I always figured I'd get back into girls high school sports. I just didn't figure it would be until my own kids were at least in junior high.
But thanks to the Medina-Pingree-Buchanan Thunder girls basketball team, I've jumped in a little earlier.
As someone who didn't grow up in a small town, I've always been amused - and mildly confused - about the passion with which towns follow their teams.
I love sports. I played three in high school, one in college. I watch plenty. My high school crowds, however, mostly were made up of parents and students. It was rare to see someone in the stands without a connection to the team.
Back when my husband and I were dating and first married, we'd occasionally go to high school games. His team lost in a regional semifinal in the late 1990s, making him and his teammates some of the most successful basketball players the town had churned out. People still remember and talk about it.
That used to make me laugh. But, I'm starting to get it.
The MPB Thunder girls have become a force in volleyball and basketball the last few years. This fall, they made the regional championship in volleyball. When they lost that game, my daughter Reanna, watching from our living room way past her bedtime, dropped big crocodile tears on my shoulder.
"I wanted them to win," she sobbed.
It dawned on me how personal this is to her. This is her school and her town. She sees a lot of these girls walking the halls at school. They had the same teachers she has. They all have the same name on the front of their shirts. She already can imagine herself in those uniforms, on those courts.
As the basketball season has gone on, with many wins for the home team and few losses, she's gotten more interested. We went to the regional semifinal and championship games, where she sat with her friends. ("I love you guys more, but I have more fun with them," she told me.) For the championship, their faces were painted and they wore basketball-net hats.
When a furious fourth-quarter comeback gave the Thunder the championship, Reanna bounced over to us.
"We won! We won!" she shrieked before heading back to her friends.
That "we" clinched it for me. This is her town - our town. These girls - small town girls, farm girls - represent us. That some of us in the stands have only tenuous connections to the players on the court doesn't matter. We're all part of the same community.
Congratulatory signs went up all over. The team became the main talking point in houses and businesses, everyone pulling for them.
The Thunder team is made up of players from two schools, each representing multiple small towns. Those towns haven't seen a state basketball tournament in years. The girls team from Medina has never made state before. That makes this seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But hopefully it's just the start of something. I see the little girls screaming and clapping, waiting in the wings for their chances to play. I see the boys cheering on the girls. They all can see what can happen when you work hard and believe in yourself, not just in sports but in everything.
I want my daughters to soak that up. And that's why I bought tickets to join the exodus from Medina to Minot for the state tournament.
By the time many read this, the tournament will be over. No matter the outcome, the girls have become legends in their communities. For the rest of their lives, the people of these towns will pat them on the back and remind them of what they accomplished.
They've brought people together. They've inspired their fellow students. And they've shown a few of us how much fun it can be to live in a small town.