BONNER — The pitch from Sean Kiffe came in low, but then they all do in this game.

Amber Shoupe wound up and gave it a mighty boot. The impressionable rubber ball landed midway between home plate and Kiffe, and the race began.

They could’ve been kids, laughing and jesting in the afternoon drizzle at Kelly Pine baseball field last week.

On closer scrutiny, they were teachers of kids.

Kiffe is the junior-high science teacher at Bonner School. Shoupe teaches second grade.

They were getting ready for a singular fundraiser that’s being optimistically called the “first annual” Bonner Summer Mill Yard Companies Kickball Tournament, set for Thursday evening, a few days before the school year starts.

Bonner teachers and staff have fielded two of the 12 teams that’ll compete in a three-hour kickball tourney starting at 4 p.m. Like the others teams, they’ve ponied up $300 entry fees. Superintendent Jim Howard said the money raised will go to school enhancement programs such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and Gifted and Talented.

The kicker, so to speak, is this wasn’t the school’s idea.

“I was driving over the grade from Butte to Bozeman, and it just kind of hit me that it would be something fun to do,” Jess Nepstad said.

Nepstad grew up in Montana and, after 18 years with Nestle Coffee, commutes between here and California on a regular basis. Three years ago, he went in with business partners to buy the hard goods from Liquid Planet, the specialty coffee company in Missoula. Two years ago, Planetary Design set up shop at the revitalized Bonner mill site, one of 17 businesses to have done so since Stimson Lumber's operation went dark in 2008.

“They have these beautiful fields that we all drive by going to Bonner, and it always looks so inviting to kind of hang out there,” Nepstad said. “I always thought maybe our company could go over there and play softball or something.”

It was one of Howard’s goals last school year to connect with the various business owners across the street. Nepstad was there the day the superintendent visited Planetary Design, which ships its patented coffee and food storage canisters and French Press coffee makers around the world.

Maybe it was coincidence, Nepstad said, but on the same day he met Howard, he ran into another man who runs kickball tournaments.

“That helped kind of put it all together,” he said.

First, Nepstad took the idea to the company, where it was greeted with enthusiasm. 

“Everybody volunteered to take one little aspect of it,” he said. One “super organized and talented” employee, Erin Lannon, is coordinating the tournament. When her flyers came out, the kickball field filled up quickly.

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Steve Nelson, one of the mill owners, said most of the major tenants will field teams. They're businesses such as Alcom, Hyperblock, Firestone Concrete and Coaster Pedicab.

Nelson's Bonner Property Development has combined some of the smaller enterprises to field a 10-person team. 

“It was (Nepstad’s) idea and I think it’s a great idea,” said Nelson. “I think the bottom line is that school’s pretty important to the community and pretty important to us. A fair amount of kids who go there are probably not the highest income people, which is not bad. That’s the way it is. But anything we can do to help them and help the school, we’re happy to do.”

It’s not the first time the mill's owners and tenants have reached across the street.

When Dylan Huiskens was named Montana teacher of the year last year, Nelson's partner, Mike Boehme, surprised him at a school assembly with a $3,000 check from the businesses across the street.  Hyperblock, a cryptocurrency company, provided Bonner School with a high-end 3D printer, then added a computer with the capacity to operate it.

Nelson and Boehme have committed $5,000 a year for the next three years to the local Boys and Girls Club's after-school program in Our Savior Lutheran Church in Bonner. Nelson said he solicited donations from other companies, and it wasn’t long before the managers at Hyperblock matched that commitment.

“Just between the two of us that’s $30,000 over three years,” he noted.

Missoula has had an adult kickball league for years, and Nepstad said the game is a natural for an event like this.

“There’s not a high level of athleticism involved. It can take adults back to their childhood,” he said. “There’s a charm around kickball, and just about anybody can do it.”

Planetary Design is providing a T-shirt and stainless steel tumbler to each player. Food trucks, beverages and tournament merchandise will be available at the field. Because it’s on school grounds, alcohol, drugs and tobacco is expressly forbidden. The Kettlehouse taproom, another mill business, is offering a “free fill-up” when things wind up.

The enthusiastic response to the kickball tournament, illustrated in part by the half a dozen teams on the waiting list, led Nelson to speculate there could be 300 or 400 players in future years if space and time allow. 

"I'm excited, and I think it's great the businesses started it," said first-grade teacher Kristin Vogel. "It's good to get the teachers together to play in something like this."

“I like (Howard) and I like the school, and I really like where we are at the Bonner mill and the folks that run the mill,” Nepstad said. “It’s incredible, the staff Jim has at the school, and all the tenants here are fun. It'll be fun to get them together.”

At last week's rainy-day workout, Howard was the only one who turned out in uniform. He'll be playing for the Plaidiators, and he wore a plaid overshirt.

“One thing I hope people see at this event is what you’re seeing out here today, the same enthusiasm and fun and the way they work together,” the superintendent said. “That’s really a hallmark of our teaching staff. They put that same energy into serving Bonner kids, and it’s a great thing.”

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