"A Spearfish Lake Story"
In spite of her confidence, Brandy could never remember being quite this nervous when walking out onto the hardwood floor of a basketball court. In the few brief but busy hours since Coach Hekkinan showed up in her driveway, things had begun to seem right for the first time since Colorado. There was now a purpose to her life, a challenge, but she knew that whether it was to be a reality or another false promise would be settled right here. It had been thirteen years since she’d last played in an organized game of basketball, and yes, the challenge was enormous.
A handful of girls were throwing basketballs around, shooting hoops, just playing around. Brandy counted them; it didn’t take long. There were only eight. "That’s all?" she said in a low voice to Coach Hekkinan, who stood next to her.
"That’s all," he confirmed. "We’re sorta committed to some JV games, but if we can’t come up with enough kids, this is what you have to work with."
It didn’t look promising. There were only a couple girls there who looked like they might make basketball players, but Brandy discounted that; she’d never looked like the kind of girl who would make a basketball player. It had been an advantage she’d used to good effect many times.
"Yo!!" Hekkinan called. He no longer carried the whistle that had seemed to be a growth around his neck back when Brandy had been in school. The activity stopped, and he said in a moderate voice that still echoed in the emptiness of the gym, "Gather ’round, girls."
The handful of girls formed an irregular group around the two. To Brandy’s eyes, they looked awful young, awful little. She remembered that she’d thought she was pretty big and grown up when she’d been in high school, but most of these girls seemed like little tykes to her now.
Once the girls had gathered, Hekkinan started to talk. "Girls, I want to introduce you to our new basketball coach, Mrs. Wine. Most of you probably don’t know her, but some of your parents might remember her name as Brandy Evachevski. If you want to know a little more about her, take a look in the trophy case in the hall outside, back in the mid-eighties, and you’ll find her name there several places. Look at the softball and volleyball trophies, too. Or, you can look up there on the record board." He pointed at a plywood board hung high on the wall.
He gave the girls a second to look up at the board. Brandy looked, too, and was a little surprised to discover that she still held the school records for points scored in a season and career – boys or girls. She took her eyes down, to see eight sets of eyes looking at her with, well, maybe not respect, but curiosity.
"I know that she can teach you a lot about basketball," Hekkinan continued. "From watching her play, I know she can teach you a lot about hanging in there. And, I’d be very surprised if she can’t teach you a lot about winning."
First impressions were important, Brandy knew, and she wanted to make a few strong ones.
"OK, girls," she started. "I know that you had a tough time last year. That was last year, but at least you learned who was here to play basketball, and who was here to play around. After all that’s gone down, nobody’s here who doesn’t mean it, right?"
There were a couple nods, but not a lot of enthusiasm. Somehow she had to reach this group of kids, but she had to make sure a few things were understood. "I know that there have been a lot of problems here the last few years. I was out of the country for most of it, so that’s all I know. I don’t care who said what to who, or who is mad at who, and I don’t want to hear anything about it, either. What’s in the past is in the past. We start fresh, right here. That’s one thing I want made clear. Does anyone have any problems with that? If you do, we can make do without you."
Hekkinan winced. That was a strong statement, given what had gone on. Brandy was right, he knew, but he was undoubtedly going to hear about it. But the older girls, the ones who had been through last year, were obviously glad to hear it, and maybe some of the younger ones, too.
"One more thing," Brandy added. "Coach . . . " She stopped, she had to break herself of calling him that. " . . . Mr. Hekkinan, is the school eligibility policy still a one-point-five GPA?"
"Hasn’t changed," he said, wondering what she was getting at.
"Well, it’s not my policy," she said. "Despite the importance that a lot of people in this town put on sports, you girls are here in school to learn. You can be a good athlete and get good grades, too. If you don’t believe me, go down to the office and ask to see the class standings from the class of ’83. So, I have an eligibility policy of my own. You either pull a two-point-five, or you don’t dress for games. Period."
Hekkinan cringed again. None of these girls had grade problems as far as he knew, but the same couldn’t be said about the boys’ team. He’d hear about that, for sure, but that was a problem for the future.
"Now," Brandy continued, "I will temper that by saying that if any of you are having trouble with your classes and need some help, I live at 124 South Oak Street. My door is always open, although I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me between midnight and six in the morning, except during exam weeks." She got a couple giggles from that.
Hekkinan could see that the older girls, the ones who’d endured last year, might now feel that they were dealing with someone a lot different than Culpepper, who’d coached the team last year.
"One other thing," she said. "I got married pretty recently, and if you call me ‘Mrs. Wine,’ I may look over my shoulder to see if my mother-in-law is behind me. Now, I know it’s school policy that you have to call me that, so you’re going to have to coach me to answer to that. At least this year, I’m not going to hold it against you if I don’t answer to that right away, and you have to call me ‘Brandy’ to get my attention."
That got a couple downright laughs. The girls were loosening up to this stranger, Hekkinan thought. Maybe it was time to quietly leave and let her build a rapport.
"OK," Brandy continued. "Some of you look familiar, but I don’t know names, and we may have to go through this name drill more than once before I get it right." She pointed to a tall, thin girl who looked sort of like you’d expect a basketball player to look. "You are?"
"Amanda Musgrave," the girl said simply.
"You any relation to Jack Musgrave?" Brandy asked.
"My dad," Amanda said.
"He was a pretty good basketball player, but a little before my time," Brandy smiled.
She went to the next girl, a small, slight girl with dark skin and an exotic, oriental appearance. "Tabitha Augsberg, I’m a ninth grader," she said.
"Steve and Binky’s daughter, right?"
The girl just nodded. She went to the next girl, about as tall as Amanda, but built like a truck. Not fat, just big and muscular; she looked more like she ought to be on the football team. "Vanessa Sprow. I’m in tenth grade."
"You’ve got to be related to Glenn," Brandy said. She went on down the line of girls. Ashley Rakestraw, a freshman. Sarah Hodges, also a freshman and Anissa Petersen’s, well, Anissa Hodges’ daughter. Jessica LeBlanc, the only senior. Rachel Conger, a freshman, and Jody Aho, a sophomore. She’d gone to school with the parents of several of the girls, and knew other families by reputation, but even the oldest and most experienced of them were pretty green.
"OK," she said when she’d got done with the last of them, "Let’s do a few simple drills so I can get a feeling for where you’re at."
The next hour went quickly. They shot a few drills, mostly to warm up, and Brandy formed two squads, including herself on one, just to run off a few plays and see how the girls reacted. Five on four wasn’t quite even, but Brandy included herself on the short side, and that balanced things out quite a bit. She was going to have to come up with another body or two, just to run squad drills. She remembered that Candice had played basketball in high school. She had no idea how good she might have been, but maybe she could help if no other girls came out. Well, Phil could maybe help sometime, too.
But Brandy learned a lot in that hour. There was some pretty fair talent among the eight girls, talent that could be developed. They obviously hadn’t had coaching that had taught them anything worthwhile. The Musgrave kid, Amanda, for example, really was fair at rebounds but couldn’t shoot to save her butt. The big Sprow girl, Vanessa, was a lot quicker than she looked, and not much got by her. Brandy could fake past her, but if she could learn to read a fake, she’d be a real stone wall on defense. The little Augsberg girl was just about useless on anything to do with defense, but she was quick and easily the best shooter of the bunch. She needed a lot of work on her moves, but if she learned how to get inside, she was going to score some points.
Finally, as the practice session came to an end, Brandy gathered the girls around. "Good session," she told them. "With this few of you, you’re not going to wear anybody down, but there’s no reason anyone should have to wear us down. But we haven’t got time for messing around with conditioning. We need all the ball-practice time we can get, so I’m going to expect you girls to be running and working out and getting in shape on your own. I want you to get in at least five miles every day this week. If you don’t like running alone, be at my house at a quarter to seven tomorrow morning, and we’ll go run together. And, I want you to get some time in on weights, work on upper body strength."
A girl stuck up her hand. "We can’t use the weight room," she said.
"Coach Culpepper said last year that the school won’t let us. It’s reserved for football players."
"What kind of horse . . . uh . . . manure is that? I’ll work on it," Brandy promised. "Look, girls, I know that you had a tough time last year, but you girls are better than people give you credit for. If you’ll stick with me, learn from me, well, we may not win ’em all, but we’re gonna win some of ’em."
"It would be nice to win just one of them," Tabitha, the little part-oriental girl said. "I don’t think any of us except Amanda and Jessica have ever been in a winning basketball game."
Brandy was a little surprised. "You mean the middle school program got wiped out, too?"
"Yeah," Tabitha said. "Last year was the first year any of the freshmen or sophomores played."
"I will promise you girls this," Brandy said. "We will win at least one game, or I will get a ladder myself, crawl up there and paint my name off that record board, and never touch a basketball again. Now, those of you who want to run with me, I’ll see you at my house in the morning."
The person who Blake had suggested that Candice might want to see proved to be Bob Watson, as she had suspected, but there were more: Ken and Judy Sorensen. Phil had seen Ken and Judy fairly recently, but Candice hadn’t seen any of them for years, Bob not since their graduation. He’d changed, of course; they’d all changed, but Bob perhaps more than most – the stutter that had made him nearly incomprehensible in high school had all but vanished. "Where’s Lori?" Candice asked as they sat down on Blake and Jennifer’s big front porch overlooking the lake. It was a bigger group than just the few of them; Phil and Brandy were there, along with Lex; Shovelhead was in the living room with Blake and Jennifer, talking something incomprehensibly musical with Myleigh Harris, who had come up from Kansas City for a few days of rehearsals.
"Back home," Bob said. "Someone had to stay behind to be in charge."
"We only came up for tonight and tomorrow," Judy explained. "There’s some stuff we need to go over with Tiffany about the trip next month, so we’re going to head back tomorrow night, and Lori’s coming up next weekend. Tiffany told us that the two of you had quite a trip last week."
"It was a lot of fun," Candice smiled. "Those whales are so neat! It’s just awesome to be out paddling with them."
"It is neat," Ken agreed. "We took Tiffany there the first time she went."
"So, how’s the farming?" she asked. "The last time I was in Arvada Center, I heard you were getting out of beef."
"We did," Ken said. "The steers saved our butts back when we got started, but you have to change with the market. We may have stayed with them a little too long, but we’re out of that, now."
"So what are you doing? Just grain?"
"Way different," Bob said. "How long has it been since you’ve been in Arvada Center?"
Candice furrowed her brow. "Three years last Christmas," she said. "And that was just an overnight in and out. I haven’t been back since my folks sold out."
Judy smiled. "Candy, things have changed so much in the last four or five years, it’s hard to believe. I know I’d never have believed it five years ago."
"Me, either," Bob shook his head. "I can look back now and see that it was the only way we’re still farming, but it was a big step."
"You’ve lost me," Phil said. "We haven’t talked farming much when you’ve been up here before."
Ken shook his head. "I don’t know where to begin," he said. "It was, oh, about five years ago when it was clear that we had to get out of beef, and frankly, I was thinking about looking for a job just to be able to keep farming. Bob and Lori were pretty much in the same spot. And, as it turned out, so were Roger and Kathy Griswold, but we didn’t know that at the time. They were milking a couple hundred cows, just them and their kids, and they were running close to the wire, too. You two probably remember the phrase, ‘Get big, or get out?’ Well, Roger and Kathy and their kids didn’t want to get out, so they got big. They found some money somewhere, and I know some of it came from the Netherlands of all places, and they built a new confined animal feeding operation. Four huge barns, a sixty-stall milking parlor, and they milk 24/7."
"That’s a lot of milking," Candice said. She’d done a fair amount of it when she’d been a kid, before her dad got out of cows, and working with the Griswolds, back when she’d been in high school. "How many cows?"
"Right around thirty-six hundred."
"Thirty-six hundred cows ?" Candice exclaimed. "How in the world?"
"Well, they’ve got thirty-two full-time employees over there," Bob said. "And some part-timers. They’re the biggest employer in Arvada Center, now."
"That’s getting big, all right," Phil said. "So, how do you fit in?"
"The timing was right," Bob said.
"It was right when the four of us decided we couldn’t afford to run steers anymore," Ken expanded, knowing that Bob still didn’t like to talk more than necessary. "See, the thing is, a cow is good for about five years of milking like that, so Roger needs about 700 new heifers coming on line each year, and there we were with almost that much empty steer lot between us. So basically, anymore, we raise calves, get them freshened, and when they’re ready, we haul them over to Roger and Kathy’s."
"It’s a lot more complicated than that," Judy added. "What with everything, there’s almost 5,000 cows to feed, plus the manure involved. Roger didn’t want to have to be involved with doing that much cropping, since managing that much milking is a big enough job by itself. So, the four of us agreed to contract to do the cropping and supply the dairy at a set fee."
"Beats the living hell out of playing the grain markets," Ken said. "I did that long enough. We probably fall a little short of what we used to do in a year when prices are good, but we make out in the bad years. Anyway, after we talked it around with Roger a bit, we could see that ‘get big’ was the only way we could operate, too. So, the four of us got our heads together and formed a corporation, partly for the tax angle. We contracted the land Roger had been farming, and that still wasn’t enough, so we bought up your folks’ old place, too."
"That was you guys?" Candice exclaimed. "All I knew was that the folks had sold out to some big corporation, but I never knew who it was or what it was all about."
"Well, I wouldn’t call us that big," Judy smiled. "But it’s still capitalized at several million bucks."
"It’s taken a while to iron out the kinks," Ken explained. "For a while there, we had heifers at our place, heifers at Bob and Lori’s, and heifers at your dad’s old place. But we were forever running back and forth, and it wasted a lot of time. So last year, we got our act together and built a confined feeding operation of our own over on the corner of your dad’s old place, designed just for raising the heifers. Bob and Lori basically run that side of it, while Judy and I take care of the cropping side and the grain milling, but we work back and forth. We’ve got six hands working for us."
"John," Candice said, scarcely able to believe the words she was hearing, "We have got to get down and see this some time."
"Yeah, me too," Phil said. "I guess I knew things like that were out there, but I guess I never expected to see it in Arvada Center."
"I hate to say it," Ken said, "But the day of the small farmer is dead. I spent years trying to deny it. We all did. But, we’re better off now than we ever were before. If Roger hadn’t come to us when he did, we’d all be out of farming, now."
"At least, farming full time," Bob agreed.
"It’s a little sad," Ken said. "Remember back when we were in school, and we still had a lot of farm kids in the school, kids who wanted to be farmers? As far as I know, we’re the only survivors, in our class, anyway. Anyone else who’s farming is doing it part-time, with a job in Geneva or something to keep going."
It was sad, once Candice had a chance to think about it a little. It had only been a couple strokes of luck that had kept her from being a farm wife. If she hadn’t gone to college, if she hadn’t met John there . . . well, the odds were she still wouldn’t have been a farm wife, at least now.
"It’s not how we grew up," she said.
"No, it’s not," Ken said. "But it’s the way things have gotten to be, like it or not."