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State-winning 1993 Packer team is honored

The state champion West Fargo girls basketball team celebrates their title in Nov. 1993. The team was commemorated in a 25th anniversary celebration at the Class A State Tournament in Bismarck on Saturday. David Samson

BISMARCK — More than 25 years removed from playing in the state tournament, Nichole Walla is still nervous to step out on the court.

Walla, a former all-conference standout for the West Fargo girls basketball team, was among those who took part in a 25th anniversary celebration of the state-winning 1993 Packer team. The ceremony took place at halftime of the 2019 Class A championship game at the Bismarck Event Center Saturday.

As she was honored alongside former teammates and coaches, Walla says the nerves she felt playing in the same game over two decades ago came flooding back, creating a sensation that made her exhilarated and anxious in equal measure.

"I felt anxiety for the players again, just like I was back out on the court," said Walla, who with teammate Jennifer (Rud) Cooley formed a frontcourt duo nicknamed The Kingpins. "It was the same emotion, just feeling excited and nervous at the same time."

It was one of several moments of nostalgia experienced by Walla and the rest of the '93 Packers over the weekend. While they've kept in touch with phone calls and on social media, players have spread out over the country, making it difficult to get everyone in the same room together.

Even the scheduled reunion didn't draw as well as many had hoped. Just six of 15 team members were able to attend, largely thanks to a brutal snowstorm that made getting to Bismarck a gruelling affair.

But those who were able to attend say their time apart has done little to squash the chemistry that was built up during their championship run.

"I hadn't seen (some of these girls) in, 20 years maybe," said Kara Shrum, previously known as Kara Thulin. "But we saw each other and we immediately picked up where we left off from high school."

Shrum says there was no shortage of memories to share during the reunion, as players reminisced about inside jokes, favorite songs (and the inevitable dance-offs that accompanied them), and the various nicknames given to them by coach Collette Folstad.

Not surprisingly, discussions rarely veered far from the events of Nov. 12, 1993, one of the more significant days in the history of West Fargo High School athletics.

The Packer girls spent that morning at the Fargodome, cheering on the football team as it captured a Class A state title with a 6-2 win over Fargo South.

That evening—girls basketball was a fall sport in North Dakota until 2002—the girls made their way to the Fargo Civic Center, where they would leave with the first state championship in program history.

After surviving a 40-39 overtime thriller against Grand Forks Central in the semifinals, the Packers had little trouble in the title game against Fargo North, capping a 20-5 season with a 56-33 win.

While they did have an assortment of talent—Walla, Shrum and Leah Tilly were All-Tournament selections, while Nicole (Vetter) Peterson joined Cooley and Walla on the all-conference team—most agree the bulk of the credit for their success begins and ends their coach.

Folstad, who'd previously served as the first women's basketball and volleyball coach at North Dakota State, took over as the West Fargo girls coach in 1987 and stayed until 2001. In that time, she reached the state championship game four times, winning a second title in 1998.

While proud of her entire legacy, Folstad views the 1993 team with a particular fondness, thanks to the airtight bond that still exists between her and her players.

"They're wonderful," Folstad said. "We're all friends. They were just special. They always make sure to call on my birthday. Some of them haven't missed in 25 years."

Now 80, Folstad still lives in West Fargo. Never one to miss an opportunity to celebrate the '93 team, she believed Saturday's celebration was a fitting way to commemorate that group's accomplishments.

"I just hoped that I would still be living so that I could walk out with that team one more time," she said. "Because it was a historic win for West Fargo."