A lot of people have seen “Hesston Strong” by now.
It is a hashtag that spread over social media. It has become a slogan on a t-shirt. But for the town of Hesston, the site of a deadly shooting spree on Feb. 25, it means more.
That was apparent in Halstead on Saturday night, when the high school’s boys and girls basketball teams played Southeast-Saline for Class 3A sub-state championships.
The Hesston girls lost 47-38, and the boys 51-50, but hundreds of Hesston residents packed the gym nine days after a gunman killed three and wounded 14 others at Excel Industries in Hesston.
“Just look around at all of the people here,” said Stephen Owens, a Hesston resident attending the game. “They’re not scared to death to be home. They’re not scared to drive on the roads. No matter what, it’s not going to change who we are as people. We are going to push on and grow stronger and we’re going to be better, no matter what comes our way.”
Owens is the owner of Clutch Studio, the company that created the website HesstonStrong.com and printed shirts with proceeds being donated to the Hesston Community Center.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s doing what you can, so we took our talents and we put them to use,” Owens said. “We truly hope to help the community grow and recover from what’s going on.”
The amount of emotional support Hesston’s basketball teams has received this week has been staggering.
A group of Halstead students created a banner that read “Halstead stands with #HesstonStrong.” The Hutchinson Trinity girls team, before its game against the Swathers, wrote “Hesston Strong” on their shoes to show their support.
“It’s been really nice to know that people outside of our community care about what happened,” Hesston athletic director Clint Stoppel said. “That’s been a really important part of this, knowing that we’re not in it alone. Basketball is secondary, but it’s good to know that there are still good people out there.”
Excel Industries, where the shooting took place, is a football field away from Hesston’s high school. The basketball teams had just begun their practices when news of the shooting spread and they were taken to shelter.
When the girls team reconvened the next day, coach Matt Richardson made sure to take a moment of silence and give his girls a forum to talk about what had happened. Many players had parents who worked at Excel or knew someone who did.
Basketball was a much-needed break from thinking about the violence.
“Just to get their brains going again and get them sweating,” Richardson said. “I think it’s good for them to go through the motions of something that they enjoy.”
When the team took the court on Saturday night, it was greeted by a Hesston crowd that completely filled its side of the stands.
Not coming away with a win was disappointing, but the victory for Hesston was coming together as a community and cheering.
“In a school, we try to keep that normalcy as much as possible,” Hesston principal Ty Rhodes said. “For us at Hesston, school events are important community events too. I think that’s very obvious tonight with our crowd.”
Despite neither team going to the state tournament, Hesston remains strong.
“We’re going to be who were before,” Stoppel said. “We’re a resilient group of people. We’ve got a lot of people that do a lot of good things for our community and those things won’t change because of what happened. That’s what it means to be Hesston Strong.”
SE SALINE: Montgomery 18, Thaxton 7, Poague 6, Stutterheim 6, Calahan 5, White 5.
HESSTON: Ince 18, Richardson 12, Brubacher 8.
SE SALINE: E. Montgomery 15, J. Montgomery 11, Murray 8, Haist 7, Banks 6, Koehn 3, Thaxton 1.
HESSTON: Vogt 13, Caffrey 9, Weber 8, Duerksen 7, Esau 6, Roth 5, Dahlsten 2.