Seven of the 12 players on the Granite Falls girls basketball team had never before flown on an airplane. Five had never ventured outside of Washington state.
That all changed Tuesday when the Tigers boarded an early-morning flight at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and traveled north for a holiday tournament in Alaska.
It’s believed to be the first time in school history that a sports team has traveled out of state for a tournament, according to athletic director Joey Johnson.
“It’s phenomenal for the kids,” second-year Tigers coach David Kaupp said after practice last week. “A lot of our kids haven’t been on airplanes before, they haven’t traveled — they haven’t done any of that sort of stuff at all.
“So it’s just huge to get the life experience to be able to see what’s out there in the world.”
Granite Falls is one of four girls teams set to compete Thursday through Saturday in the Doc Larson Roundball Classic, an annual basketball tournament held in the Anchorage suburb of Wasilla.
In addition to playing basketball, the Tigers’ itinerary includes dog sledding with an Iditarod champion, viewing the Northern Lights and visiting a wildlife refuge. Other possible activities are sledding, skating, ice fishing and a drive along scenic Seward Highway.
“Everyone is really excited and looking forward to (the trip), because we’ve obviously never done anything like this,” junior guard Alex Chavez said. “I’m just excited for it all.”
The idea behind the Alaska trip began with Kaupp, who took over as head coach last season with his sights fixed on transforming the program and making a difference in players’ lives.
“We’ve been trying to get the girls program on the same level, first and foremost, as the other schools that do this sort of stuff,” Kaupp said.
“(We’re) trying to get them to where they feel like they’re just as important as other schools. And this is a huge part of it.”
After hearing about the Alaska tournament last December, Kaupp and his team began the long process of making the trip a reality.
The biggest challenge was fundraising, particularly in a small town like Granite Falls. Kaupp said there was little more than $100 in the program’s booster account when he took over.
“It’s hard in a small town, especially one (like) Granite, because there’s a lot of financial disparities between people,” Kaupp said. “And there’s only (so many) businesses in town.”
But the Tigers were up to the challenge, even when others were skeptical of their ability to raise enough money.
“I feel like everyone doubted us at times,” senior guard Jenasea Hott said. “But we kept together as a team, trusted our coach and worked for it.”
The team organized and gathered donations for two silent auctions, which accounted for a large portion of the funds. They also held car washes and a shoot-a-thon. In all, Kaupp said they raised about $10,000 or $11,000.
“They’ve worked really hard to get to this point,” Kaupp said. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d be able to raise the money to do it, but we did.
“The kids definitely stepped up, being 100 percent committed to getting it done. … (And) it was pretty cool to see the community come together so strongly for the girls.”
As stipulation for going on the trip, players had to meet several academic requirements, including a minimum 2.3 grade-point average and no skipped classes since Oct. 1.
Every player met the requirements, and the Tigers raised their team GPA by almost a full point, Kaupp said.
“It was quite an accomplishment,” he said of the academic success. “I try to teach life experience. I tell the kids it’s family first, school second, basketball third. These programs should be more about them than the coaches and the parents and everything else.
“This is their time to shine, and they came out and shined. As a coach, it’s astonishing just watching how well they all came together to get it all done.”
The team also has made strides on the basketball court.
Prior to Kaupp’s arrival, Granite Falls was in the midst of a 56-game Cascade Conference losing streak that spanned four seasons.
The Kaupp-led Tigers snapped that streak last season, earning two conference wins and the program’s first trip to the district tournament since 2012.
Granite Falls (2-5) will face strong competition in Alaska, with a three-game round-robin slate against a 6A Georgia team and a pair of Alaska squads that squared off for the 4A state title each of the past two seasons.
But for the Tigers, simply making the trip to Alaska is almost a victory in itself.
“We worked really hard for it,” junior Sadie Hutchinson said.
Multiple players praised Kaupp for his dedication to the program and making the Alaska trip possible.
“I see how much work and effort he puts into us,” Hott said. “It’s just really nice to know he really wants to help the program. I think it’s a really cool opportunity.
“Coming from a town like Granite that’s so small, being able to expand and go other places is really good for us.”
Kaupp said the players had been looking forward to this trip ever since he brought up the idea last December.
“It’s amazing,” Kaupp said. “Just the whole experience and excitement, it’s truly like little kids around Christmas. It’s fun to watch them so excited.”