BY JON YUNT
Reprinted from the February issue of Colorado Preps Magazine
Ben Miltenberger has forgotten more basketball that most of us have seen.
And anybody associated with small school basketball on the Eastern Plains has at one time crossed paths with a Miltenberger, be it in their home base in Stratton or any one of the many brilliant venues from the Nebraska border in the North to the Oklahoma and New Mexico border to the South.
Ben Miltenberger, a 1953 graduate of Stratton, has been to the Class 1A state tournament so many times that he has lost count, but those in the know estimate it to be upward of 50-60 trips. And that isnâ€™t easy for a man who makes his living as a farmer to venture to the Front Range — be it Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Greeley or Loveland — for three days worth of games.
â€œIt was always just a lot of fun. We had good teachers, good coaches and good parents; and we always just had a lot of fun back in our day,â€ said Miltenberger, now 84 and still making his home eight miles from the Stratton gym. â€œAnd when we had kids, we would always take them to the state tournament.â€
And there was an obvious impression that those trips made on the Miltenberger children â€“ Tom, Patsy, Mary, Dan and Mike. All five of them went on to play in state tournaments and the latter four — who we are positive donâ€™t let the oldest sibling hear about it — have all won state titles.
â€œHe sacrificed a lot. Leaving the family farm to come and support and watch us play,â€ Dan Miltenberger said. â€œHe always loved sports and he was competitive growing up.â€
Ben Miltenberger never won a state title in his days with the Eagles, but understood what it took to challenge the best in the state.
His oldest son, Tom excelled on the football field and was the first of the five Miltenberger kids to all earn all-state honors.
It wasnâ€™t until 1988 that the family got its first championship. Patsy and Mary were a part of an Eagles team that were seeded No. 7 going into the eight-team Class A-II tournament at the Air Force Academyâ€™s Clune Arena.
â€œI remember they beat the No. 2 team, Merino, and then they played the No. 3 team and I canâ€™t quite remember who that was,â€ Ben recalled. â€œAnd then they met the No. 1 team (Ridgway) for the championship and we started two seniors, a junior and two freshmen on that team.â€
That team went on beat the Western Slopeâ€™s Demons 49-35 for the title.
Two years later, the boys earned a trip to the A-II back in Colorado Springs and knew they were going to have their hands full in a tournament that featured Manuel Gonzalesâ€™ undefeated Granada team that was led by the dynamic junior duo of Alfred Montez and Kelly Dorenkamp.
The bracket held true to form and the Bobcats and Eagles met for the title. And it was a game that lived up to its billing.
â€œThey were 34-0 and the defending state champs,â€ said Dan Miltenberger, who recalls several duels with Gonzalesâ€™ teams, including every detail of that 1990 classic. â€œWe finally got them.
â€œSpence Huppert made two free throws with two seconds left to beat them 69-67.â€
Dan and Mike were back with the Eagles, under the guidance of Greg King, at the tournament again in 1992. As seniors, they were the heart and soul of the Stratton team that beat Kit Carson in the 1A final.
â€œDad always preached free throws and how they win games,â€ said Dan, who watched his brother win 1A Player of the Year honors that season. â€œAnd I shot 14-for-14 through the state tournament.â€œAnd to have him witness it was a pretty big deal.â€
Said Ben: â€œI think that is still a state record in 1A!â€
It wasnâ€™t the last of the state titles for the Miltenberger clan either. Just five years ago, Tom Miltenbergerâ€™s son Justin was a part of the Hi-Plains team that beat Caliche 52-51 at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland to win it all. Ironically, it was Justinâ€™s clutch free throws in the late going that made the difference.
It was also the last state tournament that Ben, who has had to have his hip replaced and has trouble getting around these days, made it to.
Even with the bum wheel, Ben never stopped going to games and always tried to be there in support of his family.
â€œSo Dad was using a walker to get around. Mike was a senior and playing regionals in Strasburg. My mom (Pauline) had driven them to the game and dropped him off at the front door,â€ Dan said. â€œBeing so into the game in his mind, he got out of the car, walked in and paid the admission fee. Headed into the gym and just took his seat.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t until he got settled that he realized he had left his walker in the car. Thatâ€™s how mom and dad were to all of us kids at basketball games.â€
Hi-Plainsâ€™ longtime athletic director Kerry Sayles crossed paths with Ben in 2014 and always the story teller, passed on his love of the game to his grandson when he was just three or four years old.
â€œHe told me that he would take Justin up to the basketball games and he would sit there and watch eight basketball games in a day,â€ Sayles said. â€œItâ€™s a family thing for sure.â€
Miltenberger is certainly unique in the number of games and state tournaments he has attended, but every community on the Eastern Plains has that family that is a constant at all of the schoolâ€™s sporting events.
â€œHeâ€™s a farmer and heâ€™s got cattle, itâ€™s not like he is working that 9-to-5 job,â€ Sayles said. â€œHe had to plan this like a vacation.â€
At 84, Ben doesnâ€™t get out to nearly as many games as he used to, but old habits die hard and he and Pauline still make the occasional trip out, but nowadays it is across the state line and in to Kansas.
The latest, Sierra Jellison (Patsyâ€™s youngest daughter) is a 5-foot-7 freshman who has played in all 20 games for the 18-2 South Central Timberwolves in Coldwater, Kansas.