CUSTER COUNTY — The story, the town, the team added another chapter in the book on Monday night.
Fort Calhoun 48, Gordon-Rushville 44.
And now, these basketball pioneers — representing a town that loves them — have one more week together. Maybe a few days more. For the first time since 1923, Fort Calhoun has advanced to the Nebraska State Basketball Tournament.
They did it the only way they knew how — with guts and grit and determination.
“This team is just all about finding a way,” said senior Zane Schwarz after the game, and the pictures and the hugs. “Finding strength within each other, that’s kind of been our story.
“Finding a way to win.”
On Monday, the Pioneers found their way to Lincoln — nearly a century after their last trip.
That Pioneer strength was displayed throughout this 32 minute battle with a Gordon-Rushville team that had never been to state as a consolidated school. Gordon, 1953. Rushville, 1960.
Someone was making history.
And this epic tale of back and forth, played in a near perfect setting at Broken Bow High School. Loud is an understatement.
G-R had control for a long time, 11-8 after one quarter and 23-20 at the half. And, when Donovan Fillmore splashed a three off a brilliant pass from Logan Slama the Mustangs had a 32-26 lead halfway through the third quarter.
Find a way.
All of the sudden, though, the Pioneers slow down press worked just enough. In a closing flurry to end the third period they finished on a 9-2 spurt and a 35-34 lead.
“It was huge,” Pioneer head coach TJ O’Connor said of the third quarter run. “We don’t go very deep and so sometimes we have to pick and choose when we do it.”
Carsen Schwarz — Zane’s twin brother — took a missed free throw and went the distance for an and-one in the closing seconds, his free throw giving FC the lead.
Fort Calhoun was eight minutes from ending a nearly 100-year drought.
Mark Welsher has been to more Fort Calhoun basketball games over the years than he can count. He moved there in 1989, worked at the Cargill plant in Blair until 2014 before retiring.
Now, he has a more important job. He drives these Pioneers to their basketball games.
“Just absolutely fantastic kids,” he said of this group. “Every single one of them. Very respectful. This means everything to our community, our fans who travelled tonight.
“An amazing game. Very emotional for us.”
Those final eight minutes on Monday had the stress level up for the bus driver and the town.
His team up three, Carsen Schwarz fouled out with 45 seconds left. The Mustangs’ Jace Nelson had pulled his team within 43-42. Carsen hit him just enough. Big No. 33 finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds and the town applauded his effort. But now all he could do was watch.
“I was scared as hell,” he admitted. His buddies never flinched.
Nelson missed the tying free throw and Zane rebounded.
So, what’s 45 seconds when you have waited 99 years? Find a way.
And, while the Schwarz twins could probably run for City Council now, it was the ones who surrounded them that helped put this one in the bag.
The defense and ball handling of Austin Welchert and Owen Newbold. Glenn Hunter off the bench — he scored five important points, including the lone Pioneer 3-point basket. And sophomore Grayson Bouwman, who was the one they wanted at the line. He was 8-for-10 in the fourth quarter and 6-for-8 in the final minute with 12 second half points.
It takes a whole team. A whole town.
“I have never felt anything like this before,” Carsen Schwarz sighs, it hitting him what they have done. “Neither has the town.”
Yes. The town.
You’ll see them in Lincoln next week. Whether in orange or black. And the shirts will say it all — The Fort. Or the front of the cheerleader uniforms that simply say CALHOUN. This team isn’t just the kids and coaches in the program, it’s everyone.
There is something to be said about knowing where you come from and what’s important to you.
“We teach toughness to our kids. We preach competitiveness to our kids,” O’Connor says as we walk outside — it feels like spring. “They embody what our community is. We have tough people. Hard working people.
“That is what we want to represent. Our kids just found a way.”
There it is, one final time. Find a way. For your brothers. For your schoolmates and teachers that support your dream. For the bus driver. For your town.
But there are more chapters left in this century old story.
“Still eight teams left,” Carsen Schwarz reminds me. “We have practice tomorrow and we aren’t done yet.”
The Pioneer story continues on. And finally, it found its way to Lincoln.