While their mothers and grandmothers didn't have many of the opportunities they do to play the game, the girls of the Fosston Greyhounds are celebrities.
Thursday, Feb. 28
Casey Francis takes the pass from her assistant coach. She sets her
feet just inside the 3-point line, raises the ball over her long,
straight, dark hair, and shoots. Swish.
She hops to her right. Another pass. Another shot. Another swish.
She repeats the cycle over and over again. She looks as if she could do it with her eyes closed.
It's a drill the senior has practiced hundreds of times since she began playing basketball in 3rd grade. Francis does it during every practice with one of her co-captains—Kelly Roysland. She does it before every game she plays for the Fosston High School girls' basketball team.
Her fine-tuned shot is just one of the many ingredients in the dynasty of Fosston girls' basketball here in Minnesota. Going into tonight's contest, the team has won 75 consecutive games.
If the team goes on to win its third straight state championship in Francis' senior year, the streak will need to reach 81.
As Francis, 18, practices her shooting, the stands are starting to fill with residents of the town. Like most small towns, Fosston, population 1,500, loves its high school sports teams, and the girls' team here is no different. But unlike previous generations of girls, whose athletic prowess was largely ignored save for friends and parents, Francis and her teammates are the stars of the community these days.
While their mothers and grandmothers didn't have many of the opportunities they do to play the game, the girls of the Fosston Greyhounds are celebrities, signing autographs for the elementary school children who idolize them, conducting media interviews, and playing games in bigger cities in front of upwards of 2,000 people. And while Fosston girls were on the sidelines cheering a generation ago, now the town empties out to cheer its girls' basketball team when it plays an away game.
Tonight will be Fosston's first game of the state tournament—the Minnesota version of college basketball's March Madness. And, though the opponent doesn't promise to put up much resistance, every game along the way will get tougher.
To earn its third straight trip to the finals in Minneapolis, Fosston will most likely need to beat Kittson Central High School—the team that last defeated Fosston, in a Christmas tournament in 1999.
Since then, Fosston has beaten its archrival three times, including twice in games that qualified the Greyhounds for the quarterfinals in the state tourney. Kittson has something of a dynasty of its own: It hasn't lost to another team over that same time. At the end of the regular season, Kittson was ranked No. 4 in the state's Class 1A Division by Minnesota State BasketballNews. Fosston was No. 1.
Francis' intense eyes study the ball as it approaches, and her body reacts reflexively as she catches the ball and sweeps it over her head and into her shooting motion.
Tonight, she looks hot. Ball after ball floats through the hoop. After her occasional misses, she fixes herself to the same spot and shoots again, as if to prove that the error was an aberration.
Francis and her teammates are focused and intense right now. Forty minutes ago, as the yellow school bus from the Fosston district approached Crookston High School, the site of tonight's game, the mood was lighthearted and jovial.
As the team rode 45 minutes across the farmland in northern Minnesota, Casey's younger sister, Shelly, 15, braided Coach Rochelle Horn's hair, keeping up a tournament-game tradition. Female athletes, after all, can be just as superstitious as their male counterparts. Others sang along with the radio. They ate Twizzlers and drank sodas.
But now, the team is concentrating on the game, running through team and individual drills with the same quiet determination as Casey Francis.
Twenty minutes later, in Fosston's first possession of the game, the Greyhounds are awarded the ball out of bounds under their own basket. The team runs a play the girls have practiced dozens of times. Francis escapes a tangle of players in the free-throw lane, catches the pass near the baseline, and steps behind the 3-point arc. In a quick motion, she jumps, shoots, and the ball floats through the net as gracefully as it had in warm-ups.
Fosston's ahead, 3-0. The other team—Climax-Fisher—doesn't have a chance. Before a minute ticks off the clock, Fosston leads 7-2. By the end of the first quarter, the score is 26-11. At halftime, it's 44-24. Casey Francis has 22 points; co-captain Kelly Roysland has 13.
Early in the fourth quarter, Francis, Roysland, and the rest of Fosston's starters are on the bench while the junior-varsity players wrap up the game. The final score is 69- 48.
Afterward, team members spread through the bleachers to watch the second game of the Thursday doubleheader. Some scout the action to see what Saturday night's opponent is doing. Others do homework, studying to maintain the team's grade point average of 3.7.
Francis and Ruth Carlson, the other senior on the team and the third co-captain, read "Hamlet" and try to make sense of it together. They glance up occasionally to watch what's happening on the floor. At the end of the third quarter, Horn has seen enough and waves the team toward the bus that will transport them 45 minutes alongside the wheat fields toward home.
Back on the bus, the joviality returns. It's past 8 o'clock, and the team is famished. The girls rip pieces of candy off posters that decorate the bus. Shelly Francis enters and yells, "Kittson lost!" to the covey of girls sitting in the back.
"Really?" several say in unison.
Laughter from the front lets them know they've been duped.
Friday, March 1
Fosston is most of what one expects of small-town America. The state highway that runs through town has one stoplight. The school doesn't schedule activities on Wednesday nights because churches run family activities that evening.
The economy is driven by the price of the wheat, barley, and other grains grown on the surrounding farms. One of the biggest employers in town is the Fosston Independent School District No. 601. The district enrolls 655 students in its K-6 elementary school and 7-12 "high" school.
In the trophy case outside the high school's main gymnasium, the school district displays the 1913 trophy won by its boys' basketball team in the first state basketball tournament ever played. The Minnesota State High School League would love to own the trophy, according to Superintendent Dale R. Salberg, but the district won't give it up.
The town treats the current girls' basketball team with as much adoration as it does the 1913 championship trophy. The girls' parents created a bumper sticker with every team member's photo, and parents wear buttons with their daughters' picture around town. Amid the advertisements on paper placemats at Uncle Bob's Family Restaurant, the girls' schedule is printed side by side with the boys'. While the placemat lists only the first game of the state tournament for the boys' team, it lists the dates of every game in the girls' bracket.
When the team played in the state finals last year, the Stadium, another local restaurant, installed closed-circuit TV so the residents who didn't make the 300-plus mile trip to Minneapolis for the game could watch. Last night, that same restaurant sent its kitchen staff home early because business was so slow; it just couldn't compete with the girls playing 45 minutes away at Crookston High School.
Along the walls of Fosston's gymnasium, the district hangs banners for every team that has won a state championship or qualified for the semifinals. A few maroon banners honor boys' teams dating from 1913 through the 1970s. But then the girls' teams start dominating: girls' volleyball, semifinalist, 1975; a series of good showings by the girls' (and boys') golf teams starting in the 1990s; girls' basketball, semifinalist, 1994; girls' volleyball, runner-up, 2000, then champion, 2001. And then, of course, came the girls' basketball state championships in 2000 and 2001.
This year's girls' team is gathering for practice in that gym today. The players stretch a little. They catch up on the day's gossip. They joke around, about the music, about their friends at school, about almost anything.
"What kind of music is this?" Shelly Francis yells when the radio plays Aerosmith's "Dream On," a song written long before she was born in the late 1980s.
Practice formally begins when Kelly Roysland, 17, picks up a ball and jogs around the court. As a junior, Roysland is one of the best girls' basketball players in the state. She's being recruited by the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, and other Division I NCAA basketball teams. On the court, she can do just about anything. She launches 3-pointers, drives to the basket, and single- handedly breaks full-court presses by dribbling out of double teams.
Roysland has been playing competitive basketball since 3rd grade and has been a member of the Fosston varsity team since the 7th—a common practice in small towns, where the typically lone high school doesn't have enough players to field a full team.
As Roysland begins to run, the rest of the team follows. After two laps, the players stretch their legs, pick up balls for dribbling drills, and pair off for shooting practice.
Rochelle Horn and her two assistant coaches wander in and out of the gym, taking care of school business in their offices while checking up on their team. Around Christmas time, the team started practices without supervision from Horn and her staff, going through the same warm-ups, drills, and shooting exercises that are a regular part of those sessions.
By the end of the early drills, the team members have paired off to practice shooting, with Roysland and Casey Francis setting each other up for shots at the far end of the gym.
"It's a routine," says Horn, a 5th grade teacher at the elementary school. "We have stuff that comes up after school. They just get started. These guys know the game."
That has been one of the keys to the team's success during its 21/2-year winning streak. Many members have been playing together since elementary school. A group of six girls—2001 graduates who were the nucleus of the first two championships—started in 3rd grade with a week of practices. The next year, they played five games against teams from nearby towns, and won them all. Starting in 5th grade, they played in tournaments throughout the state.
By the time that group graduated last year, its high school team had won 92 games and lost 15. The team had won 51 games in a row when the girls walked off the court victorious at the state championship in Minneapolis last spring.
This year, the team of two seniors, three juniors, and eight lowerclassmen hasn't let up.
Roysland and Casey Francis, last year's leading scorers, have returned to lead the team again. Casey's sister Shelly, a freshman, became the team's starting center, and Kayla Bagaason, also a freshman, transferred in from a neighboring district, where she had already scored more than 700 points last year as an 8th grader playing on the varsity squad. Other seniors and juniors filled the void left by graduation.
Despite an outbreak of mononucleosis among the players—including Roysland—the team kept its winning streak alive. It even beat Kittson Central by 10 points in December.
In January, Fosston surpassed the record for consecutive wins by a girls' basketball team in Minnesota, and when the Greyhounds won their 70th straight game, they broke the record set by a boys' team.
After years of practice, the team members have the skills they need to succeed, and the guts they need to pull out tough games, community members say. And for all their adolescent propensities to talk about their hair, their favorite music, and the other concerns of high school life, they mature when it's time to play basketball.
"They've got all the weapons," says Mike Roysland, Kelly's father and the coach of the boys' basketball team. "If you're an opposing coach, it's a tough task to stop them and their athletic ability.
"Then you throw in the fact that these kids are mentally tough," he says. "It seems like the bigger the game, the bigger they play. They usually step up to meet the challenge."
Success hasn't always come easy. Last year, in the state championship game, Fosston trailed by 7 points at the end of the 3rd quarter, but Roysland hit two 3-pointers early in the 4th quarter, and the Greyhounds won by 5.
Two years ago, with the winning streak in its infancy, Fosston trailed by 16 points at halftime in the second round of the state tournament. The coach recalls walking into the locker room after giving her team time to be alone for a few minutes.
"There wasn't a single head hanging," Horn remembers. "I had one senior that year, and she was doing all the talking."
The team set the goal of cutting the lead in half by the end of the third quarter. "That's exactly what they did," Horn says. And they went on to win. "These kids won't ever do anything that surprises me."
The competition in the first weekend of this year's tournament is not tough by Fosston's standards. The Climax-Fisher team had to win a game against the team with the weakest record in the "subsection" just to earn the right to play the two-time defending champs. In tomorrow's game, Fosston plays Norman County West High School, a team it beat by 25 points on Valentine's Day.
Today's practice is rather light. The team shoots and runs fast-break drills. Horn calls the girls together to refresh their memory on Norman County West's offense and to give assignments to her players.
When practice is half over, the girls leave the gym with its shiny new floor and retractable bleachers that leave extra room for individual or small-group practices. They head through the halls of the high school to a smaller gym that looks as if it could have been on the set for "Hoosiers," the 1986 movie about basketball-crazy Indiana.
At the same time, the boys' team stops in the middle of its practice and heads for the new facility. The teams switch off like this when they're both holding practices on the same day.
In Fosston, there are no concerns about equal treatment for boys' and girls' athletics, no reason to cry foul of the Title IX law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions and practices. The teams ride on the same kind of yellow school buses to and from games. They take turns using the best practice court, and both get stylish uniforms. And, if anything, the girls get a larger share of the school's promotional resources.
As practice begins again in the old gym, Horn tells her players that they shouldn't take tomorrow's game lightly. Their opponents will be out for revenge, she tells them as she discusses strategy. In the teams' first game, the referees called fouls on the opponents' starters early, putting them at a disadvantage they never overcame. Norman County West players left feeling as if they hadn't gotten a fair shot at the champions, she says.
"Show them that was not a fluke," Horn says as practice breaks up. "You want to be excited, ready to play, but stay composed. We've been playing the game this way all year long. You've been playing this way since 4th or 5th grade. Just keep composed like you have been. Keep composed and play the game."
Saturday, March 2
"Hey, there's the championship girls' basketball team," says a bearded, graying man sitting one table over from the group of high school girls.
"I don't know you," a junior who just happens to be one of the best girls' basketball players in the state of Minnesota says as she stands and extends her hand. "I'm Kelly Roysland."
"I'm Red Larson, class of '59," replies the stranger with the red- tinged beard. Larson now lives in Phoenix and is visiting friends for the weekend, but he, like anyone else connected to this town, knows of the girls' success. Townspeople say that the team's trips to Minneapolis for the state championship are often like a reunion, with current residents driving more than 300 miles to be there, and meeting up with those who migrated to the Twin Cities.
Pictures of the team adorn the walls of Pine To Prairie Café, where Roysland, the Francis sisters, a team manager, and several others have gathered for breakfast before the brief morning practice.
The recognition is common for the girls here. The trophy case outside the high school gym has a framed copy of a two-page newspaper spread of the girls' volleyball championship—a team that included just about all the basketball players as well. Now that the championship run has begun in basketball, the interior of the team's bus is decorated by elementary students with messages like "De-Pant the Panthers" and "Tame the Kitty Kats." Pieces of Kit Kat bars and other candy are taped to the posters. This morning on 96.7 FM, one of the town's two radio stations, the DJ announces that the pool at the community center will be closed tonight "because most of the town will be going to Crookston for the girls' basketball game."
Earlier in the season, the boys' and girls' basketball teams held autograph night during a doubleheader. After the girls completed their game, fans started lining up with T-shirts, programs, and basketballs. The players started obliging their fans as the boys were warming up, Horn says, and didn't finish until the game was in the 3rd quarter.
At breakfast, the girls remember the horrors of being interviewed by television reporters before last year's championships.
"She asked me a 10- minute question," Shelly Francis recalls of one newswoman, "and then she hands me the microphone."
"And then you said, 'We're excited' three times," Roysland laughs. "You were like: 'It's exciting because we're really excited.' "
Roysland jokes about an interviewer—trying to elicit comments from her—asking what her family talks about at the dinner table.
While these young women bask in the limelight, their mothers didn't have the opportunity to play sports at the same level.
Kim Roysland, Kelly's mother, played on the volleyball team that qualified for the state tournament in 1975. It was the first time Minnesota held such an event for the state's volleyball teams. Before then, play ended after regional tournaments, Kim Roysland says. In the early days of girls' sports, the teams played in intramurals and scheduled three games against other schools, she remembers.
Kim's mother—Kelly's grandmother—was the girls' volleyball, basketball, and track coach.
"My mother fought hard to get us gym time," says Kim Roysland, who has been the volleyball coach since 1980 and teaches health at the high school.
Kim Roysland also played basketball until her sophomore year. "My daughter shudders when I say this: I gave it up to be a cheerleader."
By contrast, Kelly Roysland has been playing in tournaments around the state since the 3rd grade, when she joined the team made up of last year's graduates.
The next generation of girls promises to have similar opportunities. Only it's not fathers who coach them. The girls' basketball team spends every Saturday morning from November through February coaching elementary students through their practices and in their games.
For all the talent, experience, and fame, the Fosston girls attribute their success to routines that have nothing to do with skill or talent.
"Shelly, you're super," Chelsea Badurek-Thompson, a junior who starts at guard, jokes to the starting center during breakfast.
"Yeah," she says, "Superstitious."
One of the reasons Kelly Roysland invited team members to the cafe for breakfast was so she could eat the No. 7 breakfast—the same meal she ate the morning of last year's subsectional championship game. Like last year, Roysland ate all the french toast and eggs over easy, but left about half the ham on her plate.
Just as Roysland ate the same breakfast she did before a similar game last year, other girls will have dinner at the town's deli, sitting in the same seats they always do.
On the bus, the team members and coaches will sit in their usual seats. Shelly Francis will braid Horn's hair, as she has for games in the state tournament for the past two years. Some girls will wear the same ponytail holders on their wrists that they always do.
That evening, though, their success will have more to do with talent and practice than anything else. The players stay composed despite a rough start in the opening minutes, and they're patient when Norman County West stalls in its offense early in the 2nd quarter.
The less talented team tries to run time off the clock and hopes to lull the champions' defense into a mistake and an easy basket. After holding the ball for two minutes and playing through chants of "Boring" from the Fosston stands, Norman County West turns the ball over, and Fosston gets 2 easy points. Soon, the rout is on.
Once again, the Fosston starters watch the junior-varsity team finish the game.
Final score: Fosston 51, Norman County West 31.
After the game, the team accepts its medals for winning the subsectional tournament. The three co-captains accept the trophy and hold it above their heads to show the crowd. Soon, the rest of the team joins them and, as if on cue, the girls pose for a picture in front of the scorers' table. With taller ones standing in the back, short ones kneeling in front, and the trophy in the center of the team, their parents and grandparents snap their picture.
Across the Minnesota farmland, Kittson Central is winning, too, in fact thrashing its opponent to a final score of 86-28.
Friday, March 8
Kelly Roysland misses a 3-pointer. Fosston gets the rebound, and Casey Francis and Kayla Bagaason get a chance for 3 points. Both miss.
After all their years of practice and game experience, the Fosston girls, for once, can't make the shots when they need them. They trail Kittson Central, 60-54, with a minute left to play.
Missed shots have plagued Fosston for the whole second half. The team led by 5 points at halftime, but hasn't shot well since. Meanwhile, Kittson has been able to get the ball to its big players underneath for points seemingly at will.
(Fosston had no such problems on Thursday, when it beat Red Lake County Central by 16 points.)
As the clock winds down, Roysland throws up an airball, and then Casey Francis misses her own shot off the rebound. Both are shots they usually make with ease, but not tonight.
"They made their shots when they needed to, and we didn't," Horn says.
The game ends with Roysland making a meaningless bucket as the buzzer sounds. Kittson stuns the favorites, 63-58. Fosston's winning streak is over at 78 games. It won't win a third consecutive state championship.
The team goes through the exercise of receiving medals for its second-place finish in the sectional tournament. The players stand in line stoically. After draping their medals around their necks, Fosston Athletic Director Tom Gravalin gives each girl a quick hug and a pat on the shoulder.
Tonight, after the co-captains are handed the runners-up trophy, they hold it aloft briefly to show the hometown crowd in the stands. Tonight, they won't be posing for pictures. It's Kittson's turn.
"We handled it pretty well," Roysland says. "There wasn't any crying out on the court. The seniors were a little teary-eyed."
But after a 2½- year run without losing, with two state championships, and after countless hours on a yellow bus braiding hair and singing songs, the loss left the winningest team in the history of Minnesota short of its goal.
"Anything less than a state championship," Roysland says, "would have been disappointing."
Vol. 21, Issue 28, Pages 30-35