"A Spearfish Lake Story"
It had only been three weeks, but the girls were as ready as Brandy could get them in such a short time.
It had been an intensely busy three weeks. There was a time or two that Brandy thought back longingly to the relaxing twelve-hour days out on a site. Not only was there the basketball, and there was a lot of that, but she had a huge stack of lesson plans to work her way through. She knew the material forward and backward, of course, but she knew she was going to have to learn how to present it to high school kids, and all of that was going to have to be done on the fly.
But, most of it was going to have to wait till school started, and there was still a weekend to go before that happened. It would be a busy weekend, what with the taping of Saturday Night, but that was a couple days off as Brandy and the seven girls rode in a school bus up the state road to Warsaw for their first game.
Warsaw was a smaller school, not exactly a basketball power, and in a different league, to boot, but it made for a fine warm-up game. Brandy was a little nervous and had no idea how the game was going to go. She hadnít bothered to scout the team at all; the girls, who she was beginning to think of as "The Marlin Seven," had been learning a lot, right from the first morning the girls had gone running.
Theyíd gotten back from that run the first day, and Brandyís driveway quickly became "The Brandy Wine College of Basketball Knowledge." It was totally informal and unofficial, but very intense, with a lot of one-on-one with the coach, as she tried to teach each girl some moves and a few tricks that would help to maximize her individual skills.
The formal practices were kept more for team skills; with the help of the girls, theyíd managed to come up with some boys who were planning to play basketball in the winter, but who didnít play football, so they could run squad drills against each other. The boys started showing up for the runs and the "College," as well. The kids hadnít exactly expected to be starters when winter rolled around Ė they were mostly younger, smaller kids, boyfriends of the freshmen girls Ė but Brandy thought they might be surprised when the boysí season rolled around, because they were learning a lot, too.
The Marlin Seven were hopeful. The two older girls, the ones who had survived what there was of the season the year before, knew that they were a lot more ready than they had ever been before, but the seven and their coach didnít know how they would measure up on the hardwood.
They headed into the locker room, and the girls got dressed for the game. Even that had triggered an incident that improved the girlsí faith in their coach. The day before team picture day Brandy had gone to issue uniforms to the girls, and discovered to her displeasure that the uniforms were little better than rags. They were old, moldy, stained and discolored; no one had bothered to repair some obvious rips and tears. Sheíd stormed into Hekkinanís office, threw several of the uniforms on his desk, and told him rather bluntly that she refused to have the girls disgrace the Marlin tradition by wearing such junk.
Hekkinan knew after the weight room incident that Brandy had a temper, but heíd known that for many years, anyway, and figured that it was a reasonable price to pay for the obvious work she was doing, not to mention the other holes she was filling.
"I know theyíre junk," heíd said. "You know the athletic boosters group has always bought the uniforms. Well, after the last three years, they didnít want to waste the money."
"Then order some new ones," Brandy said hotly. "If those cheap twits wonít pay for them, I will."
"I can do that," he said. "But, this time of year, itíll take a month or more for them to get here."
After her experience with the Learjet in the spring, Brandy figured they could be made a heck of a lot more quickly with the proper application of cash, but decided to take a different tack. "What shape are the volleyball uniforms in?" she asked.
"Theyíre in good shape," Hekkinan replied. "They were new last year."
"Iíll issue those," she said. "Theyíll do."
"Uh, Brandy, the athletic supporters arenít going to like that," he warned.
Hekkinan was a little surprised that Brandy didnít explode. In a quite pleasant tone, she merely replied, "Coach, if you donít want to tell the athletic supporters where to stick their basketball uniforms, do you want me to do it?"
In a perverse way, heading out onto the court in the volleyball uniforms gave the girls even a greater sense of being a team with a desire to prove themselves, even if no one but their coach believed in them.
The gym at Warsaw wasnít large, and there wasnít a very big crowd on the home side of the building, but even Brandy was disappointed at the number of Spearfish Lake fans. They consisted of Phil, Josh, and Tiffany; John, Candice, Shay, and Cody Archer; and Anissa Hodges and Coach Hekkinan. Even the bus driver had curled up on the bus with a book. Brandy looked at the loyal few, knowing that Blake and Jennifer would have been there if they werenít up to their necks in rehearsals, and she wordlessly resolved that if it were ever in her power, the day would come when sheíd rub Spearfish Lakeís nose in their lack of faith.
The Warsaw coach Ė Brandy didnít know his name Ė didnít have much faith in them either. He remembered last season, so decided to start his second string just for the sake of experience. That proved to be a mistake; Amanda got the tip-off, flipped the ball to Rachel, who passed it to Tabitha, who put two points on the board before no more than five seconds had passed. The Marlin Seven ran the score to 8-2 before the Warsaw coach began to realize that this wasnít the Spearfish Lake Marlins of the year before, and started feeding his older, more experienced girls into the game.
The Marlin Seven had a little run of bad luck and maybe a little overconfidence after their initial run, and by the end of the quarter the score was 12-12. It got a lot more serious in the second quarter; the score seesawed back and forth.
The quick little Tabitha had learned well some of what Brandy had taught her about moves. One of the Warsaw girls got frustrated at having to deal with her fakes, and quite obviously and deliberately tripped her, and she went sprawling. Somehow, the ref didnít see the trip, but Vanessa Sprow and some of the other Marlin Seven did. A couple of plays later, the same Warsaw girl and Vanessa went high for a rebound. The Warsaw girl got the ball, but also got Vanessaís elbow in her eye, and Vanessaís 175 pounds on her instep at the same time. Vanessa was good; she even made it look like an accident. Brandy had not taught her that little stunt, but she remembered Vanessaís father from when heíd played basketball. It didnít take long to figure out where Vanessa had learned it. But as the Warsaw girl limped off the court, out of the game, the message was clear: We shove back.
Unfortunately, the incident broke the flow of the game, and the Marlin Seven came into halftime behind 23-22, but the girls were as up as Brandy had ever seen them. They were proving that they could play with another team, and not have to be doormats.
As the second half of the game began to wind down, the Marlin Seven were still hanging in there, a couple of points behind, but the sheer weight of numbers was obviously beginning to wear them down in spite of the conditioning work.
They only had five seconds left when they lined up for a Warsaw free throw. It was a one point shot, and the girl missed, but in the struggle for the ball Amanda managed to tip the ball to Vanessa, who looked down court and gave the ball a mighty heave.
Brandy glanced down court Ė there was no way a Hail Mary like that could go in the net Ė to discover what Vanessa had seen: instead of getting involved in the scuffle for the ball, Tabitha had broken away, raced down court, wide open and unguarded. She grabbed Vanessaís long pass, turned, took two steps, and well shy of the three-point line, shot. The ball was still in the air when the buzzer went off, but it went in like it had eyes.
By one desperate point, Spearfish Lake had won its first basketball game in three years, and Brandy was yelling with the girls and the rest of the handful of Marlin fans while mentally she threw a paint can in the garbage. The girls danced around on the court; Vanessa scooped Tabitha up with one hand and put her on her shoulders, and they cheered and cried and shouted, while the Warsaw girls looked silently on as the fans left the gym.
The girls were still hyper when they got on the bus, and Brandy didnít blame them one bit. The bus driver was more than a little abashed that sheíd skipped the game for her romance potboiler, but she was going to be only the first of many.
"I am so proud of you girls," Brandy said, still pretty hyper herself, as they gathered in the middle of the bus. When the girls finally quieted down a little bit, Brandy started in on the real message. "OK, weíve got Crestone Monday night," she said. "They should be a little tougher team, but you know what? Weíre a tougher team than we were two hours ago, too. You girls proved to yourselves that you can win. Tell me, didnít everybody kind of doubt it when we got off the bus?"
"Well, yeah," Rachel said.
"You now know you can win. It may not be easy, and you may not always win, but you can go into any game and know the other team isnít getting any freebies."
"We showed íem," Jody said, still hyper with the victory.
"You did," Brandy agreed. "More importantly, you showed yourselves, and you showed me. Tabitha, that last shot. You could have got closer. Why did you shoot from outside?"
"Coach, you said we had to outthink them, as well as outplay them," she replied. "I thought we were too bushed to outplay them for another quarter."
"You know, I think that too," she said. "It was a gamble, but it was a good gamble and you were the best one to take it. Good thinking, both you and Vanessa. But that leads to another question that Iíve got for all of you. We can keep working on conditioning, but weíre still going to be worn down in the last quarter of every game. Iíve had several girls come to me and ask if they can still get on the team. From what I can find out, theyíre girls who quit last year, or freshmen who didnít go out this year. We can bring them on the team if you all agree. If you donít, well, I guess weíre going to have a JV team. Itís your call, girls. Iíll back you either way."
"Can we say no?" Ashley said. "I mean, we were there when no one else believed in us, doesnít that count for something?"
"Yeah, weíve worked awful hard for this," Vanessa agreed. "Bringing in someone who hasnít worked like we have is just going to drag us down."
There was a general chorus of agreement. "OK, thatís the way it is," Brandy said. "If we get a JV team going and one of you gets hurt, I reserve the right to reopen the question. Is that all right with everybody?"
The girls agreed, a little less enthusiastically, but willing to see the logic. "Well, thatís just another fight Iím going to have with the athletic boosters," Brandy smiled. "But you girls gave me something to fight with."
"Hey, Coach," Ashley piped up. "Can we keep the volleyball uniforms?"
"The new uniforms are supposed to be here in time for the next game," Brandy said.
"Yeah," Ashley said. "But these uniforms will remind us that we believed in ourselves when no one else but you did."
"What do the rest of you think?" Brandy asked. She looked at the girls, one by one, and each of them agreed, by word or by their smiles.
"Fine with me," Brandy said, and laughed. "Hey, Iíll let you in on a little secret."
"Whatís that?" Jody asked.
"I always thought those baggy basketball uniforms looked a little stupid, anyway."
Josh and Tiffany had ridden to Warsaw with Phil in his car, and they followed the bus out of town. "I suppose theyíre heading for the Frostee Freeze," Josh said. "Thatís the traditional stop after a win, at least till they close for the winter."
"Wouldnít mind going there myself," Phil said. "Tonight is worth the celebration, and, I canít think of a better way to celebrate."
"Boy, they played íem tough," Tiffany said. "Itís got to be great for Brandy."
"Iím sure it is," Phil agreed. "It could have been pretty bad if the girls got trashed like they did last year, but things are going to be all right, now."
"Yeah, they should win a few," Josh agreed. "They donít have a lot of depth, but they just proved that you donít need a lot."
"I was worried," Phil said. "If theyíd gotten trashed, it would have gotten Brandy pretty down. Like I said, I think things are going to be all right now."
"Youíre not talking about the team, are you?" Tiffany asked.
"Of course not," Phil said. "Iíve been at a total loss to know what to do with Brandy all summer. Sheís been in such a funk, that when this teaching and coaching thing came up, it seemed like a gift from the gods, but I knew it could fall flat on its ass. Brandy had a lot of hope pinned on it, maybe more than she should have. But the kids should win a few, and theyíll play tough when they donít win. Thatíll make the whole deal a success for Brandy. That means I can do the next thing."
"Which is?" Josh asked.
"Look, I know this summer Iíve jerked you guys around a lot on the Iditarod for next year, but I had to jerk her around about it, too. Getting Brandyís problem under control was much more important than whether I was going to do the race again. I figured that out on the way back from Alaska in the spring. I didnít know until a half an hour or so ago whether that was going to involve me, or not. But I had to keep my options open, in case there was something I had to do."
"I sort of got that feeling," Josh said. "But you never came out and said it."
Phil shook his head. "Josh, Tiffany, Iíll tell you this: Iíve been about as bored as Brandy was, and was really looking forward to dog training for something to do. At one time I thought she might be out there with me, but the school is really a better deal for her. Tonight proved that she can be a damn good coach, and can inspire kids. If she can do that well as a teacher, thereíll be some damn lucky kids, and thereís no reason she canít. But that leaves me free to do something else."
"Youíre saying that now you want to run the Iditarod this winter," Tiffany said.
"Yeah," Phil said. "Look, Iím sorry I had to keep you guys in the air on this, and I respect your decision to quit. But I was reading through my manuscript earlier this week, and it reminded me of how much I want to do it again. And, I want to do it on a long term basis, not just next winter. But, Iíll need your help."
"Weíve only sold a few dogs," Josh said. "None of the core ones. We donít want to get out of dogs altogether, but the Iditarod with two teams takes a lot of training time and too much time gone from here. We thought we might try an all-out shot at the Beargrease, and maybe the Michigan 300 again. We can do the Beargrease in a week of being gone, and the 300 is a long weekend. We can manage that without problems. Itís been the three months of being gone thatís been the killer. Anyway, we have the core dogs, and we can put a real strong A-team together for you."
"Iíll make it worth your while," Phil said. "That many dogs have got to be a financial drag on you, especially with no sponsorships anymore."
"Itís a concern," Josh said. "We can struggle through for a while."
"Thereís no need to struggle," Phil said. "Look, weíll work out the details later, because I have several other ideas I want to throw at you, and itíll all be part of the package. I know that the highest amount of money youíll take is less than the minimum Iím willing to give you, but we can fight about that when the time comes. But Iíve got some things I want to try, that maybe are a little different from how youíve done them."
"What kind of things are you talking about?" Tiffany asked.
"Things that Iíve seen that could be done differently, more efficiently," Phil said. "Maybe Iíve had the advantage of looking in from the outside a little, but thereís some things that you do because youíve always done them that way, and they might not be the best solution, right?"
"Weíve done our best," Josh said. "Thereís other things we know we could have done differently if weíd had the money."
"Right," Phil said. "Thatís part of the point. Like driving the dogs to Alaska. Look, when Brandy and I rode down the Alaska Highway last year, my butt got damn sore, and I got damn tired of traveling. I imagine all the dogs did, too. I donít think itís any different going up there. So whatís been happening is that we get the dogs trained up pretty good down here, load them on the truck, and start for Alaska. Even when you stop and run them for training during the ride up, they lose their edge, and it takes time to get them back. If it only takes a week to get up there, by the time you get back to training, youíre two or three or more weeks behind, at the most critical part of the training."
"I donít disagree in the slightest," Tiffany said. "Itís probably the biggest single factor thatís kept us out of the top rank. The answer is to fly them up there, but thatís so expensive, weíve never considered it. We just havenít had the money."
"Thatís the point," Phil said. "I do. In fact, I learned something from Brandy chartering that Learjet last spring, and Iíve checked into it. Itís not that damn expensive to charter a cargo plane and get them up there in less than a day, especially when you include your time as a cost along with other costs. At the most, we lose a day or two of training."
"Thatís part of the reason that Swingley can live in Montana and go up and kick butt," Josh agreed. "But itís still a lot of money."
"It would be, to you," Phil agreed. "But Brandy and I are in a completely different tax situation than you two. I looked it over carefully and talked with John about it some. If we set it up right, I can write off the cost of the charter on taxes and it wonít really cost us that much. I donít want to get into that part of the finances, but itís not a big-issue item."
"Itís easy to forget that youíre pretty well off," Tiffany said. "I forget it sometimes."
"Well, Brandy and I donít like to wave it in other peoplesí faces," Phil said. "And we tend to be a little cheap in some ways, anyway, but never on anything that counts. Thatís why weíre in a five-year-old car, and why we live in a small neighborhood house. We arenít exactly in a class with Jennifer and Blake, but we donít have to worry, either. But letís stay away from the financial end. Weíll have to sit down with John and work it out, but I intend to run this for a profit for you and for me, although most of the money will be made for me on the tax side. But, thatíll take some doing. Do you know if we can transfer the B&M sponsorship on the dog food, for example?"
"Probably," Josh said. "I havenít told them weíre planning on quitting, yet. Weíd basically figured on getting training going pretty much like normal. We havenít done it yet, since itís been so hot. Weíd need it for the Beargrease, anyway, and for a month or so yet, there was the chance we might change our minds. As far as that goes, you might want to talk to Jennifer and Blake to see if they might want to continue sponsorship at some level. Since theyíve always done it for us as a tax write-off, thereís a good chance they might."
"Good idea," Phil said. "Thatís something weíll have to work out. I wouldnít want to talk to them until theyíve got this taping out of the way, and have had a chance to recover. But there are other things. Iím only figuring on taking one team up there, and I should have the time to do most of the training, but . . . well, this is complicated. Let me take it from a different angle. You remember Bob and Ken and Judy talking about their heifer operation that they run for the Griswolds?"
"Sure, that sounded like quite a deal."
"I guess you knew that Candice and John and Brandy and I went down and looked at that and the Griswoldís operation last Sunday, and yes, it is quite a deal," Phil said. "Look, I donít have the time or the talent to do all the breeding and maintenance and dog development and early training you guys do, and still be able to concentrate on training a team, too. Weíll get by this year, since your system is already in place. But look, we figure we start training thirty-two dogs, trim it down to twenty-four or so by the first of the year, take maybe twenty to Alaska, to start sixteen in the race, right?"
"Ideally," Tiffany said. "In practice, it takes more dogs than that, counting yearlings and puppies that are too young to race. Itís probably closer to sixty dogs for sixteen starters, and that doesnít count touring dogs. But, we donít need quite as much depth for two teams, which is why weíve run two teams."
"Yeah," Phil agreed. "But you usually know by this time pretty much which dogs are going to make the cut down to twenty-four for the A-team."
"I could draw up the list for those dogs for the A-team today, and maybe be wrong on one or two, assuming no injuries," Tiffany agreed. "A lot of the dogs that donít make the A-team are ideal for the B-team."
"Thatís sort of my point," Phil agreed. "I want to start fall training with concentrating on twenty-four proven or highly likely dogs. Next year I want to have six to eight highly likely replacements that already have race experience, and you can have the veterans back for touring teams. In the terms that Ken and Judy use, I want you to raise the heifers for me. Now, again, Iím not exactly sure how weíll work it out financially, and weíll have to work it out with John, but itíll be a profit center for you."
"Youíve got some interesting thoughts, there," Josh said. "But itís still a lot of work, and our hours are limited now. Even with pulling out of the race, theyíre likely to tighten up."
"True," Phil said, braking to avoid a deer that ran out behind the school bus they were trailing. "I wish the hell you two had gone with us last weekend. Maybe weíll have to make a run down there. I learned a lot, and itís caused me to think a lot."
"Josh, I know that dogs are not cows, but they have the process so organized and efficient that theyíre saving on manpower costs per cow over smaller operations. Thatís why theyíre thinking of expanding even more, and thatís why we need to think of setting up an operation that will handle dog maintenance with a lot fewer man hours, so we can concentrate on training. Youíre still handling dog maintenance like you did when you had a dozen dogs, but youíve got ten times as many, with more than ten times as much work. Staked out like they are with individual houses, it takes forever to feed that many dogs, and they turn the dog lot into a moonscape. Thereís no way you can clean up that much dog crap, and what little you can do takes hours."
"Itís a major time killer," Tiffany said. "This summer we kept Eric going four to six hours a day just on feeding and cleanup, and we helped him, too."
"Right," Phil said. "It doesnít have to be that bad. You remember that operation Jeff King has up there in Alaska, one dog barn, individual concrete floored pens, centralized feeding? I want to do something like that, but more so. Itís probably too late to do much about it this year, but we can figure out what we want and build it next spring as soon as the weather breaks."
Josh shook his head. "Weíve dreamed about doing something like that, but thereís the money issue again."
"Itís not an issue anymore. Look, I was going to come to you guys last spring with a couple of these ideas and the money to do them, like flying the dogs and the dog barn, but then the problem with Brandy blew up, and I knew I had to ride that out first. The heifer-raising idea, if you want to call it that, I only cooked up after you two had decided to quit, in fact, on the way back from Arvada Center last weekend. If you want to reconsider your decision, we can still make it work."
Josh was silent for a moment, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. Finally, he spoke. "I was ready to bag it last spring," he said. "Iíd managed to make my break by doing the Quest, but then Tiffany wanted me to make one last try with the A-team, so thatís what kept me going. Even if I did, I couldnít run in another year or maybe two, anyway. So I look at it that Iím out at a good time. What do you think, Tiffany?"
"Thatís about where Iím at," she said. "My heart wasnít really in it for doing it next winter, but I wanted you to have one chance with the good team, so I figured on helping you as much as I could. I donít want to quit running dogs or even not keeping them, but the Iditarod is getting to be too big a commitment for us. Even if we did have the money to do some of the things youíre talking about, the time isnít there, and really, I have other things I want to do, too. Weíve been talking about having a kid or two. That would definitely kill the Iditarod for me, although if we can get the time issues under control, I donít see any problem with, as you say, raising your heifers for you."
"Me, either," Josh said. "If we can use the Beargrease for proving the B-team, and not try to take two teams to Alaska, thatíll allow us to trim back the dogs some, and basically use veterans for touring."
Phil nodded. "OK, I guess we have an agreement, at least in concept, right?"
Josh furrowed his brow. This was an awful big change on the spur of the moment, and he was sure he wanted some time to think it out. "In concept, yeah, no problem," he said. "This is going to mean some other changes for how Tiffany and I are going to approach things, and I think we need to talk some of them out. But, as far as pulling together a top team for you this year and figuring out how weíre going to do it in the future, Iím perfectly willing to go ahead with it for now."
"Yeah," Tiffany agreed. "Itíll be different for us, but I can see how we can make it work."
"However you two work it out is fine with me," Phil said. "I just want those six or eight or so replacements next year. But, weíve got a lot of other details to work out, both planning the training, as well as working out the financial end. I know weíve got to be at the taping Sunday, but if you guys are free tomorrow, letís sit down and detail out what we need to do this year and what we want to do in coming years. Once weíve got that far, weíll sit down with John and work out how weíre going to do the money side."
"We can get together and talk about it, but I donít think we want to plan on making any final decisions," Josh replied slowly. "I think Tiffany and I need to talk about a few things, first, but theyíre detail things. Like, if weíre going to build this big dog barn for you, do we want to have it in our back yard, or somewhere else? And, how weíre going to devote our time to it, and where? Like I said, we need a few days to talk it over."
"Works for me," Tiffany said, and Josh nodded his agreement as well.
"No great rush," Phil smiled. "We donít have to do it overnight, in fact, itís probably best that we examine all the angles. But, with the main point settled, that you guys are going to help me put together an A-team for this winter, itís just as good that weíre going to the Frostee Freeze anyway. Weíve got something else to celebrate."