Buffs state title team reunites for celebration

by: PIONEER FILE PHOTO - Members of the Madras High School 1977 girls basketball pose with a stuffed White Buffalo the team used to travel with. This group of players brought home the school's first girls state basketball title with an impressive run 37 years ago.It had been 37 years since Fran Moses stepped foot in the Pirate Palace on the campus of Marshfield High School in Coos Bay. A lot has changed since then.

Moses, now Fran Ahern, was part of the Madras girls basketball team that claimed the Class 2A state championship in 1977 on the hardwood that lies in the Pirate Palace. She never gave much thought to going back, but a simple phone call changed her mind.

So last month, she, coach Dave Wiles and four of her teammates once again stood at center court in the Palace, reliving the cheers and tears of that special championship run.

“It was pretty nice, it was neat to walk in,” Ahern said. “It just brought back a lot of memories.”

A championship season

Winning a state title wasn’t on everyone’s mind back in 1977. There were other things to contend with.

Most importantly, getting past Crook County, which seemed to always keep the White Buffalos from reaching the state tourney.

And then there was Wiles, a basketball guy from Iowa that had been coaching volleyball, who had taken over the team a year earlier despite hearing rumors that the group had no chance to win.

Two seasons later, Madras had its first girls basketball title.

“I saw the potential in them,” said Wiles, who still lives in Madras. “The problem was, the first year, we never had them all together. We always had someone injured.”

But Wiles had Ahern, his ball handler, and Kim Manion, the team’s leader, to build around. Both missed time during the two seasons, but once everyone was on the court, everything seemed to take off.

The Buffs lost just twice that year and after beating Crook County at home during the regular season, beat the Cowgirls when it mattered most, taking the district title in Burns to advance to the state tournament.

“It was always between us and Crook County; that was our big rival,” Ahern said. “They had won it the year before. They had always kept us out of (the state tournament).”

Once there, Madras ripped off close wins over Coquille and Yamhill-Carlton before clinching the title against Rogue River.

Ahern said the thing that she remembered most was the game itself and the fact that it was close until the end. In fact, she made a couple of crucial free throws that helped seal the Buffs' 43-41 win over Rogue River.

“It was just a fun season,” Wiles said. “They really played together.”

Reliving the past

The Buffs’ title would be the last one the Palace would see for decades, as the tournament moved to a different location in 1978, before returning in 2011.

With the players long since graduated and gone, a reunion seemed unlikely until the Oregon School Activities Association decided to honor the team at this year’s Class 3A state tournament. So the Buffs got to make an encore appearance in Coos Bay.

The core group of Ahern, Kim Mannion, Mary Nelson, Joanie Hatfield and Roberta Koch joined coach Dave Wiles for a little celebrating and catching up.

“When I walked in, I could remember where my mom was sitting,” Ahern said. “There were a lot of people there. I think pretty much everyone in Madras was there (in 1977), it was such a big crowd. I remember the fans being super, super loud.”

Many of the former teammates still live in Oregon. In fact, Hatfield and Manion only live about a mile apart from each other, but didn’t know it until they spoke at the reunion.

Koch was the only one from out of state that made the trip, flying in from Chicago.

“We don’t see each other very often,” Ahern said. “We just had fun talking about the game and talking about Madras sports and what has happened since, just talking to each other about our families.”

The group had quite the weekend in Coos Bay. They were treated to a local playoff basketball game and then shared a dinner with members of the Elmira boys team that won a title in 1964.

They were then brought courtside at halftime of the girls Class 3A state title game and introduced to the crowd.

“We were sitting there thinking that no one knows us here and they aren’t going to care,” Ahern said. “But (the crowd) stayed and they introduced us all and said a little bit about us and everybody in the whole place stood up.”

The Legacy

Over the years, the memories of the ’77 team seemed to fade away. It became a trophy collecting dust in a case that few stopped to look at. But there was a resurgence in 2003, when Madras won its second girls basketball title.

It was almost as special to Ahern as the title she helped win since her daughter Susan was a member of that team.

“It’s harder to be a fan than be a player,” Ahern said. “She was the only freshman on that team, so I was really proud of her.”

Winning the state title was one thing and beating Crook County was another and almost as satisfying. But Wiles said he is more proud of how the members of that team turned out in life.

Six ended up playing college basketball, an almost unheard of number for such a small school back in the 1970s and rarely equaled in today’s society.

Ahern played at Washington State while Mannion and Barb Earl played at Seattle University. Nelson, Hatfield and Koch also played college ball.

Beyond that, most ended up with successful careers and marriages and strong families.

“I’m proud of that too,” Ahern said. “And we talked about that; we’ve all done pretty well. We just didn’t win a game; we were successful (in life).”

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