By Joseph Robertia
March Madness took on new meaning at Tustumena Elementary School on Thursday, as there was a huge upset in the annual pre-spring break basketball game that pits faculty against the graduating class of sixth-graders.
“The games have always been very close, which is a testament to the kids always playing hard,” said Mike Chase, the school athletic instructor and coach of the faculty team.
According to Chase, the inception of the game was a result of educators acknowledging that kids’ minds tend to wander to spring vacation the day before it, not unlike how adults sometimes feel on a Friday.
“The game has been going on for 12 years, to the best of my memory. It was started when our principal at the time, Ken Halverson, saw that by the afternoon of the day before spring break, the kids were mentally wired for spring break and discipline issues would spike during that time,” Chase said.
Halverson came up with the basketball game as a way to reduce the stress for teachers and students and let the kids get some of their energy out in a proactive way.
“The kids really bought into it and it has been a tradition ever since. The reason we keep it, as far as I know, is the kids look forward to it and it is fun for everyone. The discipline issues have gone down to near zero during this time. And the kids see the teachers in a situation where they are willing to relate to them on a different level, and it has built positive morale with the kids and for the school,” Chase said.
When Doug Hayman took over as principal two years ago, he saw the merit of the event and kept it going.
“Tustumena is rich with traditions. Our basketball game is sort of a rite of passage for the sixth-graders,” he said. “Our staff enjoy working and playing with the kids. It is part of the culture of Tustumena. This is a high-achieving school because of the relationships as much as because of the instruction.”
There are a few cons to the game, though, as third-grade teacher Lisa Gossett pointed out while getting her ankle taped in the teachers’ lounge prior to the game, surrounded by other faculty stretching out with the grunts and groans of a creaky wooden ship.
“The tough part is they stay the same age every year, but we keep getting older,” she said.
Gossett has played in the faculty game for 10 years. The highlight for her was when she played her two daughters when they were each sixth-graders.
“That was really fun,” she said. “I think the whole idea is a great sendoff before they go to the big middle school the next year.”
And how seriously does the staff take the game? Well, the fact that they went into this year’s match undefeated should be an indication.
“I don’t get competitive with them; they get competitive with me,” said Wayne Cowan, head custodian, who has played the last nine years. “We’ve had some close games. One, a few years ago, they were within two points of winning.”
This year the sixth-graders seem to have channeled the wildcat spirit of the school’s mascot, the lynx. The teachers knew who the fan favorites were the moment they took to the gym. The sound was deafening as more than 150 kids shrieked, stomped the bleachers and wildly waved banners while chanting, “Here we go sixth-graders, here we go!” over and over again.
The faculty was put at a disadvantage, about which they learned only minutes before the game. Chase gave the kids the option of handicapping three teachers during each quarter by having them take off their shoes or wearing either hockey gloves or an eye patch.
“And I’m pretty sure they’ll be gunning for you,” Chase said to Principal Hayman. Sure enough, Hayman was playing barefoot when the jump ball was tossed to start the game.
Sharon Hopkins, a first-grade teacher, was one of the recipients of the eye patch.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I have bad depth perception anyway, but with that patch on I was totally blind on one side. I couldn’t see the ball coming or anything happening.”
Despite the wardrobe hurdles, the faculty put up a good fight and led most of the game, but in the final quarter the sixth grade-team rallied. Two of their players, in particular, began to rack up the baskets. Kilee Horning, a tall teen wearing a fluorescent T-shirt and skinny jeans, was unstoppable on layups, while a wiry, sleeveless-shirted Brayden VanMeter collected not one, but two 3-point shots in the final quarter.
At the end of the game it was faculty 20, students 26.
“I play a lot at home and at the Boys and Girls Club,” Horning said. “I’m hoping to get on the team next year at Skyview and then hopefully play in college one day, too.”
VanMeter said he is just naturally athletic and doesn’t even play much basketball outside of gym class.
“This was fun, but motocross and hockey are my main sports,” he said.
At the end game they got dozens of high-fives from their friends, and signed scores of autographs for the underclassmen.
The upset was a tough loss, but one the faculty took in good spirits.
“Historically, teachers played on par against the sixth-grade team. This really was an advantage for the staff because of height, even though the kids are faster and have more stamina,” Hayman said. “So up to this point, the staff team was undefeated. This year, the staff took on the extra handicaps. That kept the game close. It could have gone either way, but the sixth-graders pulled off a couple of great shots in the final minutes to put it away. They played hard, they earned the win, just as it should be.”
Chase said the kids’ win reflects the principles he’s taught them in the gym.
“I always tell the kids to keep working hard until the game is over, because you never know what can happen. If you quit, the result is guaranteed, but if you keep working, that’s when miracles happen. And if the miracle does happen because you worked hard, then you shouldn’t be surprised. The games have always been very close, which is a testament to the kids always playing hard. This is the first loss for the teachers. Has their dynasty ended? I guess we will wait until next year to see,” he said
Hopkins said that next year’s student team, emboldened by this victory, is already setting its sights on the faculty.
“The fifth-graders are already saying, ‘Wait ’til next year,’” she said.