State championships aren’t given — they are earned

Tony Bender

Every small town has legends. People whose imprint is fossilized mostly by oral tradition into a community’s history. Among the builders, leaders, scofflaws and characters, athletes are usually the most remembered.

We’ve witnessed a parade of Ashley and Wishek wrestling champions in the past two decades, so many it’s become almost routine. It’s anything but. Each medal is measured in years of blood, sweat and, yeah, tears. Some championship teams were steamrollers, some a matter of destiny, and others flat out miracles.

This year the South Border Mustangs have two more state champions to add to the mythological firmament. In successive weeks, track and field standout Faith Dockter, and golfer Emily St. Aubin recorded state championships.

Faith, a lithe junior, came into the State Class B Track Meet as the 16th seed and left as the new state javelin champion with a toss of 138 feet, 9 inches. Her season best going in was 115 feet. That’s more than clutch. It’s the whole transmission, V-8 engine, and drive shaft.

Then there’s Emily who recorded an unprecedented fourth-straight state golf title as a sophomore. Her first win came as a seventh grader. Even though she had to abandon an uncooperative driver early in favor of a hybrid iron, she won by eight strokes.

Golf’s a notoriously fickle game. You can hit it great, and get a bad bounce. You can carom off of a tree and get a birdie. A minute variation in your swing can spell disaster. Even after dominating golf for a few seasons as much as anyone can dominate golf, Tiger Woods decided he needed to fix his swing. It’s that kind of game. You don’t really play golf as much as survive it.

But the golf gods — and there certainly are golf gods — favor diligence. My daily commute takes me past the Ashley Country Club where I first saw Emily as a newborn, riding along in her father Jeremy’s golf cart. These days he’s the team coach. A few days before the state tournament, on a miserable gray, cold, drizzly morning, I spotted Emily on the course, as I often do, practicing her putting. She didn’t three-put the whole tournament.

As I scan back at the names I know in this column, there’s a parallel — character, which is inexorably entwined with hard work. They earned it. Every one of them.

In Hettinger, Ted Uecker, he of the diminutive stature and monolithic mouth, is still remembered as much for his colorful refereeing as his wizardry on the basketball court. Notably, he never recorded a rebound in his entire life.

Nor did he ever pass the ball. Not once. He sure as hell never dunked. He might have played a little defense if only to steal the ball so he could shoot. His instructions to his teammates were simple, “You big donkeys just get me the ball.” Despite a long list of shortcomings that have only grown with the years, he played big enough to get a tryout with the Minneapolis Lakers. Or was it the Celtics? It doesn’t matter. Any story about Teddy is going to involve lies. Mostly his. He must have been pretty good though, he made the North Dakota State Hall of Fame in 1990. He wasn’t so much inducted as indicted.

Then there was the late legend 6-foot-8 John Butterfield who led Hettinger to a 1957 championship and coached the Black Devils to a title in 1983 with another arrogant — he’ll say ‘confident’ — Ted Uecker at the helm. There were three Teds. So this one is technically Ted III or Ted Junior Junior. My father, a member of the Ashley Aces, often talked about how great John Butterfield was. John, in turn, spoke in tones of admiration for Ashley’s magnificent Otto Raile.

In Frederick, South Dakota, where I grew up, people revered the scrappy 1967 Vikings basketball team that finished third at state. Years later for an all-school reunion game, Danny Dosch, my pal Al-Cat’s brother, reprised his role as guard with a firm handle on the ball and a memorable bit of swagger.

Every season, my old coach Ken Pudwill would recount the lightning-crack sound of the tackle Jon Oschner put on a kid that was so loud it was heard in Cresbard. It’s unclear if the victim survived.

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