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Prep Hoops: North Pole breaks 12-year losing streak against 4A opponents after beating Palmer

Travis Church didn’t shy away from reality. No matter how painful, he embraced it.

The North Pole boys basketball coach knew the Patriots hadn’t beaten a Class 4A opponent since Dec. 30, 2011, and so he wrote the date on a whiteboard in the team’s locker room before Saturday’s home game against Palmer in an attempt to fire up his players.

Below the infamous date, Church added three words: Effort. Intensity. Together.

He signed off on the message with a call action in all caps: END IT.

So let it be written, so let it be done.

The Patriots broke the 12-year streak after posting a 51-47 win over Palmer in a nonconference home game behind senior Copper Smith’s 24 points and clutch free-throw shooting in the final seconds to secure the team’s first 4A victory in 4,339 days.

North Pole’s bench players stormed the court after the final horn to celebrate, but the real party happened in the locker room.

Church made a dramatic appearance as he ran into the room with a burst of excitement and was immediately mobbed by his players, who doused him with water bottles in a scene of unbridled enthusiasm.

North Pole coach Travis Church celebrates with his players. Screenshot photo

“The locker room was electric after the game. Needless to say, I was pretty hyped myself,” Church said. “I was just so proud of the guys for accepting and completing the challenge and getting the monkey off our back.”

The best part of the celebration video was when Church slapped the whiteboard and then the North Pole players rushed in to erase the Dec. 30, 2011, date with their bare hands, wiping away years of frustration.

North Pole’s last 4A win came 12 years ago, 47-45 over West Valley in a tournament at Monroe Catholic.

“The players have been aware of the streak over the years but wasn’t talked about much,” Church said.

Palmer (8-12) is the fourth-place team in the Northern Lights Conference. The Moose didn’t go down without a fight, pulling within 48-45 with 23 seconds left and then 49-47 with 9 seconds left.

Smith stood tall at crunch time when he hit two big free throws to make it a two-possession game with 5 seconds left. Smith produced nearly half his team’s scoring, with juunior Landon Swinning adding nine points.

Going into Saturday’s game, the Patriots had just three games remaining in the regular season. Time was running out to break the streak this season.

“We really challenged them to end it,” Church said. “It was all we talked about the week prior to the game.”

Message received.

North Pole veterans Copper Smith, David Wiehl and Landon Swinning. Photo by Priscilla Choi

North Pole (8-14) plays in the Mid Alaska Conference, which features two ranked teams in No. 2 West Valley and No. 5 Monroe in addition to Fairbanks mainstay Lathrop.

It’s tough sledding in that league, which was instrumental in prolonging the losing streak against 4A opponents. The Patriots prevailed in 11 of 23 games last season, so it’s not like they can’t win. But beating the Big 3 is a different story.

“Fairbanks is tough every year,” Church said.

He knows better than most. Church comes from an established Fairbanks basketball family. His uncle Tim led West Valley to a 1990 4A state title and went on to play at UAF. His father Kevin played for the Nanooks as did Pat Church while Chris Church played for the Seawolves.

He also has a cousin who is freshman on the Monroe girls team.

Travis Church is a former North Pole player who graduated from the school in 2008. He became the team’s head coach in 2017, so he bleeds Patriots’ colors.

He is all-in on North Pole, a school with a rich hoops tradition that includes famous former players such as Brad Oleson and Jeannie Hebert.

Church has big goals, like helping the Patriots win their first conference game in 13 years and getting the Patriots back to the state tournament for the first time since 2011.

“This group is turning basketball into a year-round program at North Pole,” he said. “Kids are showing up trying to get better throughout the summer. The effort and willingness to put in the time to be better is the difference.”

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