With the upcoming basketball games between East and West Grand, slated for Tuesday, Dec. 17, on the Panther’s home court, the rivals are set to face off to claim bragging rights for the top team in Grand County.
The Middle Park Panthers fell by nine points to the Mustangs during a neutral non-league tournament on Dec. 6, in Fort Collins, and will be gunning to claim the top spot during Tuesday’s games.
“West Grand has a really good basketball team this year,” said Middle Park High School Basketball Coach James Newberry. “We’re hoping to play better on our home court.”
West Grand still remains a 2A school, while Middle Park is 3A. While Middle Park may have a larger pool of students from which to draw, this year’s boys basketball team is made up of younger players after experienced players graduated.
Last season the Panthers maintained dominance over the smaller school by winning 57-50 during a Jan. 29 game.
The half of a century old rivalry between Middle Park High School and West Grand High School is still as strong today as it was in 1958, when the two schools split. Today the two schools only compete in basketball, making the upcoming game one of the most anticipated and attended games for the two teams this season.
“It’s one of the few times during the season that we have a really rowdy crowd,” Newberry said. “The kids really enjoy it.”
Fans for the two teams often show up with painted faces, sporting their team’s colors, much like you see in college or pro football games.
“They love to beat us, and they hate to lose to us,” said West Grand High School Basketball Coach Leo Pesch.
“East Grand is nearly three times as big as us,” Pesch said. “So when we can compete with them it’s really big.”
Less than ten points have decided the past two games the schools have played, giving good hope for an evenly matched game on Tuesday — although that wasn’t always the case.
“In the ‘70s, it wasn’t much of a contest,” said Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke, who attended Middle Park High School in the late 1970s and played basketball for the team.
“It became even more a rivalry when West Grand saw it as they had nothing to lose,” he said.
The closeness of the two schools results in not only the players for the two teams knowing one another, but also the families of the two teams knowing each other.
“When you watch the kids on the floor play, they all know one another,” Pesch said. “And their families are friends.”
Grand County is known for a number of families who have been in the area for generations. These family histories lead to fathers and mothers who played for one of the schools, who now have sons and daughters that play for one of the schools.
Nick Ritschard, one of West Grand’s star players, has deep family roots in the Kremmling area spanning back a number of generations, much like the Linke family tree.
Mike Ritschard, Nick’s father, used to play for West Grand when he was a student there and now watches from the sidelines as his son wears the Mustang jersey.
Similarly, Commissioner Linke’s son, Jase Linke, now plays for Middle Park in his senior year at the school and calls Ritschard one of his best friends.
“For us, it’s a friendly rivalry,” Commissioner Linke said.
The Ritschard and Linke families have been longtime friends, though that does not take away from the competitiveness the two sons have against each other on the court.
Linke recalls a photo showing Jase Linke stuffing one of Ritschard’s shots during last year’s game between the two teams that ran in the Sky-Hi News.
“Nick stuffed him just as bad that game,” Linke said.
While not teammates, the two seniors have always been able to leave the court as friends, Linke said.
While the friendship between the two seniors and many of the other players on the two teams will always remain, only one can claim the title as the victor in this year’s Grand County showdown.
The girls basketball teams will play at 5:30 p.m. and the boys basketball teams will tip off at 7 p.m.
Reid Tulley can be reached at 970-887-3334