Don Buechler and his wife, Cindy, will be treated to some stunning scenery and wildlife this week as part of their long-awaited Alaskan cruise.
The natural wonders, though, won’t be as big and breathtaking as the amazing scene that suddenly unfolded in front of them last Wednesday afternoon at Fairmont Hot Springs.
The Buechlers, a retired couple, coach the boys golf team at Columbus High School, which shot its best two rounds of the season and knocked off five-time reigning Class B champion Missoula Loyola en route to experiencing state championship glory for the first time since 1997.
“Without a doubt, the scenery will be nothing compared to what we just witnessed,” Don Buechler said before leaving for Alaska. “It was unbelievable. It just all came together at the state tournament.”
Senior Philip Holten, 18, emerged as the Cougars' first state medalist since four-time champ Brandon Davison in 1998 by shooting rounds of 71 and 74 for a 1-over 145 and three-stroke victory.
Senior teammate Jackson Klee, 17, who will join Holten at Rocky Mountain College next fall, tied for third at 149.
Sophomore Ryland Stampfel, 16, who closed with a 79, and senior Stone Belvin, 17, who carded an 84, also contributed with solid final rounds. Sophomore Chaz Krone, who just turned 16, rounded out the roster.
"Just watching the kids walk in ... the expressions on their faces, the hugs and some tears," Buechler said. "I had my share of tears as well. It was just a group celebration.
"I'm just so proud of these young men to do what they did under pressure."
Columbus and Loyola were tied at 314 after the first round. The Cougars shot another 314 on the second day in beating the Rams by 10 strokes.
"Coming into the year I don't think anybody else really counted us in, except for us," Holten said. "That's the part that is kind of cool about it."
“We just believed in each other and we just told everybody to just play their game,” Klee said.
Holten, who is known for his ability to scramble, knocked down a pivotal 15-foot par putt on his 16th hole, while Stampfel had just 29 putts in the final round -- including only 11 on the back nine.
“There was excitement out on the course, but I didn’t really believe it until I got on the bus and we had the trophy in our hands,” Stampfel said of the championship. “That’s when it really hit me.”
“I’m going to wear a smile for a long time -- both of us,” Buechler said of his and his wife’s reaction to the title-winning performance.
In the days that followed, Buechler celebrated his 66th birthday on Saturday and the couple also departed for a week-long cruise to Alaska to mark their 47th anniversary, which was Tuesday.
Don has been the head coach at Columbus for the past three seasons, while Cindy has assisted for 10 years.
He is retired after working 17 years in maintenance for the Columbus schools, while his wife is retired after managing the clubhouse at Stillwater Golf Course for 20 years.
“Seeing them both get so emotional really showed how much they care about all of us,” Holten said. “They are both outstanding and caring people, and they both deserve way more credit than they think they do.”
Holten said it also meant a lot to him to claim individual honors and a team championship in front of his father, Dennis, and his mother, Janelle, two of his biggest supporters. Then there’s his grandmother, Ella Holten, who also marked her 91st birthday last Wednesday.
“I got a call and she was so excited that I had won for her birthday,” Holten said.
Columbus claimed five consecutive State B-C team titles from 1993-97, and the Cougars have come close to winning it all in recent years.
"It's been a long time, and this is a pretty big deal," Belvin said of finishing on top. "Any state championship in a small town is a big deal."
So when the Columbus team bus exited the freeway last Wednesday night at about 9:30, the Cougars were escorted to the high school by a firetruck.
Buechler said his longtime friend Paul Edwards, who coached Columbus to all those team and individual titles in the 1990s, was part of a rousing reception in the school's parking lot, along with fellow students and parents. The boys and girls on the golf teams were then paraded briefly around town on a firetruck.
"Being on the golf team you never really see all those people," Krone said. "It just shows that people really do care about golf and your sports teams no matter how much you think they don't."
Prior to state, Holten and Klee were very much aware that Columbus’ place in history -- with its streak of five titles in the 1990s -- was being threatened by Loyola’s drive for six in a row, but they kept it to themselves.
“We didn’t mention it to the team for fear of adding extra pressure,” Klee said.
While Loyola’s winning streak had everyone else's attention, Columbus, which won the Division 2 title at Pryor Creek after weathering a snowy and windy spring, entered state with confidence.
"I really think the main thing is we utilized the practice round pretty well," Holten said. "We all kind of talked about shots to hit and shots not to hit. It seemed to work in the second day."
And, in the end, it was quite a sight to see.