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Relying on faith in the storm

9/16/2009

By NICK SCHWIEN

By NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net

QUINTER -- The players sat in the locker room, dripping with sweat fresh from victory.

Their leader, their head coach, walked back out of his office and looked at the members of his team. Those who had battled so courageously and victoriously just minutes before.

Suddenly, a pitter-patter started to fall outside. Then a more constant, heavy rain unleashed after holding off for most of the game.

The drops dripped off the top of Quinter High School onto the cement landing outside the football team's locker room. It was the beginning of a storm, or at least another night of rain in northwest Kansas.

Greg Woolf, the head coach of the Bulldogs, took a deep breath and exhaled.

The locker room was quiet.

The Bulldogs, one of the top teams in Eight-Man, Division I in the state, were about to face a storm -- but not outside.

None of the players on the team knew Mother Nature had opened her eyes and began pouring tears down on their little portion of the world. Neither did the coaches.

The storm they were about to face was different, unexpected.

Woolf, a mountain of a man and a former football player himself, opened his mouth and began to speak as his eyes reddened and his heart became heavy.

"You guys know my priorities are always God, my relationship with Jesus Christ, my family, teaching and you guys," Woolf said. "And I love you guys."

There was a pause, then a few more words.

The pitter-patter on the ground no longer was outside the door.

It was inside the locker room, on the floor in the form of tears from the players.

A town of faith

The lyrics from the Christian band Casting Crowns song "Praise You in This Storm" can find a lot of meaning in Quinter.

"I'll praise you in this storm

and I will lift my hands

for you are who you are

no matter where I am

and every tear I've cried

you hold in your hand

you never left my side

and though my heart is torn

I will praise you in this storm."

Quinter has been through a lot through the years. The good times and bad. The ups and downs.

There's always some constant battle, perhaps now fighting population decline like most towns in western Kansas.

But one thing constant in the small Gove County town is faith. And there's a lot of it.

"It's a lovely community," said 93-year-old Helen Tilton, a 1932 QHS grad. "Our churches have no problem getting along together, and that's wonderful."

You can see the pride in the town's faith-based way of life at one of its goodwill stores.

There, Mary Jane Swihart continuously is working her nimble fingers for the good of others -- including children in Romania.

Swihart was touched years ago after reading an old letter she found from her parents to her grandparents about mission work in China.

"How I got started was I read a letter my parents had sent home, and they were missionaries in China," Swihart said. "They sent home letters to their folks, and in a couple of them, my father saw over a dozen children frozen to death on his way to town. That's when God convicted me to try to help cold children in the world today."

Swihart organized Baby Bundles to be sent to Romania, helping cold children in a time of need. The bundles include a few outfits and undershirts, six diapers, booties made by prisoners from Ellsworth, rubber pants, blankets and a baby bottle -- all rolled up in a comforter.

There is no heat or air conditioning in the building. Instead, the money that would be used for that is needed to help with the bundles, shipping and anything else that comes up.

Swihart herself doesn't even stake her claim as owner of the business.

"God's the owner, and I just work here," she said.

Strength of security

Everyone looks out for everyone in small towns. Quinter is no different.

With that comes a sense of security.

Friday morning's farmers market on the north end of town proved that.

Vendors could set up curbside and sell their homemade goods.

"It's rural and small, and I like that," Jodi Swihart, niece of Mary Jane Swihart, said as she sat in a chair selling goods at the farmers market. "Everybody knows your business, and you know everybody else's. But there's some security in that."

Jodi Swihart was home-schooled and graduated in 2004. But she wouldn't have wanted to grow up anywhere else.

"It's a very good place to grow up," she said. "I work at the library, and we have kids come and go every day. It's just safe. There's kids on the street at all times of the day by themselves just because they can be."

She lived for a time away from Quinter and got a taste of what life outside a small town is like. And it wasn't all that comfortable.

"I lived in Pennsylvania for a year, and it's just different," she said. "People had to help me know what it was safe to do because I was used to the freedom. You just don't think about going somewhere by yourself at night here because who's going to get you? Your neighbor, Frank?"

Upbringing

Business was brisk at the Food Pride grocery store in Quinter. And that's exactly what Nancy Bowman was hoping for late Friday morning.

"It's a chance to see my neighbors," Bowman said about working at the store.

Bowman began working at the business during the summer. She grew up in Quinter and enjoys the small town.

"The way I was brought up in a plain church, we were just taught a good work ethic and to watch out for your neighbors," Bowman said. "We were taught to look out for each other."

That's what Bowman said makes for a strong tradition of family values in the town.

As for Gary Kesler, another employee at Food Pride, he tells Bowman it "must be our upbringing," joking from across the store.

Kesler and his wife, Laura, who works at KansasLand Bank across the street, had two sons go through the school system, Grady and Brice.

Gary is a QHS grad himself, earning a diploma in 1973. He's seen changes in the school and town since he grew up there.

Agriculture used to have a strong base in the community, and it still does, but not what it used to. Now, Kesler said, the hospital is a big draw.

"Basically agriculture based, but that's been lost somewhat now," he said. "The hospital right now is probably the biggest drawing card right now."

But one thing has stayed the same for Quinter since Kesler graced the halls of the school. And that's the fact that the school system has remained strong academically and athletically.

"Athletically, academically," Kesler said, "we don't have to take a backseat to anybody -- that's for sure."

Main Street pride

Tilton, who will turn 94 on Oct. 1, jokes about Quinter's financial significance in the region.

"We think we must be the banking center of northwest Kansas," Tilton said with a laugh. "We have three banks, you know."

One of those banks was the brainchild of Scott Bird, a 1978 Quinter graduate. Bird is president of the bank and co-owner of Food Pride, along with his wife, Sheryl.

"We basically re-established a local community bank in town," Bird said about KansasLand Bank that opened in May 2006.

"The community goes kind of how the business leaders on Main Street go -- as far as the tone is set," Bird said. "When you're community-minded and you have investment in your community, you have to get into the community. By nature, you're deeply involved."

Bird works alongside Laura Kesler, who's the bank's vice president. Kesler and Bird both were in the same 1978 graduating class that had nearly 36 students -- one of the largest in school history, Bird guesses.

The two have worked alongside each other for many years and can finish each other's sentences and thoughts. Bird and Laura's husband, Gary, also have spent time coaching summer basketball together.

But Bird knows the town always has had a solid work ethic.

"I think Quinter has always had that spirit," said Bird, whose son, Matt, is a starter on this year's football team. "You go in cycles a little bit. When I first started at the bank, the people that were on Main Street then, now a lot of that has turned over to a newer, younger generation. You'll continue to see that. A really good story about improvement is Jack and Doris Tebow with Ray's Pharmacy."

The Tebows recently moved a few storefronts south on Main Street to a larger location. There, they have renovated an old theater building that now houses Ray's Pharmacy and Q Value.

Both Tebows grew up in Larned and lived in Wyoming and Indianapolis before moving to Great Bend. Then an opportunity for the couple to own their own grocery store popped up in Quinter.

It's been 16 years since that opportunity happened.

"If the community -- and bank, especially -- wouldn't have been behind it, it wouldn't have worked," Doris Tebow said.

The Tebows are working on settling into their new location and plan a grand opening in October. That grand opening will feature one of the few large soda fountains in Kansas, one that when completely refinished will be nearly 30 feet long and more than 12 feet high and dates back to 1904.

Role of the school

For Laura Kesler, a high school in the town is an essential.

And it's a binding force for the community.

"When you live in a small town, you don't have the entertainment like the larger towns have with a movie theater or Putt-Putt course," said Kesler, who is proud to mention her son, Grady, played on the Class 2A undefeated state basketball title team in 2004. "So your entertainment really is your school. Your kids provide the entertainment for the whole community, and that's why the whole town will turn out for a ball game or forensics meet. That is the entertainment we have here -- the kids."

But it's not just entertainment. The school is much more than that.

"It's the survival of them. It really is," Kesler said about schools in small towns.

QHS Principal Tucker Woolsey grew up in Oberlin and knows the importance of school districts in small towns. He's seen changes, too, and knows towns nearly dry up when schools close.

"It's the lifeblood. Without it, I think -- like many small schools around -- there isn't a town," Woolsey said. "More than that, the way the school system is ran shows the general quality of the school system in any town, and vice versa."

The enrollment number for Quinter for the year is 144 for grades seven through 12. But the inevitable decline is not new to northwest Kansas.

"We've had that same problem," Woolsey said. "We've had a pretty big drop in enrollment the last several years. My first year here, we had 160 in seven through 12. We were down as low as 136 at the start of last year, and now we're up a few students. We've had those issues before. To get people into the community, you need to have jobs, something in town to draw people in. For as far back as anyone can remember, those jobs were farming. But the way the economy is and the way farming has gone, it's just changed the face of what farming looks like. Also, industry has changed."

The bull's-eye

Quinter has been strong in sports and academics throughout its history. The football team has won two state titles, one in 1973 in Class A, the other in 1992 in the Eight-Man, Division I ranks.

Then there's been the numerous boys' and girls' track titles.

The state crowns in scholar's bowl and forensics.

And the 2004 state title in 2A boys' basketball.

Last year, the football team finished with a 10-1 record after suffering through a rough 11-man schedule years prior.

And the 2008-09 boys' basketball team finished as state runner-up to Hanover in the 1A ranks. All the trophies of success line the hallways outside the gymnasium and near the cafeteria.

"We've had a lot of success over the years here in basketball and football recently," head boys' basketball coach John Crist said. "And we've had success in football before. We have two state championships, and all the track championships we've won. We've had tremendous success. I feel like as a coach, we always feel like we have a big bull's-eye on our backs everywhere we go. People love to beat Quinter.

"I look at it as a positive, because if they're getting up for you, then that means you're doing something right. And we try to feed off of that. The expectations for the boys this year are pretty high, both for football and basketball with what we accomplished last year. I know this senior class has talked about winning state championships, and I feel in order to do that, you have to talk about it. You have to be able to dream it, see it and achieve it. You have to believe it. Hopefully the kids can step up and have a successful season in football, basketball and track and everything."

While Crist relishes the fact that Quinter has caught the eye of several people through the years, he also knows the town still faces some of the same problems as other regional cities.

"The school is tremendously important," Crist said. "You can look around the area, and the communities where the schools have closed down have seen the communities kind of dry up. I think if you don't have a school, you basically lose your community. I think the school is tremendously important. We've lost numbers just like everyone else has in western Kansas, but our grade school numbers are hanging on pretty good now. They've steadied out a bit. Hopefully our numbers will come back eventually, but it's a hard time for every school in the state right now. Obviously we don't want to lose our school."

'Q' stands for Quinter

One of Quinter's luxuries is Dairy Queen.

Joni Kerns is in her 10th year as the owner of the local establishment, one of basically three eating joints in Quinter, along with the Pizza Station and the Q-Inn.

"I wanted people to know where Quinter was because of the Dairy Queen," Kerns said, noting her pride in her new sign that now features the large letters, DQ.

Kerns is a 1976 QHS graduate and tries to give back to the school as much as possible, sponsoring T-shirts for the school's basketball tournament -- the Castle Rock Classic -- and helping with the FFA club's pheasant hunters' breakfast.

She also has several high school kids working for her.

"Anything to do with athletics and kids," Kerns said. "I'm not necessarily teaching them book education, but life skills."

The Dairy Queen was built in 1968 and was one of the only eating establishments along Interstate 70 between Kansas City and Denver. That's because cities such as Hays, Colby and Goodland hadn't built out closer to the main national highway yet.

"Everybody knew where Quinter was because of it," Kerns said.

A cut above

Zach Nemechek said it started as sort of a joke. Now, it's starting to catch on with other players.

The senior center and nose guard began getting a mohawk from coach Greg Woolf last year.

Nemechek, whose father, Victor, is a doctor in town, told Woolf he was going to get a haircut after lifting weights last year. The coach told him he would do it for free.

Now, every week or a week and a half, Nemechek gets a close shave.

This year, more players have followed suit.

"I'd kind of nudge the kids in the ribs and say, " 'What about a mohawk today?' " the light-hearted Nemechek said.

"Then one turned into two, two to four, and now about 10 people have them," Nemechek said.

But he's the only one Woolf gives a haircut to. Nemechek jokes that's because Woolf is too intimidating, even for himself. That says something, especially since Nemechek is well over 6 feet tall and weighs about 240 pounds.

"Even if he was a foot shorter than me, he'd still be the most intimidating guy," Nemechek said. "He's still got that personality about him that when he's in the room, there's no goofing off around him. You respect that he's there. On the other end of the spectrum, he's the nicest guy to play for. I couldn't imagine playing for another coach. I love the way he handles the other coaches, and each one has his own say."

A storm brews

The pain started Monday night and became too unbearable for the head coach to stand any longer.

Late that night, he went to the hospital and missed practices the rest of the week.

That meant assistant coach Brian Roesch was in charge of the offense and game plan. The defensive assignment went as usual to assistant Jeff Ruckman.

And one thing became certain Wednesday. That's when the team decide it was going to play for a shutout Friday night against Palco.

The game ball would be labeled with a "goose egg" and presented to Woolf if he made it back for the game.

Woolf, in his seventh year as Quinter coach, had exploratory surgery mid-week on his lower stomach and eventually was released. He showed up mid-afternoon Friday at the school to talk with his players and coaches and see how things were going.

He knew nothing of the team's goal.

Nemechek and fellow senior Thatcher Deaton wanted a few minutes to talk to the team before the game. The coaching staff granted them their wish.

"We're going to get the shutout, sign the ball and give it to coach," they reiterated to the team before the squad gathered for a quick prayer.

Then the coaching staff came in, and Roesch talked to the team before Woolf entered the room.

"We're going to put that goose egg on the ball and sign it," he said, his eyes growing red and fighting back tears. "Just do it."

Then Woolf entered.

"God gave you the ability to play and to come out and do what you can do," Woolf said. "We are one team. Individuals stay here."

As the players left the locker room and entered into the night air, each placed a hand on a sign near the doorway that read: "I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. And what I can do, I ought to do. And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I shall do."

The players walked out of the locker room and began their walk of faith.

Fourth and goal

Quinter took control in the second quarter, breaking open a 6-0 game at the end of the first quarter to lead 22-0 at halftime.

Another 22 points in the third quarter put the game well in the Bulldogs' hand.

But it wasn't enough, and just settling for a victory wasn't going to satisfy the team.

The group wanted a shutout, the school's first since shifting back to the eight-man ranks last year.

And they wanted it for their coach.

But Woolf began substituting when the game got out of hand, allowing other players a chance to improve. It was something he had done in many games.

With Quinter leading 44-0 and 8:16 to play, Palco faced a fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line.

The shutout was in jeopardy, especially with the Roosters' starters still in the game and Quinter's second string on the field.

Palco quarterback Blake Gehring dropped back to pass, and the ball released off his fingers in a near-perfect spiral.

It landed right in the hands of Quinter senior Skyler Wittman, who returned the interception two yards deep out of the end zone to the five-yard line.

Later in the game, senior Jordon Hargitt broke loose for a long touchdown run, giving the Bulldogs a 50-0 win thanks to the 45-point rule in the eight-man ranks.

"He starts subbing younger kids in, and Ruck and I are like ..." Roesch said, throwing his hands up in the air, describing the sideline scene from the couch in the coaches' office.

"I'm thinking, 'You want the game ball or not?' " Ruckman pipes in jokingly about his thoughts when the head coach started substituting.

"And the kid picks it off in the end zone," Roesch said, laughing.

"I told you guys, God had his hands in it," Woolf said.

The storm arrives

Inside the steamy locker room following the win, Roesch and the team presented Woolf with the game ball, letting him know about the goal of the shutout.

Woolf grabbed the ball and held it in the air, then took a few steps into the coach's office and returned.

Outside, the rain started to fall. Inside, the players listened to their towering coach talk about priorities.

And they learned their coach was facing a whole new game.

"I found out today," Woolf told his team, "that I have cancer in my belly."

He told the players he didn't know exactly where it was, how bad it was. Tests in Hays a few days later would provide more answers.

The rain pitter-pattered outside. The tears pitter-pattered inside.

"Last year, we came through a lot," Woolf told his team. "And we knew we were going to have to go through some things this year. I didn't realize it was going to be this. It's kind of a kick in the gut to me and my family also.

"My life is going to change here for the next 10 to 12 weeks, and I'm going to be relying on you big time," Woolf continued. "You guys know I have victory in Christ, and my God is a wonderful God who created the universe and can take care of anything. He's bigger than anything that's growing inside of me.

"We are not going to let this affect us. Our big theme this year is 'one.'

"I love you guys to death. You guys are just going to have to roll with it. This does not change our goal one bit. What is it? Our goal is what? To win a state championship. Nothing is changing off of that."

Praise in the storm

Each player took turns grabbing a marker and signing the game ball for their coach, their leader, who just told them he was beginning to face a battle.

Their words and thoughts inscribed on the ball let him know he wouldn't be facing it alone.

"Look at this," Woolf told Roesch in the office after all the players had left.

"God bless," Roesch said, looking at the ball.

It was the end to a long week. It was the realization that life was changing.

"It was brutal," Woolf said about the week. "I'd put it up there as one of tougher ones. The toughest thing for me right now is the emotional end of it and having to tell people. That's what's tough. It tore me up when I had to tell my son and my daughter because I have my two older ones. When I say these guys are my family, they are. They're over at my house all the time. They're in my youth group."

Yet, despite what's staring Woolf, the coaching staff, team and town in the face, the mountain of a man wasn't about to waver in his faith.

"You always say we're never bigger than the game," Roesch said.

"You're right," Woolf said. "There's going to be a lot of teaching moments this year."

It will be teaching, mingled with faith -- something that's sometimes frowned upon in today's age of separation of church and state. But not in Quinter. Not with a community so strong in its faith.

"Nobody has ever said a word to us," Woolf said about keeping religion out of the school. "As a matter of fact, I've had more people come up and talk to me about things their kids have come home with, instead of someone saying, 'You can't say that to my kid.' I've had more people come up and thank us for how we talk to the kids and what we're talking to them about. And it's not just parents; it's grandparents coming up and talking to me about it and thanking me for having the convictions for not going with what the world says but doing what's right.

"And I always know that if it came time where someone said you can't do it anymore, then, whatever. It's not going to stop. The kids like it. The thing is, the kids like hearing the truth -- and they don't want it watered down. They want their football straight up, and we tell them straight up what's going on. And it's the same way in our youth groups. And they appreciate that."

Woolf and Roesch both are youth leaders at their churches, and Ruckman is a Baptist minister in town.

"There's not a lot of separation between church and state on our team," Woolf said.

"It's real, man," Ruckman said. "It's not a job. It's life. We're going to serve the Lord and serve the Lord in our coaching and everything we do."

Nor would they want there to be separation.

Not on their team.

Not in their school.

Not in Quinter.

Especially now that a storm is bearing down on the community.