’s utilized it,” he said. “She’s always working, always trying to get better. She’s only going to get better.”
Which means a girl who was once painfully shy has no time for shyness now.
Basketball is taking Oliverson places, and her app just might, too, beyond the governor's office. In her sparse spare time, she is working not only with Sandru but also UM to make a reality of an idea that could put Twin Bridges on the map for something other than blue-ribbon trout fishing and a bicyclist overnighters.
“Right now we’re trying to figure out how to make a pager that you can just access a menu off of,” Oliverson said. “That’s one thing I’m struggling with.
"But hopefully someone will take me up on offer and make it a reality.”