‘We were gym rats’ — a look back at the championship team of ‘83

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  • Coach Larry Schmautz during the state tournament.

  • 1

    Wildkat seniors whoop it up in the locker room after winning the state championship in 1983. From left is Becky Countryman, Robin Allen, Debby Downen and Kendy Bell.

  • Coach Larry Schmautz during the state tournament.

  • 1

    Wildkat seniors whoop it up in the locker room after winning the state championship in 1983. From left is Becky Countryman, Robin Allen, Debby Downen and Kendy Bell.

In dark basement a group of girls gathered holding hands.

They had a vision.

A vision of free throws falling through a basket. A vision of a state basketball championship long before it happened.

The year was 1983.

They were gym rats. All of them. And they had their sights set on winning a Montana state AA basketball title. This group of Columbia Falls girls bothered then coach Larry Schmautz so much to let them into the gym so they could get extra playing time in, that he finally surrendered, gave them their own key.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” recalled Robin Allen. She was the one who organized the vision sessions, recalled teammate Debby Downen. Had gone off to a basketball camp or something and came back with the idea.

And so they gathered — Allen, her sister, Brooke, Becky Countryman, Downen, Kendy Bell and Suzanne Schwarz — envisioning a title in the dark.

It worked.

The girls won the state title that year in thrilling fashion, beating Helena High 68-53. At the time, it was only the second state title in athletics in school history, and they did it against bigger schools and bigger opponents.

Back then, high school girls basketball was played in the fall. Girls basketball was a relatively new sport. Columbia Falls was one of the smallest schools in class AA. There was no three-point shot.

Fans loved it.

“We packed that gym,” Robin recalled.

Dorothy Downen, Debby’s mother, recalled that so many people were coming to the games, that the school added the upper bleachers to the gym to accommodate the crowds.

The Wildkats were certainly not a big team. Countryman was their tallest player at 5-feet-10.

But Schmautz got the best out of his players and they loved him.

“He’d make you want to run through a brick wall for him,” Robin said. “He stayed calm. He never got rattled.”

Debby recalled one time when the coach was giving her an earful. His fake teeth popped out ever so briefly and he caught them in mid air and put them back in his mouth like nothing had happened.

The road to the state championship had its bumps along the way. The Kats went 17-1 in the regular season and were the top seed in the divisional tourney, but they were upset by Flathead in the semifinals and ended up taking fourth.

Instead of heading to state the No.1 seed, they were going in the bottom of the bracket.

Still, the confidence was there.

“The mindset was, we’re going to win this thing,” Robin said.

Like so many championship teams, the effort began long before the big game. The girls grew up together. Were best friends. They started playing in grade school, mostly with the boys, like Cary Finberg, Dave Cornelia.

“That’s why we were so tough,” Brooke recalled. “We played with the boys all the time.”

Brooke said the school at one point realized they were sneaking into the old junior high gym to play after school was closed. It chained wooden guards over the baskets.

The girls figured out how to get them off.

In their freshmen year together, they went undefeated, Downen said.

“We were the definition of gym rats,” Brooke said.

The girls opened the state tournament against Billings West, winning 65-48 after West shot out to a 16-7 lead in the first quarter. But the Kats poured it on in the second quarter, scoring 25. Brooke, a sophomore, had 23. Robin had 18 and Schwarz, who went on to be a nun after high school, had 17.

Countryman’s defense held Central’s Debbie Dalluge, who would go on to play Division 1 basketball in college, to just 12 points.

The big test came the next night against Great Falls. The Bison put on a pressure defense to try to slow down the Allens. But that left Countryman, a lefty, open.

“She was the killer left hander,” Bell said. “We weren’t going to lose.”

Countryman recalled that Great Falls didn’t know how to defend her, because of her southpaw shot.

She poured in 24 points.

Before that game, “I was never a scoring threat,” Countryman said.

In the finals against Helena High the girls fell behind. They were down five at the half and nine in the third quarter.

Downen was a defensive player.

“I averaged 4.8 fouls per game,” she said with a laugh.

So Schmautz benched her and put in Bell.

Bell rattled off 12 points in the fourth quarter, bombing in long jumpers as the Kats rattled off 27 points to put away Helena.

“Best thing Larry did was to pull me out of the game,” Downen recalled.

Schmautz, sadly, died in 2005.

The women all credit him for their success, not only on the court, but in life. Robin went onto play for Gonzaga University and was named tournament MVP. Brooke played for Oregon.

All the women, save for Schwarz, went onto coach high school or college. Today Countryman is an optician in Port Angeles, Washington. Downen is a physical therapist in Spokane. Brooke is a junior high teacher in Canby, Oregon. She just led her daughter, Cianne’s team, to the Sweet 16 in the state tournament. Robin coached for many years and is high school marketing teacher at Central Valley High School in Spokane and Bell lives on a ranch with her husband north of Billings. Her children all play basketball as well. In fact, they bred their angus cattle a little later so they could attend basketball tournaments.

“I wish every child or student could have the feeling we had,” Countryman said.

It was life defining.

“It was one of the best things that every happened in my life,” Bell said.

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