Montana town loses 4 teens, their athletic hopes
By MATT GOURAS, Associated Press Writer1 hour, 55 minutes ago
Here in rural Montana, the long roads stretch to the horizon over rolling hills covered with wheat. Drivers casually lift a hand off the wheel to greet oncoming drivers, whether they recognize the car or not.
Teenagers start driving as early as 15, because it’s usually a long way to where you want to go. And they almost always play high school sports, mostly because there is little else to do in a small town.
So on July 19, four boys piled into a car to play in a summer basketball tournament in a neighboring town.
On the way, the car crashed, rolled and burned. Police say no speeding or dangerous driving was involved, and they still aren’t sure why the car caught fire.
The wreck killed brothers Kale and Kade Phelps, as well as fellow players Jace Jelinek and Dayne Heble. The oldest was 17, the youngest 14.
They were 10 percent of Denton High’s student body.
“They were going to do something they love to do,” said Scott Sparks, who coaches basketball and football at the school.
The social fabric of Denton, in central Montana, is woven around high school sports. The school colors — blue and white_ hang in the windows of the few businesses in town. Most, if not all, of the town’s 300 residents show up for football games.
“If they’re winning, everybody comes,” said booster club president Keith Derks.
“That is a big part of rural life,” Derks added. “It’s the social opportunity that binds the town together, and it’s the highlight of the week.”
The football field is the town’s biggest landmark, and the basketball gym is its heart, where all the town’s memorable sports triumphs are on display with banners of conference, district and state championships.
The basketball team has been practicing all summer in hopes of advancing past conference rival Winifred, which has routinely stopped the Denton High Trojans in recent years.
Jace Jelinek played a big role in those hopes. Sparks wanted to make Jelinek the team’s starting point guard.
“Jace was possibly the hardest-working kid I ever coached,” Sparks said.
Jace also played football, though as a skinny kid he was usually at a disadvantage.
On Thursday, the football field overflowed for a memorial service that drew more than 1,000 relatives, friends, classmates, Denton High graduates and cross-county rivals to remember the four teens. Food was so plentiful that even a crowd large enough to cover the football field couldn’t eat all the ham, salads, cookies and cakes.
“This is the most you will ever see in this town,” Sparks said.
In a few weeks, the football team will return to the same field. “It’s going to be tough when we start those practices,” Sparks said.
The boys who died in the crash were all good athletes, although not always the best. Mostly they loved the competition and adventure.
“There have never been four more spirited boys,” said Jace’s mother, Terri Jelinek.
Snowmobiles, off-road motorcycles, skiing, hunting and fishing were all part of the mix, and Jace also was learning to pilot an airplane with his dad. The boys still had time for football, baseball, basketball and running track.
“They lived a short life, but they lived a full life,” said the Rev. Jim Edgell, who oversaw Thursday’s memorial service.
Kale Phelps, 17, was a tight end on the football team and a “reckless” player always getting hurt, according to the coach. He enjoyed playing in his band and loved “making noise,” his parents recalled.
Friends said younger brother Kade Phelps, 14, was the family’s star basketball player and routinely made “unbelievable” shots during scrimmage and pickup games.
Dayne Heble, 14, was remembered as a fun-loving kid who worked hard, working his lawnmower all over town to earn extra cash in hopes of buying his dad’s Camaro.
The fact that the boys were doing what their parents wanted them to do — staying out of trouble and working to better themselves — makes the loss hurt even more.
“It’s the randomness of it,” said Bill Phillips, Denton High’s superintendent and principal.
Montana always ranks high in per-capita traffic deaths, in part because driving at high speed is not only part of the culture, it’s also often considered necessary to cover the state’s long distances.
The tragedy is unlikely to change the ways of Denton. Teens will still drive long distances across the state to compete against other towns.
“Live today, and live it well,” said Edgell, the pastor. “That’s what these boys would tell us. It’s what they did. It’s how they lived.”
(This version CORRECTS the date of the crash to July 19, instead of June 19.)