Iona Stookey is a physical education teacher in the Huntley Project school district. The 21-year educator also is the Red Devils’ girls high school volleyball coach. She excels in both roles, gaining recognition for her teams, which have won the last two Class B state volleyball titles.
And all without the benefit of a hard-rooting Worden home crowd gymnasium atmosphere.
On Sept. 18, 2008, four young people, then current or former Huntley Project students, broke into and intentionally set fire to the high school areas, including the old gym, completely destroying the buildings. All were eventually convicted of arson or burglary or both. The scars remain.
“That first year, we (the volleyball team) were the guinea pigs because our season was taking place when the fire happened and we lost our gym,” Stookey said. “The girls had to travel all the way over to Shrine Auditorium in Billings and back just to practice. They were always mentally tired, didn’t get home until nine o’clock at night. It was tough on their school work.”
The school installed a portable gym in 2009. Boys basketball coach Mark Branger refers to the white fluffy structure as the “Ice Dome” or “Igloo.” The fire marshal disallowed movable kerosene heaters for safety reasons when faulty heating shivered athletes practicing in winter.
A big body-heating Worden crowd could possibly warm the place, but it’s a practice facility, without stands, not a home court advantage spot. The elementary and junior high gyms are tiny.
Fall and winter sports for the last three years were played at the Shrine Auditorium, or in college and high school gyms in Billings.
First-year girls basketball coach Derek Miller says Red Devil squads are at a disadvantage.
“We essentially are playing all games as away games,” Miller said.
Longtime Shepherd High School girls basketball Bill Lepley, whose team was a Class B state finalist in 2007, talks about Huntley Project lacking that important “element” of the home court advantage the last few years, vital to fielding a competitive squad. The Lady Mustangs have recently owned the Devils in hoops.
But perhaps by senior graduation, the sugar beet and barley farming community 20 miles east of Billings will unveil its long-awaited new 2,000 seat athletic arena. Stookey and her gifted spikers surely deserve it, as do all of the Red Devil indoor teams, the students, teachers, administrators, and community citizens who support their teams as well as any in the state.
Take a look
Each day Worden town folks see the handsome reddish brown gym blossoming from the southwest corner near North 15th Road and Sixth Street, a Billings-based Fisher Construction endeavor that began last spring. A final Tyvek interior section recently disappeared.
The new athletic facility will double in seating capacity compared to the old gym, a spacious total area of 100,000 feet. The old was 36,000. Locker rooms can be partitioned into four changing areas, ideal for tournaments. Two side basketball courts, regulation size, will augment a college-size main court.
Haloing above and around the spectator stands will be an indoor running track, inclined on the east and west sides to accommodate the high nosebleed south side bleachers. Coaches’ offices, a training room, classroom and ample concession areas punctuate a quality sports and education structure.
Shepherd’s Lepley said he’s not envious about Huntley Project gaining a larger, modern gym. His gym across the Yellowstone River, built in 1985, seats 1,200.
“The fire was devastating,” Lepley said. “I felt sorry for them, especially their girls having to travel just to practice. Their new gym will get more kids to play, to come out for the teams. Larger crowds will come out when we each field good teams. This will improve the overall quality of play, which is what we coaches all want. It will be good for the rivalry.”
Red Devil athletic director and head football coach Jay Santy says the new gym will be one of the finest Class B schools in the state. And he plans to take advantage of it.
“The stores, the restaurants, the bars (in Worden) all suffered over the last few years without us having any (indoor) home games,” said Santy, whose football squads won Class B state titles during the “gym less” 2008 and 2009 years. “The community support is so strong here, we want to host future tournaments in the new gym, bigger events, to help those businesses.”
Worden Project Merc grocery store owner Michael Reiter concurs.
“Ask any business owner here on Main Street, and we will tell you the same thing. It’s (the lost gym) had a big impact on us. At that time the economy also took a hit,” Reiter said.
As did school district citizens, yet the majority were willing to support and help pay for the long-term bond that finances the classroom and gym reconstruction. Those funding debates and four public planning meetings caused delays. As did debris removal, a drawn-out insurance settlement and the harsh 2010 winter that bumped back groundbreaking until spring.
Superintendent Wes Coy likes the rebuilding progress since that start and hopes the Class of 2011 will be sent off into the world from the new gym later this spring. He spends a quarter of his work time with the reconstruction project, a far cry from managing a bus barn construction in his previous school administrator position in Hobson.
But it’s worth it. Like many in Huntley Project, he’s a sports guy.
“The old gym wasn’t big enough for us,” Coy said. “It was too tight with large crowds. “This gym will better serve the school and also the community.”
Coach Stookey also saw value from this unfavorable experience.
“When the girls had to travel to the Shrine Auditorium to practice and play all of our matches away in Billings, they never complained,” said Stookey, whose squads have won six of the last eight Class B crowns.
“I told them we’ve got to make bad, better. And they did. I had great kids. They were always unselfish and it’s a reflection on their parents.”
A life lesson. Handling adversity and still succeeding.