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NAIA fans

Students from Meadowlark Elementary cheer on the Campbellsville Tigers at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark in March 2018.

Some big fans of the Campbellsville, Kentucky, Lady Tigers have never visited Kentucky and had not watched a basketball game until this college women's team came to Billings three years ago.

Meadowlark Elementary students will meet their NAIA Division I Women's National Basketball Tournament team again this week. The Tigers' visit to Meadowlark is part of the Champions of Character program that will pair each of the 32 tournament teams with a local elementary school. The character program is important for teaching tournament values of community service, sportsmanship, hard work and perseverance, according to Alex Tyson, director of VisitBillings.

Meadowlark students remember the Tigers for the games and dance the athletes taught them, said Principal Stacy Lemelin.

The Campbellsville Tigers first visited Meadowlark in 2017, the first year that Billings hosted the national tournament. Students in grades 3, 4 and 5 assembled in the gym where Coach Ginger Colvin talked to them about what she looks for in players: Students who persevere to become college athletes, people who work as hard in the classroom as on the basketball court. The college athletes play games with the elementary kids, games that involve trust and cooperation. Last year, the team taught the Meadowlark students a dance game called "ride the chicken." Lemelin's students were still doing the dance months later on the playground.

The third team visit is expected to end as the others have with hundreds of elementary students lining the hall to chant and yell their team to victory.

"I love this. Our kids love this," said Lemelin, whose daughter, Jeanann Lemelin, plays basketball for Montana State University Billings.  Before meeting the Tigers, "some of my kids had never met a college athlete, never been to a basketball game, never been to Metra."

The Tigers and the the tournament have expanded the students' horizons.

In addition to Billings Public Schools, NAIA teams are scheduled to visit St. Francis Catholic School and elementary schools in Laurel and Lockwood today and Tuesday.

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Many students will have the opportunity to attend tournament games that start Wednesday. Meadowlark's 244 students in grades 3-5 are scheduled to attend a game Thursday. The Tigers will meet Great Falls Providence in the 2:15 p.m. game. Cooper Tires/Tire-Rama is sponsoring game tickets for students as part of Champions of Character.

On Friday, Scheels sporting goods will partner with MetraPark to provide free tickets to students in the area's rural schools. ExxonMobil will sponsor Billings Senior High special education students to attend a tournament game.

Last year, more than 2,900 students attended tournament games, courtesy of local sponsors. Tyson hopes the 2019 student attendance outpaces last year.

The Meadowlark students' enthusiasm for the NAIA tournament should inspire Billings folks to get out to Rimrock Auto Arena for the tournament. The single-elimination competition includes eight games on Wednesday, eight on Thursday, eight on Friday and four on Saturday. The two semifinal games will be March 18 with the championship game March 19 carried live on ESPN3.

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