The Pelican Rapids girls basketball team heads to the state tournament for the third time in school history Wednesday with a motto and a mission that stems from former classmate Faith Westby, who passed away a year ago.
Faith was a special needs student with a special touch on her fellow students and community.
“She loved life, lived life to the fullest and took on every challenge with a positive attitude,” said Faith’s mother Jeannie.
Faith had an impact from the day she showed up.
“Ever since the first day of school, her classmates took her under their wing and were by her side until the day she died,” said Faith’s father Pete.
Faith loved school, sports and each person she met. In the hospital, Ronald McDonald house or at home, Faith loved watching sports and she loved her hometown.
The last year has not been easy for the Westbys as they cope and strive to move on in Faith’s absence. Both the section finalist Vikings football team and 8AA champion girls basketball team have helped ease that journey, along with other school organizations.
The PRHS SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Group, led by president and point guard Maddie Guler, along with advisor Amy Korf, collected can tabs and were helped out by Frazee and Underwood girls basketball teams in raising funds to make a donation in Faith’s memory to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Red River Valley.
“Being able to follow these girls and seeing how much they care about Faith and bringing her to the games helped ease our pain,” said Pete.
“It’s a healing process for us,” said Jeannie.
Faith’s funeral was held at the school last March. Head coach Brian Korf talked about Faith and the impact of one of the team’s biggest fans who faced challenges with her chin up being a great role model for his team.
The Vikings started wearing shirts with the phrase, ‘Everything is possible with Faith,’ during warmpus last year and continued this season with the motto ‘Planting the Seeds of Faith One Game at a Time.’
“We have struggled with how do we continue her legacy?” said Jeannie. “Having the team do this; we don’t have to continue her legacy. She did that with the impact that she had and being a positive force.”
Faith’s impact and memory are stitched into Pelican’s undefeated 29-0 run to state.
“It’s always been a big part of our team and we wanted to keep her legacy alive,” senior guard Abby Syverson said.
Junior guard Vanassa Booth and Syverson have dealt with their own family issues this season.
On October 31, Vanassa and her family found out her father Jeff had two brain tumors. Five days later, the family was in Rochester for surgery. One tumor was removed, the other treated with chemo over a two-month span.
“It’s been crazy,” said Vanassa. “We have to really make sure nobody gets sick in our family because that can be really hard on my dad and we had to deal with our parents not being home and how to get to practice and stuff.”
The Syverson’s found out about Abby’s dad and his brain cancer diagnosis the night before the final game of the regular season, which was Senior night.
Ryan awoke not feeling well, but had been fine leading up to it. He coached a game the night prior.
“He had been sick a while and we thought it was just another headache,” said Abby.
A trip to the doctor revealed a tumor in his brain that was creating pressure and making regular body functions, like standing, difficult.
Abby missed practice to be with the family at the hospital with the game coming up.
“My dad told me he wanted me to play,” said Syverson.
The entire extended Syverson family was in the stands for Senior night and Ryan was able to stream the game from the hospital. The post-game was full of emotions, especially for Abby and her mom Dana.
“It was crazy, but he was feeling good once they got the swelling down,” Abby said. “That was more comforting too.”
Both fathers have the same disease on opposite sides of the brain.
“It’s just a day-to-day thing,” said Vanassa.
Having their dads in the stands during the playoff run has been another boost to a team that is already on a mission.
“It makes us closer,” said Abby.
Family dynamics stretch beyond the Westbys, Syversons and Booths. The entire team has special connections.
The seven juniors on the team Chloe Paulson, Mia Stewart, Vanassa Booth, Rachael Guler, Anna Stephenson, Greta Tollefson and Allie Haiby are all classmates of Faith.
Pete Westby is the team bus driver, his brother Chris Westby takes book and his wife Angie runs the clock.
“I sit by Faith,” said Jeannie with a smile.
The student managers, fifth grader Megan Guler and sixth grader Morgan Korf, are front and center and future team contributors.
The team also has three sets of sisters: Ryley, Chloe and Sophie Paulson, Rachael and Maddie Guler and Anna and Tori Stephenson.
From competitive sibling rivalries to fathers battling cancer, the Vikings are a team, within a team, within a team.
The groups of sisters have shared gym time nearly their entire lives.
“We were all really close in age so we all started basketball year after year,” Ryley Paulson said. “We would always go to the gym together and for Chloe’s practice me and my other sister would go to the gym together.”
All that time sharing the floor and having to wait extra time for parents and the rides home created a unity on another level of family.
“We knew we could achieve and all were individually good; we just needed to come together,” said Maddie Guler.
Guler was the hero of the section final sending Pelican Rapids to state with a wild buzzer beater. Guler’s play exemplifies the Vikings. She can play an entire game without scoring a point and still be one of the most effective players on the floor. She’s the team leader and a big part of the philosophy and defense-first core of Korf’s coaching structure.
“We knew we could come together and do what we have done; we just needed to work hard,” Maddie Guler said.
The family dynamics, the strife overcome and the faith involved while still concentrating on basketball has created a workmanlike mindset that permeates the team.
“We just like to keep our heads down, work hard and stay focused,” Anna Stephenson said.
Even after the biggest win of the season over Fergus Falls at the horn, the team got back on the bus and back to business.
“We were still pretty mellow,” said Ryley.
As the bus driver, Pete Westby knows all about the team’s mindset. He drove the girls to every game this season.
“Never once did I hear anyone say, ‘we’re undefeated,’ he said. “I never heard an undefeated word come out of their mouths. They were soaking it all in. They weren’t bragging. They’re all connected. Nobody is singled out. They’re all one group. They know what they have to do.”
Much of that confidence comes from Faith Westby and the team surrounding themselves with what she taught them as individuals, right down to the winning basket at Concordia last week.
“Without a doubt in our mind, she was on the court that night,” said Pete.
“She’s taught these kids how to have confidence in themselves and don’t be afraid of what’s to come,” said Jeannie. “Live for right this minute. Giving them faith in themselves and in their ability. These girls are so excited and such hard workers and that’s how Faith was, such a hard worker. She had no idea she was a big deal or was teaching anyone anything or impacting anyone how much she was.”
The relationship between the Westbys and the team has been beneficial to all sides.
“This team has a lot to deal with; the loss of a classmate, the struggle with two dads and they keep their faith,” said Jeannie.
“Everything is possible with Faith,” Pete said. “She was practicing a ministry she didn’t even know she was doing,” said Pete.
“It’s so heart-touching and healing for us to be a part of their lives,” said Jeannie.
The No. 4 Vikings begin their state tournament against No. 5 Waseca Wednesday, March 11 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis with a tip time scheduled for 8 p.m.
A run to the championships game would put Pelican Rapids in the final on March 14, two days shy of the one-year anniversary of Faith Westby’s passing, which could create another family matchup.
Pete Westby’s brother Pat is the superintendent at Sauk Centre, the Section 6AA champions. If both teams win two games at state the No. 4 Vikings and No. 2 Mainstreeters could meet in the championship game.
Coach Korf started off the season with a surprise trip to the Westby family farm for a team photo. The Vikings are stopping by Faith’s resting place on the way to Minneapolis Wednesday morning with Pete at the steering wheel.
The 29-0 Vikings could be the first Pelican girl’s team to win a state tournament game after first round losses in 2002 and 2013 before consolation play returned.
Regardless of the outcomes, the Vikings and their families are in the final week of a fairy tale season.
“You are never a loser,” Jeannie Westby said. “In Faith’s Special Olympics, cheering on the teams, win or lose, everybody was a winner. They were all winners, no matter what.”