The Northern C Divisional Tournament tips off this Wednesday at 8AM in the Four Seasons Arena. An 8AM start is an early beginning to a long few days of exciting basketball but it won’t feel like an early start for Winnett-Grass Range Head Coach Vic Westphal.
Mornings for the rancher begin around 4:30 AM when the white haired Westphal rises and braves the cold of the morning air to check on his cattle. With the hired hands checking the calves throughout the night Vic takes over before the sun has even crept its way over the Snowy Mountains.
The early mornings on the ranch make for long days for Westphal but that makes the long days in the gym at tournament time seem normal.
For Vic, who’s Lady Rams take on North Star in the opening game of the Northern C Divisional Tournament the fight to survive the District 8C Tournament in Lewistown was like another day on the ranch, except Vic did a lot more pacing in the Fergus High Fieldhouse. On the sideline, Westphal dressed in his customary black jeans, brown shoes, and a button up off-white shirt, wore the hardwood thin walking back-and-forth in front of his WGR bench.
Westphal saw his team shoot just below thirty percent from the floor in their Saturday morning loser-out game against Denton-Geyser-Stanford and hang on for a 10-point win.
The always honest Westphal joked, “That might be the ugliest game we’ve played all year. If I didn’t have to stay in the coaching box I might’ve been half tempted to make a run for the door”.
Well he didn’t make a run for the door, in fact he stayed in the Fergus High Fieldhouse all day long. Sitting up in the wings of the gymnasium he watched games, visited with people, and enjoyed the company of his grandkids.
Then he coached the WGR girls into the Northern C Divisional with a hard-fought win over a talented Centerville squad in the consolation game on Saturday afternoon. Smiles abounded on the faces of his players and Westphal himself was trying not to let his excitement show too much in the hospitality room postgame as he sat to grab a bite to eat.
Elated with the way his girls played in their second tournament win over the Miners in three days he was congratulated by Belt Head Coach Jeff Graham. Graham, with son Jace in toe, pulled up a seat next to Westphal and set young Jace’s plastic dinosaur toys down on the table.
“Wow, would you look at those dinosaurs? Those are great!” said Westphal to the youngest Graham. “I wish I had dinosaurs like that.”
As Graham visited with folks around the hospitality room Westphal and Jace talked about Vic’s “baby cows” and the smile on both their faces was contagious around the room. Westphal, known for his stern and often fiery sideline demeanor had made a new friend. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
In the days before the Northern C redistricted Westphal’s Winnett-Grass Range teams were a staple at the Divisional Tournament representing the late great 7C. Westphal’s teams quite often matched up with Graham’s Lady Huskies on the biggest of stages in the Four Seasons Arena. In fact, Graham’s Huskies and Westphal’s Rams even faced off against each other for the Class C State Championship in Belgrade in 2013 where the Huskies won their second straight title, 40-34.
When asked about Westphal, Graham’s admiration for the rancher/coach is crystal clear.
“Vic is what Class C basketball is all about, raising kids to be better people. He loves our small communities just as much as Griff Bye or anyone can.” remarked Graham. “He treats my kids like his own, taking care of my son while I’m watching our Belt boys play. He coaches because he loves it.”
Year after year it was the Huskies and the Rams representing the Northern C at State. So something that the two coaches are doing must be working. While Graham’s style of coaching presents as much of a show as the basketball game, Westphal’s approach is slightly different to the observer.
On the sideline, the broad shouldered Westphal will stand with his arms crossed and take in the action stoically observing each play. Then in an instant the ball will be turned over or one of his players will commit a bad foul and you can bet the farm that his players will be hearing about it all during the next timeout.
“If you didn’t know Vic he would seem like this big gruff guy. That’s what I though before I ever played for him.” said 2014 Winnett grad Pari Iverson. “He seemed so scary and but on the inside, he’s a real jokester and a true teddy bear.”
More grizzly than teddy bear on the sideline Westphal has built a winning culture in tough central Montana that saw the Rams place at the State C Tournament three straight years.
“If you watched our games he was definitely tough on us, but that was why we were successful. He was the best coach I could have ever asked for.” added Iverson.
Westphal’s Lady Rams team impressed a crowd of people in the Fergus High Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon during their win over Centerville to punch their ticket to the Northern C.
So I say look out for the 8C District at the Four Seasons Arena. The loaded 8C will leave some teams home that could have won ballgames at the Divisional, but that’s the nature of the beast. Belt, Roy/Winifred, and Winnett-Grass Range will be forces throughout the tournament because they had to survive the competition of the 8C.
When Wednesday’s action starts early with Winnett-Grass Range versus North Star at 8 AM. Some fans will undoubtedly be wiping the sleep out of their eyes and needing their second cup of coffee before they can really get into the action.
But Westphal won’t. He’ll be up with the sun and ready to coach his girls as best he can. Expecting the best, pacing up and down the four seasons floor with his arms crossed, and getting fired up for every call he doesn’t like.
And when the game is over you might be able to find him in the hospitality room sitting with his friend Jace Graham talking dinosaurs. It beats the heck out of checking calves at five in the morning.