WORDEN - Huntley Project High School supporters were in tears again Saturday.
With few dry eyes and hundreds of grins, fans swept onto the football field to congratulate their new state champions. The outpouring came two months and four days, about a quarter of a mile and an emotional world away from the last time they all gathered in tears, as the high school burned on Sept. 18.
The Red Devils beat the Fairfield Eagles 41-28, clinching their first state football title in a decade.
Fans were rowdy during the sunny afternoon, but silence fell across the field on the Red Devils' last possession. With five seconds left on the clock, quarterback Wes Kragt took a knee and pandemonium broke out, including the wail of sirens from fire trucks parked near the field.
Earlier in the afternoon, the girls volleyball team clinched third place in the State B volleyball tournament with a loss to Manhattan-Christian in Bozeman. The football team hasn't won a state title since 1998. The volleyball team was the defending champion.
Both teams' coaches said this week that the adversity of losing their school didn't deter players, who remained focused on their goals.
Football players told coach Jay Santy last spring that they planned to win the title.
"They were pretty focused even back then," Santy said the day before his players made their plans a reality. "I'm just so proud of these guys for getting here - getting to the point where, they're just hours away from reaching what they've been dreaming about for a long time."
After the victory, Santy walked into the center of his team, who had all taken a knee near the end zone. They bowed heads in a prayer, most of the boys holding hands, then everyone erupted into celebration before quieting to hear their coaches speak.
"Good things always happen to good people, and you're good people," Santy said. "I'm proud of you."
Huntley Project's superintendent, Dave Mahon, said he is not surprised that students from the high school without a school building have excelled.
"I'd say it's amazing, but it really isn't - it's pretty consistent," said Mahon, who came to Huntley Project in 2003. "Every year they set the standard just a little bit higher and little bit higher."
This school year has brought tremendous struggles, he said, but "the one shining thing coming out of this fall has been their success."
"These kids are not selfish people, they're not about themselves, they're all about the Project," he said.
Gary Hubenthal traveled from White Sulphur Springs to watch his grandsons, Red Devils linemen Chris and Billy Henrichs, play in the championship game. Like his grandsons, Hubenthal once played a 10-0 football season. That was 1965, and his team went on to beat Phillipsburg in a 65-0 blowout.
"It's one of the things that will be with them all their life," said Hubenthal, 62.
Most of the football players, the Henrichs boys included, styled their hair in Mohawks for the game. Hubenthal was probably the only grandpa to do so. He shaved the sides of his head, leaving a dark strip of hair that was lined with red.
"I don't get to see 'em a lot," Hubenthal said. "I thought this was a way to show support."
Gen Becker leaned over the fence at the 10-yard line, waving a cowbell and yelling support for her hometown team. Born and raised on the Project, Becker said she watched the Red Devils win the '98 championship in Malta and would not have missed this game.
The boys have wanted to be champions and, "yeah, the fire happened," but their focus was the title, she said.
"It's been burning in their hearts," Becker said.
Making 'bad better'
In Bozeman, volleyball coach Iona Stookey said after Saturday's loss that everyone was tired. The exhaustion was not just from giving it their all on the court but also from all the travel and extra effort this season has required.
The team had a midseason emotional slump as players coped with the rigors of the season and adjusted to school life after the fire. Stookey recalled on Friday the two choices that she gave her players: "We can't change what happened. We can't forget about it, but we can get over it. Or we have to turn in our stuff. It's not going away."
Stookey said she thinks the seniors really listened and became better leaders.
"We've got a place to practice and we've just got to make bad better," she told the team.
She also reminded players to separate their sadness for the school from their competitiveness on the court.
"People are going to feel sorry for us because we lost our gym, but everybody still wants to win the match. Nobody is playing it to lose, in any game," she said.
The team's entire season, even practices, were on the road beginning the night after the fire, when they played in Lodge Grass. Because their gym was destroyed, the girls would practice in Lockwood and later, in preparation for state, at the Shrine Auditorium in Billings. Their home games were played at Skyview and Shepherd.
"It was hard to pull into the parking lot in a bus every night and look at the reason we're in a bus," Stookey said of the remains of the high school.
One of the big hits came the day that, for safety reasons, the entrance to the school was knocked down. It was standing when the team left for practice and gone when the Red Devils returned.
"When you could still see the front entry, it was still our school, kind of," she said.
In the aftermath of the fire, Stookey said she has been humbled by the outpouring of support from the community to the students and staff and also from former players to her.
For the team, the fire meant added responsibilities, such as hauling equipment for practices. It also meant learning to be grateful.
"It's been a life lesson for all of them to appreciate things that you have," Stookey said. "Just like that, they could be gone. I think that was the big thing, to appreciate what we're been doing and what we have as a team."