The Ellsworth Panthers were welcomed home in style Saturday night after claiming the consolation championship at the State Class A Basketball Tournament earlier in the day in St. Paul.
The small town’s rescue vehicle and several fire trucks tooted their horns and sounded their sirens to lead the yellow and black school bus into town shortly after 7 p.m., to an awaiting and adoring crowd of Panther fans inside the high school gymnasium.
That’s the great thing about a small town, where basketball rules and the boys who have put Ellsworth in the state basketball book for five consecutive years are seen as nothing less than heroes.
To make that point, Coach Kellen picked Cody Schilling and Adam Vander Stoep out of the crowd Saturday night, invited them to stand next to current Mr. Basketball contender and EHS senior Trevor Gruis, and then asked eighth grader John Kramer and fifth grader Jared Leuthold to join them.
Kellen asked Cody what it was he wanted to accomplish in his basketball career, and Cody answered, "A state championship." Down the line, each of them were asked the same question … Vander Stoep said "A state championship," Gruis said "A state championship," and then Kramer, a pint-sized kid compared to the guys next to him, said, "I want to be as tall as Trevor!"
Well, the response drew laughter, cheers and even a high-five from Trevor, but it wasn’t the answer Kellen was looking for, so he asked Kramer again … What is it you want to accomplish? "A state championship," the boy replied. The same answer came from the youngest in the group, Leuthold.
Every year, the basketball team creates a new set of not just basketball player wannabes, but basketball champion wannabes.
The Panther basketball team graduated star players every year in the last five years they made it to state. And every year, Panther fans wonder what the next year will bring.
Those same rumblings can be heard again this year, now that the season is over. Gruis, the 6-9 center, will be moving on to the University of South Dakota in the fall to play basketball. Tyler Chapa is also heading across the state line – I believe he’ll attend college in Mitchell. As for Matt Buntjer, my nephew, he’s been accepted to Alexandria Technical College, where he hopes to pursue a degree in law enforcement.
Those three seniors – three solid players – will leave three holes to fill on the Panther roster for next year. Obviously, there’s a lot of talent left … Casey Schilling, Dalton Huisman and Nick Nolte are only sophomores, yet they were starting players in 2009-2010. Next year’s team will be built around them … and who knows, those younger kids with their dreams set on a state championship, well, with hard work, dedication and talent, those dreams just may come true.