NEW ENGLAND — The party didn’t stop after the post-game celebration.
In New England, the revelry for winning the Region 7 boys basketball championship game last Thursday night in Dickinson lingered until the team and fans got home. Then it spilled over onto the city’s Main Street, led by fire trucks blasting sirens, a stream of cars honking horns, and the hoots and hollers of fans in this town of about 650 people relishing something that hasn’t occurred in nearly a generation.
New England, with only 69 kids in high school, will be both the smallest school and community participating in this year’s Class B state tournament, which begins today at the Bismarck Event Center.
“For us, this is the ultimate,” said Daryl Jung, the school’s longtime athletic director. “It’s actually a dream come true.”
Jung said reaching the Class B state tournament in boys basketball is a different kind of special to players and fans in towns like New England, as opposed to larger schools in the division.
“It doesn’t occur very often and it’s a big, big deal for a small community to go to the state tournament,” Jung said.
It has been 17 years since New England — a town that has stood proud in its athletic prowess for generations — has sniffed anything close to this kind of success. In the 1990s, the Tigers and their fans were accustomed to winning teams in most sports. Playing in a co-op with Regent, the Tigers won three consecutive 9-man football titles and had a 47-game win streak. In basketball, New England finished fourth at the state tournament in 1996 and New England-Regent took sixth at state in 1997.
Several years of moderate success, but no titles, followed. Now, the school doesn’t have a football team. The program dissolved in 2006 and combined with Dickinson Trinity. Boys basketball, after enduring a rough patch late last decade, has enjoyed five straight winning seasons under head coach Luke Powers.
Now, the Tigers take a 22-2 record and a Class B-best 17-game win streak into their opening-round game against Region 3 champion LaMoure-Litchville-Marion at 7:15 p.m. today.
Assistant coach Bruce Bender said it’s different for towns like New England when they reach “the B,” the largest high school tournament in North Dakota.
He said some schools and communities — including a handful in this year’s tournament, some of which have made multiple trips to state in recent years — likely don’t have the same “unique” feeling about reaching state that New England does.
“It doesn’t happen that often,” said Bender, whose son, Brady, is the Tigers’ starting point guard. “Some of those teams are always there. For us, as a small community, it’s something very special.”
Bender knows a thing or two about state tournaments, too. This will be his fourth as an assistant coach over a three-decade career. He said every trait New England hangs its hat on — depth, size and defense — are characteristics of teams he has seen win state championships.
“I’ve got good feelings, I really do,” he said.
So do the Tigers’ fans.
The old small-town adage of “last one to leave turns off the lights,” might actually apply to New England today, Jung said.
“The town, everywhere you go, it’s kind of buzzin’,” said Shawn Wolf, who owns Wolf Auto Body & Glass on New England’s Main Street and is one of the team’s fan ringleaders.
Like every other business in New England, Wolf’s windows are plastered with orange and black signage — including a “Our blood runneth ORANGE” flag hanging from the exterior. He and his family rolled out of New England on Wednesday in a 1975 Gillag school bus that they have converted into a fun bus for themselves and their friends. The Wolfs painted the bus black and orange, and have it decorated in Tiger logos.
“Everybody is pumped up and excited about (the state tournament),” Wolf said. “It has been a long time since we’ve been there. The coaches and the boys, they’ve been working hard for a long time to get to this point. It’s kind of a celebration in them for all their hard work.”
Daniel Prince, New England’s leading scorer and the Region 7 senior athlete of the year, said he is amazed by the community’s response to the team.
“When they saw us win, it really brought a lot of life and a lot of excitement into the community,” he said. “I think it’s good to finally get a winning culture back in New England.”
And from the sounds of it, Jung said, the Tigers won’t have to worry about being the smallest community at the tournament. He said he has heard from New England alumni from all corners of the state — and even the country — who plan to be in Bismarck this weekend.
Shawn Giese, an optometrist in Chandler, Ariz., and a starter on New England’s 1996 state tournament team, is flying to Bismarck on Thursday. Giese, who grew up next door to the Benders, said he continues to follow New England’s teams through the media and said he couldn’t miss making the trip and supporting the Tigers.
“Hopefully they can play as hard as they can and leave it all out there,” Giese said. “They’re on a hot streak. Hopefully they’ll keep it going.”
Bender said the Tigers’ fans have been a driving force in the team’s performance, especially toward the end of the season during the region tournament.
“Our fans were just great this year,” he said. “I’ve never seen a student body at New England High School this fired up. It’s been very special.”
Powers, who grew up in Butte, Mont., before moving to the area to attend Dickinson State University more than a decade ago, said he continues to be in awe of the community’s support for his team this season, and he wants to reward them for that support.
“We think we have the talent and we’re going to try to bring the glory back to New England,” Powers said.
On Wednesday afternoon before school dismissed, the community held a pep rally for the team. It ended with Powers calling the entire student body to center court to huddle with the team.
With their arms raised up, they shouted “Together!”
For the Tigers and their community, there’s no other way to do it.