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Joe Bender's likeness to his
coach Cliff Nelson recognized

February 17, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

Joe Bender is shown at right with the award "One Class Act" given in memorium of Cliff Nelson who coached Bender when he was in Junior High here. Above is the bronze plaque anchored in a memorial rock on permanent display outside the school in Seeley Lake.




Hard makes All Tournament Team
Eighth grader Cody Hard was one of five players chosen for an All Tournament Team award at the Maverick Tournament. He received a certificate for this recognition, and is shown here with the team's third-place trophy.

Story & photos
By Donna Love

Joe Bender, Seeley Lake Elementary Eagles Basketball Coach, received the Cliff Nelson Coaches Award at the 10th Annual Maverick Boys Invitational Basketball Tournament in Missoula on Saturday, February 12. The award, subtitled "One Class Act" in the tournament's brochure, is given in memorium of Cliff Nelson, a former coach of the Seeley Lake Eagles. The award is given to the person who throughout the tournament displays the behavior and attitude that Nelson was well known for.

For Bender, who was a student of Nelson's in the early 1980's, and who played basketball under Nelson in sixth, seventh and eighth grade, receiving the award was an honor. Bender said, "I was proud because he [Nelson] coached me when I was a kid and I had a great relationship with him." Bender has good memories of the "fun stuff" they did together. "Back then I didn't understand the coach/kid relationship, but now I do." Coaching has shown Bender how Nelson came to feel close to the kids and why he cared about the boys outside of basketball. "I like to win, to say I don't would be stupid," Bender added, "but I'm way more into the kids then just for winning." He understands now how coaches start caring about what's going on in every aspect of the kids' lives.

Bender served as assistant coach under head coach, Jack Coughlin in 1996 to 1998, when Coughlin filled in for Nelson after Nelson's tragic death in 1995. Bender became the head coach in 1999. He is owner and operator of High Basin Sports in Seeley Lake.

The Missoula Athletic Council sponsors the Cliff Nelson Coaches Award. Bob Toshoff, Tournament Director in Missoula explained that the award began in 1996 the year after Nelson died. A girl playing in the 96 girls' tournament was in an accident the week of the tournament. Later in the week, newly released from the hospital and missing several fingers, the same girl came to the tournament in a wheel chair to cheer her teammates on. Looking for a way to honor the girl, who in a time of personal distress looked beyond her own pain to support her friends, the directors of the tournament thought of the great love of Nelson and gave the girl the first Cliff Nelson award. In doing so, they also honored the memory of Nelson who in their eyes represented what coaching students was all about. Remembering Nelson, Toshoff said, "He would come to all the games, even when his team didn't have a prayer of a chance to win. He even brought the kids to the championship games after his team lost and cheered the other teams on."

Toshoff said that this year the award was very symbolic. He felt that watching Bender was "like having Cliff back." Toshoff said that the way Bender handled the kids and the way they responded was just like watching Nelson, who "no matter how badly a player screwed up he always had a good word for the player." Toshoff further expressed that although the award has gone to coaches the past few years, the award could be given to anyone who most exemplified the "heart" of Nelson. It is a prestigious award because the recipients are handpicked. The award reads "For outstanding dedication and commitment to youth basketball."

The Maverick Tournament started 10 years ago to extend the season several games for eighth grade girls and boys. The girls' tournament is held in the fall at the end of their season and the boys' tournament is in the winter. The Maverick Tournament is now the largest of its kind in Montana. Valley Christian School in Missoula graciously hosts the tournament for a full week of afternoon and evening games with the tournament's championship games on Saturday. Teams come from all over western Montana to see who the best eighth grade team in the area is. At the tournament teams get a taste of high school basketball.

This year the boys' tournament drew eighteen teams. Seeley Lake took third place. They took third place only one other time in 1995 while Nelson was still coach. Placing in the top three of the tournament is a remarkable achievement for Seeley Lake. They play against schools that have as many students in their junior high as Seeley has in its whole elementary school grades one through eight.

Businesses and organizations whose logos appear on their team page in the tournament brochure sponsor tournament teams. Each sponsor pays $25.00. The money raised is used for $500.00 college scholarships. Any student who participated in the Maverick Invitational Tournament when they were in eighth grade is eligible to apply for the scholarships when they are seniors in high school. Shilo Anders, of Seeley Lake and now a student at the University of Montana, received a Maverick scholarship during her senior year in high school. Seeley-Swan PTA and Sunshine Motors of Missoula were the sponsors for this year's Seeley Lake team.

All the tournaments countless volunteers donate their time and talents from refereeing to sweeping floors free of charge to make the tournament possible. The tournament has a "just say thanks" policy to those who unselfishly donate their time for the area's youths. If you get the opportunity, just say thanks to anyone who helped at the Maverick Tournament.

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