THEY’RE BACK: Hettinger-Scranton boys come back from bus accident with a victory over Glen Ullin-HebronHETTINGER — Friday was a return to normalcy for the towns of Hettinger and Scranton.
By: Dustin Monke, The Dickinson Press
HETTINGER — Friday was a return to normalcy for the towns of Hettinger and Scranton.
Exactly one week after the Hettinger-Scranton boys basketball team avoided tragedy in a bus accident, it returned to its home court at Roberts-Reinke Gymnasium.
Missing four varsity players, including three starters — senior forward Dalton Mellmer, junior center Stephen Kristy and sophomore guard Kye Erickson — the Night Hawks soared to a 65-51 victory over Region 7 opponent Glen Ullin-Hebron.
“It’s definitely good to get one under the belt and have it be a W, and start going from here and getting back to normal,” Hettinger-Scranton head coach Adam Hill said.
Seniors Justis Caldwell and Ben Laufer, the team’s only starters not injured in the Jan. 13 accident, took the team on their shoulders.
Caldwell, a 6-foot-4 forward averaging 9.1 points per game, had season highs of 27 points and 15 rebounds. Laufer, a 6-foot-2 guard, had 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals.
But they didn’t do it all.
Backups like junior Tanner Stippich and sophomore Damon Mellmer, both thrown into more playing time because of injuries, responded by knocking down big shots. Mellmer, a sophomore and Dalton’s younger brother, had 10 points.
“We were a little shorthanded, but a lot of guys on the bench stepped up,” Laufer said.
Though the accident led to several injuries, only the two most seriously injured of all 32 students and staff members involved in the accident didn’t participate in Friday’s games.
The team’s assistant coach, Jeremy Dietchman, is out of Medcenter One hospital in Bismarck but stayed in the city for rehabilitation. He suffered a concussion, crushed vertebrae and nerve damage. Hill said Dietchman hopes to be home early next week.
Hayden Sadowsky, an eighth-grader, had surgery on broken bones in his face. He plans to come home today.
On Tuesday, Hettinger and Scranton school officials met with parents, students and others involved in the accident to discuss everything from how insurance would cover the accident to how, and if, the team’s season would continue.
Hill said Wednesday his players made it known that their season was far from over.
“When we met Tuesday, the kids were overwhelmingly ready to go,” Hill said. “The ones who didn’t feel like it — they were hobbled or couldn’t walk — they were ready to go. But sometimes, mentally, they’re more ready than physically.”
‘Just like a dream’
Hill is in his 13th season as a head basketball coach. He led Wilton to the state tournament in 2001 and coached the Hettinger Black Devils boys basketball team for eight seasons before taking the last two seasons off to focus on his duties as Hettinger High School’s principal.
He was chosen to lead the Hettinger-Scranton boys basketball program when the schools formed their cooperative agreement. This is the first season the schools are combined.
Before each season he coaches, Hill said he gives players and their parents a speech, telling them there will be “trials and tribulations.”
“Never in my wildest imaginations would I imagine this would be one of them,” he said. “I’ve got to give the kids credit, they’ve handled it well.”
On their way to play Dickinson Trinity on Jan. 13, the Night Hawks’ team bus drove off a curve and into a ditch along Highway 21, 3 miles west of New England. Players and coaches said the area where the bus went off the road was windy at the time of the accident, causing blowing snow. They believe there was ice on the road.
As the bus headed east around the curve, which state and local officials believe to be dangerous, it met a snow plow headed west.
The bus was forced into the ditch on the right side of the road, where driver Wayne Koltes, 67, could not get the bus slowed down.
It came upon a north-south gravel road, which had a steep incline the bus hit hard, launching it into the air. It rolled onto its driver’s side.
“We were going so fast down this field,” said Laufer, who was in the back of the bus. “It seemed like we were going really fast, but slow at the same time — just like a dream. Then the road came so fast. We hit it at an angle, cleared it and landed on our side.”
Daniel Pretzer, the son of Scranton Public School Superintendent John Pretzer, was sitting in the middle of the bus during the accident.
“I saw the ditch coming, I noticed the bus started to drift and he (Koltes) slammed on the brakes,” said Pretzer, a 15-year-old sophomore. “From there, I got jerked to the other side of the bus. I was on the side that was down on the ground. We hit, I got jerked to the other side and I held on to that seat.
“As we went, during impact, I remember seeing bags falling, people falling, glass and all these iPods and phones flying.”
Hill said many of his team members have visited Koltes, who suffered broken vertebrae and remained buckled in to his seat despite most of the front of the bus being torn off in the accident.
Contrary to the North Dakota Highway Patrol’s accident report, team members said the bus only flipped on its left side and did not roll one-and-a-half times.
“If it would have rolled, there would have been lots of kids who would have went through the windows,” said Laufer, who added he was burned by antifreeze that sprayed throughout the inside of the bus. “I don’t even want to imagine that.”
Dietchman, who was near the front of the bus, had to be physically removed by emergency personal at the scene of the accident.
Several players had to walk past or over Dietchman to exit the bus and some said they didn’t know if the coach was alive or dead at the time.
“I had to walk over coach Dietchman, which was probably the most haunting and scariest moment of the whole deal,” Pretzer said. “He was laying in debris, broken glass and stuff. He was out cold and there was blood all over. It was really scary. That’s when I started to realize, this is reality, this is really happening.”
Ambulances from New England, Regent and Dickinson responded to the accident. New England even sent a school bus to pick up the students and bring them into town.
Those who weren’t taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center in Dickinson were bussed back to Hettinger for observation at the West River Regional Medical Center.
As he practiced at Scranton High School on Wednesday afternoon, Laufer looked back on the accident from an outsider’s perspective.
“If anybody else was there, watched that and seen everybody make it alive, that’d have been pretty crazy,” Laufer said. “I don’t know how we all made it. It was a ride.”
Playing with gratitude
On Wednesday, with his left arm and hand heavily wrapped in a cast, Mellmer took shots and dribbled basketballs with his right arm before the Night Hawks’ practice.
The 18-year-old Scranton senior is out for the season after severing tendons in his wrist and fingers. It happened when his arm went through a window when the bus flipped on its side.
“I remember everything,” Mellmer said. “Right after we crashed, I jumped right up and started trying to get kids out of the bus in case of fire. I remember looking down at my hand and all I could see was tendons and bones. I could almost see right through my hand. You could see it through the sunlight. It was nasty.”
Though Mellmer was one of the few to suffer significant injuries from the accident, he said every person on that bus was lucky.
“I think everyone feels really grateful about surviving,” Mellmer said.
That gratitude showed Friday as the makeshift Night Hawks rallied around their injured teammates for a relieving win.
“I’m pretty glad we were in there to play,” Caldwell said. “I was pretty anxious to play this game.”
The road doesn’t get any easier though. The Night Hawks play three games next week.
They visit Mott-Regent on Tuesday, host Bowman County next Friday in Scranton and play Heart River on Saturday in Hettinger. All are District 13 games, which have to be completed by Feb. 1. The district tournament begins Feb. 9 at Scott Gymnasium in Dickinson.
Kristy and Erickson said they hope to be in the lineup Tuesday when the Night Hawks visit Mott-Regent.
Caldwell, an 18-year-old senior at Hettinger, said the team will be fine.
“It’s obviously going to be a lot more difficult to win games,” Caldwell said. “The guys we have coming in, I feel like they’re going to step up really good and our scorers are going to step up. I don’t think it’s going to be too bad.”