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1974 Three Forks High School team to be honored on February 8

On March 9, 1974, the Three Forks High School Boys’ Basketball team picked up the first state title in program history with a historic 58-51 victory over Terry.

Later this month, the team will be recognized at a special 50th Anniversary Ceremony in Three Forks on Thursday, February 8, 2024, when the Wolves basketball teams host Lone Peak High School.

Several players from the 1973-74 Class B State Title team recently shared memories from the incredible journey to a championship.

The path to the state championship started years before the culminating moment at the Montana State University Fieldhouse in Bozeman.

Jack Dorsey can remember playing in his driveway and Mick Durham’s patio as kids using an empty coffee can and a tennis ball and having tournaments with all the neighborhood teams.

Dorsey, Durham, and Jim Mjelde credited previous coaching staff for their work with the program.

Dorsey said he, Doug Hamilton, LeTempt, and Mjelde were part of the B team for the 1972-73 season, which only lost two games. Dorsey added that their seventh and eighth-grade coach was Jack Heebner, and they never lost a game in those two seasons.

“I’d like to mention coaches Dave Sauvageau and Dennis Hamilton from the previous seasons as really starting the winning ways for the 74’ team,” Dorsey said.

Durham credited Sauvageau for everything he did for Three Forks basketball, including starting the Little Wolves program.

Mjelde added that while Jerry LaRoque, the new head coach for the 73-74 season, deserves a lot of credit, the team also needs to thank all their previous coaches from 7th grade on up.

“We may not have been the most athletic team, but we appeared to be the most fundamentally sound team,” Mjelde said.

According to Mark Vandolah, many players weren’t sure if they would make the team at the start of the season, but they would buy into the new staff’s coaching philosophy.

Vandolah said they were taught to play defense better than ever before by LaRoque and would slowly learn what he described as a continuous wheel offense.

“We started with just one play and ran it until it was perfect. I was worried, because coach was very serious. He taught us how to run this offense. We’d work on one play a week and run it until it was perfect,” Vandolah said.

While there was a new head coach, Durham said one thing that helped was that LaRoque was their football coach for a year or two before.

“He wasn’t new to us because he coached us in football,” Durham said.

Scott Laird said LaRoque was his head coach on the freshman team the prior season. He can remember traveling to away games in LaRoque’s Suburban.

Laird said LaRoque started the season by managing expectations.

“He shared that he didn’t really expect us to finish much over 50% for victories, but he shared we would be entertaining to watch as we would full-court press the entire game,” said Laird. “Besides a really tough defense, LaRoque taught us to scout the other team’s offense during the JV game to be better prepared to counter their offense. He helped train us to mentally prepare for the games.”

The Wolves would lose three of their first four games to start the season against what Vandolah said were some of the best teams in the state in Belgrade, Big Timber, and defending Class B State Champion Manhattan.

Despite the early setbacks, Vandolah discussed the importance of returning players as an integral part of the team’s improvement.

Vandolah said he, Durham, Chuck Harden, and Bob Duncan had played together for three years and had great energy.

“It was a whole new coach, a whole new offense, and a whole new philosophy. So, we were a little bit nervous, but we knew we were good, and we believed we could be better. We weren’t big, our biggest guy was 6’2”, so we had to depend on defense and shooting,” Vandolah said.

As the regular season came to an end, Three Forks entered the postseason with a play-in game for the Divisionals against Townsend, a team Vandolah said they had just beaten the week before by 30 points. The Wolves would escape with a 56-55 victory to advance to the Divisionals.

Laird said if it were not for a clutch basket by Durham as time expired, they would not have made it to Divisionals.

“Coach had called timeout and set up a play for Chuck Harden to take the shot. Instead, Mick took it and made the shot. When asked later why he took the shot, Mick replied, ‘Because I knew I would make it. ‘He did, and we were off to Divisionals,” Laird said.

A win in their first game at Divisionals would set the stage for the stunning victory over undefeated and reigning state champion Manhattan.

Laird can remember Manhattan coming out hot and building a quick double-digit lead.

“(Coach) LaRoque called a timeout. In the huddle, he told us we weren’t doing anything wrong; he just wanted Manhattan to think about how hot they were. It worked. We slowly cut into the lead and ended up victorious. The paper’s headline Saturday morning was ‘The Kingpin Has Fallen.’ We lost to Belgrade Saturday, but our ticket to state was punched, and Manhattan, the most talented team in the state, went home,” he said.

Gary LeTempt fondly remembers the victory over the rival Tigers.

“The Townsend game to get to Divisionals was great, but beating an undefeated Manhattan team at Divisionals was historic. I’ve run into people from all over who were at that game to see Manhattan but left Three Forks fans,” LeTempt said.

Dorsey said the team was fortunate to have played their best at the end of the year.

“Especially the night we beat Manhattan,” he said.

Durham said there were two really good teams, Manhattan and Belgrade, in their league, and in the regular season, they were just trying to survive their conference.

“Manhattan had the big winning streak and a state championship. Beating Manhattan in the semifinals at Divisionals was a huge confidence boost. They beat us twice during the year, and it seemed like each time we got closer,” Durham said.

Both Durham and Laird discussed the importance of having the state tournament close to home.

“State was in Bozeman, so for Three Forks and Belgrade, it was like home games. We slept in our own beds, ate meals at home, and these helped,” Laird said.

Three Forks would open the Class B State Tournament at the Montana State University Field House in Bozeman on Thursday, March 7, 1974, with a 55-45 win over Belt.

On March 8, the Wolves picked up a thrilling 51- 48 win over Big Fork in the semifinals to advance to the state finals.

LeTempt said he especially remembers the late Friday night victory over Big Fork.

“We trailed the whole game and I believe Chuck (Harden) reached in a tapped the ball to Mick (Durham) who took it all the way down for a layup with just seconds left. I believe he got fouled, and he made the free throw,” LeTempt said.

The victory in the semifinals would set the stage for a matchup in the finals against number one ranked and undefeated Terry High School.

Mjelde remembers listening to the radio on the bus ride to the championship game.

He said the announcers were picking the winner of the game between Three Forks and Terry, and everyone but one picked against the Wolves.

“That announcer said he was picking Three Forks because no one had picked Three Forks to win up to this point, and Three Forks had shown everyone wrong,” he said.

Vandolah said the team was extremely nervous going into the game but believed in themselves.

“We got on the floor, and Terry took off and got up about ten. We got back together and said we are better than this,” Vandolah said.

Trailing early, Vandolah said the team would utilize the full-court press and would come away with the seven-point victory.

“We started getting turnovers, and by the end of the game, we pulled away. They had a big guy who was 6’6”, but we held him in check and won the game,” Vandolah said.

Looking back on the game, Mjelde said possibly the biggest play in the victory was Durham’s drawing a charge at half-court that the refs could easily have missed.

“This team had a lot of heart and no quit,” LeTempt said.

Laird said his lasting memory from the championship game came in the fourth quarter.

“I was defending Terry’s star center, and he said, ‘Can’t you guys just call off your press so we can get the ball past half court?’ Defense made the difference as we lifted up the state trophy,” Laird said.

Durham can remember utilizing a “controlled press” to finish the first half strong and taking a little bit of momentum into the halftime break.

“We hit some big shots early in the fourth quarter. I don’t remember if they were playing man or zone, but I can remember getting a couple of shots from the top of the key in the second half,” Durham said.

Vandolah said he was in shock after winning the title.

“We had fought so hard and played so hard the whole season. And everybody was so grateful and happy for us. And we were grateful to win the title because we had not done that before. It’s tough to win a Class B title. You’ve got to have the perfect team to win it, and everything has to come together,” he said.

Laird said that during the state tournament, one of the announcers stated that Three Forks played defense like a bunch of demons.

“We did. Coach also shared that we could expect to make big runs at the end of the half and the fourth quarter because the other teams would be exhausted. Again, he was correct,” Laird said.

Vandolah, Laird, and Mjelde remember the fans’ reaction at the game and when the team returned to Three Forks.

“The amazing thing was that the entire town of Three Forks and people from Belgrade and Bozeman were cheering for us in the Fieldhouse. It was the most awesome feeling in the world because everybody was cheering for Three Forks. The fans were incredible. You could have walked into Three Forks during the game, and it was a ghost town,” Vandolah said.

Mjelde described the team coming back to Three Forks and seeing the line of cars waiting for their bus as a scene from the movie Hoosiers.

Laird can also remember the ride back to Three Forks.

“It felt like the entire town of Three Forks met us at Logan and escorted us the five miles to Three Forks,” He said.

Looking back on the state title, Durham said growing up playing basketball with his teammates made it such a great experience.

“You have a lot of them in basically the same class from kindergarten to senior year, and to be able to do it with the guys you grew up with is what is really special about high school athletics. It was such a new experience for us. Our program was on the rise, and this took it to another level. From that point on, Three Forks has been known as a basketball school,” Durham said.

Members of the 1973-74 team were Mick Durham, Chuck Harden, Gary LeTempt, Perry Logerstedt, Scott Laird, Jack Dorsey, Bill Duncan, Bob Duncan, Mark Vandolah, Jim Mjelde, Doug Hamilton, and Don Duncan. The Head Coach was Jerry LaRoque, who was assisted by John Anderson. The manager for the 1973-74 team was Damon Boyington.

Vandolah said Coach LaRoque, Don and Bob Duncan, Chuck Harden, and Damon Boyington have passed away.

LeTempt said Harden was his cousin and best friend.

“He was a pure shooter and great under pressure,” LeTempt said.

Vandolah is looking forward to getting the team together on February 8.

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful get-together. It’s going to be nice to share memories, see how all the guys and their families are doing, and brag about the glory days. I’m getting pretty excited about it,” Vandolah said.

Dorsey said Three Forks was a great place to grow up and still be associated with the town and all the team members.

Hamilton said after the 1974 season, for many years, he recalled about 30 percent of the school’s spacious new trophy case was occupied by the “first ever” School State Championship.

Hamilton is proud to have witnessed the continued success of the Three Forks Boys’ and Girls’ athletic programs.

“The trophy area has been expanded exponentially, over the decades, in order to display the many State Championships from the past 50 years,” said Hamilton. “Three Forks High School’s ‘first-ever’ State Championship is a gift that keeps on giving. 1974 was the beginning of a small community’s successful high school sports excellence story, their many championships that followed and their continued commitment to this day."

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