Browning hoping to send old gym out on top

Browning (Montana) High School is finally moving to a new building next school year. It's the culmination of a project about 10 years in the making in the town of about 4,500 located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation just east of the Rockies, 50 miles south of the Canadian border.

The Browning Runnin' Indians, the state's defending boys basketball champions in Class A, will move into a gym twice the size of the one that has been their home since 1959-60. In the old gym, they have won four state championships and, during the 2000s, have been unsurpassed in trips to the state tournament in any class.

After the Browning boys played their final home game of the season this month, Stan Juneau found it difficult to leave.

"I walked around the place after the game was over. It was hard to say goodbye," said Juneau, one of the former players introduced during a pregame ceremony. He played in the first game there, a few weeks before the building was even dedicated, and was Browning's athletic director during the 1980s and '90s.

"I have a 50-year relationship with that gym," he said. "It was sad."

The little gym that seats about 2,000 has been an intimidating destination for opponents. Browning has won state titles in three of the last eight years and, during the last three seasons, lost at home only once.

There's no doubt that Browning is a basketball town, which has created something of a pleasant problem for current athletic director Book St. Goddard.

"I get it from football parents. Get it from wrestling parents. Volleyball, cross-country parents. They always say, 'If it was basketball, our kids would be treated this way,'" said St. Goddard, another Browning grad. "Our kids are athletic and fun to watch. Right now, they do have basketball fever."

This year's Runnin' Indians are 12-5 overall, 8-1 in the A Central Conference and ranked fifth in the state Class A poll.

"We have a good chance of making it to state if we keep playing like we have been," said Ray Augare, in his ninth season as Browning's head coach. "Last year, it was our defense and our size -- 6-5 across the back, 6-2 at guard. That and teamwork. Those guys were all classmates, grew up playing together."

The '07-08 Runnin' Indians started four seniors, on a mission after losing the 2007 final to Beaverhead County. Behind seniors D.J. Fish, Andrew Spotted Wolf, Jordan Long Time Sleeping and Brenden Weatherfax and junior Lyle St. Goddard, Browning pulled away from conference rival Butte Central in the second half of the championship game for a 72-52 victory.

This season, Lyle St. Goddard starts with fellow juniors Cody Edwards, Derek DeRosier and Mert Thomas plus senior A.J. St. Goddard (a cousin).

"This team is faster, quicker," Lyle St. Goddard said.

The Blackfeet reservation, 1.5 million acres bordering Canada near the northwest corner of Montana, is one of six reservations located across the state. The population of Browning (named for the Commissioner of Indian Affairs) is about 96 percent Native American. Juneau believes basketball fits perfectly into the local culture.

"All the freedom was taken away when the reservation was set up -- no more guns or bows and arrows," he said. "There was no way to fight back. But basketball -- that warrior spirit, face your enemy on a hardwood floor. Basketball has always been the most popular sport."

At some home games, the national anthem is preceded by the playing of the Blackfeet Flag Song. The team used to run out onto the floor wearing war bonnets. ("The crowd went wild," Juneau said.) But the war bonnets needed repairing a few years ago, Book St. Goddard said, and the cost of fixing them was prohibitive.

Being a Browning basketball fan requires commitment, or at least frequent oil changes, since the closest of the school's five conference rivals is a three-hour drive away. Combine the distances with Montana winters, and it's practically a badge of honor.

"We probably have the best following in the state," Augare said. "When we go on trips, we usually have a pretty good entourage. Lately, they're moving our games up to 5. We still get home about 1. In the old days, we used to get home around 3."

Maize Upham, 83, has been following the Runnin' Indians since she had two sons playing for the team in the 1960s. She doesn't drive anymore and has cut down on the number of out-of-town trips but still makes the 20-minute ride with family for most home games.

"I'm proud of our basketball team," she said. "They're cool."

Augare isn't a member of the school faculty but is a local contractor who was hired 12 years ago to help out as an assistant coach. Once he's done with his day job, practice will start anywhere from 5:30 to 7:30. Most games are played on Friday nights and Saturdays.

Augare is good with his hands, and that comes in handy on some road trips, especially on the "short" three-hour trip on U.S. 2 across northern Montana to Havre.

"It'll be like 30-below outside when we're coming home," he said. "One coach is standing, scraping the frost off the windshield, and the bus driver's looking through this little hole. That trip's been like that quite a few times."

Browning clinched first place in its six-team conference, and will play the winner of Havre and Belgrade in the Central A divisional semifinal Friday.

Maybe the Runnin' Indians will be back in their old digs one more time to celebrate another championship.

Said Augare: "We hope to bring that tradition to the new gym."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.