Bill Speltz: Grateful Grizzlies give back, reminding us all why it’s called the Treasure State

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Steve Ascher and his volunteer players

Montana women’s tennis players Alex Walker (front) and Olivia Oosterbaan carry a railroad tie up the M Trail as part of a renovation project that started this month. Volunteer work by Grizzly athletes goes largely unnoticed, though the experiences are priceless. 

MISSOULA — So much of what we know about University of Montana athletes is limited to the playing stage.

You never really get acquainted with most of them. You show up on game day, adopt a few favorites based on performance and wave goodbye in four or five years.

But it’s important we never lose sight of the obvious — these athletes chose Missoula. Many end up loving it like us locals, from the random acts of kindness to the jaw-dropping scenery to the unique vibe.

A good number of Grizzlies give back to our community in ways that most of us don’t realize. Considering all they have going on in their lives as stressed-out young adults, it’s heartwarming.

Two weeks ago, Montana women’s tennis players Alex Walker and Olivia Oosterbaan, along with their coach, Steve Ascher, helped move about a ton materials up the M Trail. They love the trail like a lot of us and wanted to pitch in with a recently-started renovation project, lugging railroad ties and cement bags as far up as the fifth switchback.

It wasn’t on the same grand scale as erecting a pyramid, but it did underline how much this place means to them. And we’re talking about Grizzlies that didn’t even get to experience the 2020 spring season, let alone the thrill of playing in front of throngs of fans like their peers in basketball and football.

“Our players, I think every one of them goes up the M trail multiple times during the school year,” Ascher said. “I’m sure it’s a great stress reliever — breathe in some air and look out at the city and the panoramic view.

“This is about more than sports. We live in a special place and I think everybody lately is seeing there’s more kids out playing, more families on the trail. Going into the project you don’t know how many times these kids have carried railroad ties and cement bags. So it’s cool they did it with a smiles on their faces. You could tell they were enjoying it.”

Over the past few years, Ascher’s players have helped out at places like the Watson Children’s Shelter and Missoula Food Bank. The rewards are often well worth the effort.

“Once they get out there, the people in those places meet them and they’re so appreciative the team is there,” Ascher related. “You walk out of there feeling like it was special. You just feel thankful.”

During a time of unrest, it’s important to note that Grizzly athletes are every bit as gracious and grateful as they were 50 years ago. It’s a mighty comforting thought for this Missoulian.

“It feels like there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there, and it’s like, ‘No, there’s really a lot of good stuff going on,'” Ascher said. “We need to push more of that narrative to let people know that hey, the sun does shine here.”

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.