Western Montana basketball fans are taking a moment today to remember former Hamilton coach Dale Berry, who died last Thursday in Hamilton of a pulmonary embolism at age 62.
To anyone who ever met Berry, who felt that vise of a handshake, who watched him fidget on the bench, ripping at the roll of adhesive tape he always wore around one finger, it's hard to believe the man is gone.
Distinctive and driven, Berry was the dean of Western A coaches when he retired in 1988 after two decades at Hamilton and 25 years in the profession, which included stops at Denton and Roundup before he found a home in the Bitterroot Valley.
Berry guided Hamilton to nine state appearances in those 20 seasons, including a pair of runner-up trophies in 1972 and 1976. Along the way, he became known for getting the most out of small teams that ran and pressed and, above all, as he put it, "got after people."
Berry grew up in eastern Montana, the son of a farm laborer who died when Dale was in the fifth grade. Most of his relatives never went past the eighth grade, and Berry probably wouldn't have gone on to college if he hadn't been a talented athlete. He played football at the University of Montana and decided to become a teacher and coach.
He retired with 349 victories at age 48 to go into the real estate business, and was elected to the state legislature in 1999.
"I know one thing," Berry said when he retired from coaching. "I'm going to miss the kids more than I miss basketball."
Mr. Berry, today we miss you.
Eureka's boys scored 36-1/2 points at the Western B divisional track meet at Missoula County Stadium - 24 of them in the two hurdles races. Junior Jacob DeLong won the 300-meter hurdles on Friday, while senior Isaac Merrill claimed the 110 hurdles on Saturday. DeLong placed fourth in the latter race.
The twin-killing surprised few - Eureka tends to produce some of the top hurdlers on this side of the state. The string of divisional champs dating back to the early 1990s includes Shane Reich, Ezra Merrill, Chuck Sherwood and Colin Nichols, not to mention Veronica Blake on the girls' side.
Merrill and DeLong have been knocking on the door the past couple of years.
The secret? Coach Amanda (Mee) Anderson is part of it, the duo said. A former hurdles champion at Eureka herself, Anderson knows the game.
Also: "You ought to see our track," DeLong said. "It's horrible. I think one of the reasons (for Eureka's hurdles success) is when we come to a place like this we can't help but run faster."
Merrill is in the hunt for the family's first state championship - older brother Ezra collected a second, third and fourth at state in the early 1990s. Isaac's divisional time of 15.74 seconds in the 110s were third-fastest, behind defending chamion Landon Godrey of Roundup and Garrett Thompson of Ennis. DeLong was also third-fastest at divisionals in the 300s, trailing Godfrey and Shelby's Ryan Davis.
A year ago, Tawnya Vernon was preparing to launch Florence to the state B-C softball championship. Paula Meyer was at the end of a winless season for Class A Bigfork.
Today, they're on the long return trip from Arnold, Md., to Glendive, after helping Dawson Community College to third place at the national junior college softball championships. Dawson, the only college in Montana that offers softball as a varsity sport, lost its first and last games at nationals, winning three times in between.
On the same weekend, Dawson's baseball team was playing in the national juco World Series in New York. The school's rodeo team, the men's Big Sky Region champion, was prepping for a run at the national collegiate finals next month with a strong showing in Bozeman at the College Championship Series Rodeo.
Vernon and Meyer were two of four Dawson players named to the all-tournament team in Maryland. Coach Bill LaFond took just 11 players to nationals, nine of them freshmen. They were a beat-up bunch, he said.
Vernon, the Bucs' only pitcher, took a liner off a kneecap midway through the regional tournament in Grand Rapids, Minn., the previous weekend. The kneecap had to be slid back in place. She then pitched two more complete games there and five at the national tournament.
First baseman Josie Carlson of Missoula Sentinel was hit in the hand by a pitch and couldn't move her thumb by the end of the tournament. Designated hitter Autumn Waddel of Great Falls played the last several games with a broken thumb.
LaFond, who took over the fourth-year Dawson program last year in its third year of existence, also combed western Montana for center fielder Amber Moore of Columbia Falls and Tiffany Nash of Corvallis. He's on the verge of signing more talent from the west side for next season, LaFond said. But the 1,750-mile bus ride home, which should end Wednesday, was a celebration of 2001.
"We set a goal last September of playing in the title game at the regional level," said LaFond. "We far exceeded our expectations."
Familiar teams claimed the top trophies at the Eastern AA divisional track meet. The Billings Senior girls won their fourth consecutive title, while the Bozeman boys won their second straight.
Defending state Class A boys' champ Colstrip showed its ready to defend its title by running away with the field at the Eastern A divisional. Tuff Harris won the 100 and 200 dashes as well as the high jump, and Colstrip finished with a 175-89 margin over runner-up Billings Central. Harris, a junior who transferred from Class B Lodge Grass last summer, set meet records of 10.68 seconds in the 100 meters and 21.63 in the 200 meters. The latter broke Miles City product Jeff Muri's 25-year-old record.
In the girls' meet, Miles City scored 156 points, followed by Colstrip with 129. The Havre girls and Butte Central boys won titles at the Central A meet.
Class B divisional winners were the Roundup boys and the Huntley Project girls (Southern B), and the Fort Benton boys and Cut Bank girls (North-East B). Brad Benjamin led Fort Benton, sweeping all three jumps and also winning the 800 meters.
The defending state Class C champion Kremlin-Gildford boys and Harlowton girls cruised to divisional titles. Class C divisional winners were the Park City boys and Harlowton girls (Southern C), Kremlin-Gildford boys and Chester girls (Northern C), and the Scobey boys and Richey girls (Eastern C).
The K-G boys, however, suffered a blow when their 400-meter relay team dropped the baton and failed to advance to state.
Coming up: The softball season ends with three state tournaments, Class AA at Great Falls, Class A at Polson and Class B-C at Frenchtown. … Track wraps up its season with the state Class AA and B meets at Great Falls, and the state Class A and C meets at Billings. … The state Class A tennis tournament is at Lewistown.
(Kim Briggeman of the Missoulian contributed to this story.)
Athletes of the week
Braden, Ristine Olson, Missoula Sentinel
Sentinel's brother-sister tennis combination swept the state Class AA singles championships for the second straight year. Braden Olson, a senior, finished the season 22-0 while Ristine Olson, a sophomore, finished the season 23-0 and remained unbeaten (45-0) in her prep career.
Maren Buck, Missoula Sentinel: The senior pitched a one-hit shutout and had two singles as the Spartans defeated Kalispell 2-0 to clinch the Western AA softball crown.
Lucas Wall, Daniel Lautzenheiser, Valley Christian: Wall and Lautzenheiser won the boys' doubles title as Valley Christian earned its fourth straight state Class B-C tennis title.
Sara Ogle, Kalispell: Ogle shot 80-78-158 to take runner-up honors at the state Class AA girls' golf tournament.
Kasey Harwood, Polson: The freshman captured both girls' hurdles races and the 400 at the Western A track meet.