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A happy ending for Perham basketball

Sam Stratton cuts down the championship nets at Target Center. Photo by Paul Gregersen.

In the end, there was never any doubt.

Unlike Friday night's double overtime nail biter against Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, the Perham Yellowjackets held a comfortable lead in the waning minutes of the championship game against Rochester Lourdes.

After everything the team - and the community - went through in the last few months, the final few minutes were a happy end to what could have been a sad and tragic story. Friday and Saturday were essentially home games for Perham - the black and yellow far outnumbered the purple and white, and the community made its voice heard in Target Center as the last seconds ticked down.

There are many things that can be said about a championship basketball season. But what makes this particular story so special is that it was about more than basketball, more than about sports.

It's also a story about the Perham community that came together after the collapse of junior Zach Gabbard during a basketball game in January. In February, a fundraiser held at Mulligan's in Perham raised $74,000 in several hours. More than 1,100 people turned out, nearly everyone sporting the black and yellow One Clap for Zach shirts that filled the stands of Target Center.

This season was also a story of people who, before January, probably had no direct connection to the Perham community or the Yellowjackets basketball team. People like Denise Cuchna, a nurse who was one of the first bystanders to come to Gabbard's aid when he collapsed.

In a press conference on Friday evening, Cuchna said that she felt she was meant to be in the gym during that game in January. She told a story of finding a coin before the game that she thought was a golden dollar, and putting it in her pocket. Only after that evening was over, and Gabbard's life was saved, did she look at the coin and see that it was not a golden dollar. Instead, she said, the coin was stamped with an image of a guardian angel.

Or, there were people like Jody Redman and Joan Mellor, co-creators of the Minnesota State High School League's Anyone Can Save a Life program. Redman and Mellor were honored at halftime of a game on Friday for their efforts to get automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in schools throughout Minnesota and to raise awareness of cardiac arrest in high school athletes.

An AED was used to save Gabbard when he collapsed in January.

And, finally, this season was a story about a young man - a son, a friend, a classmate and a teammate. It was a story about Zach Gabbard's will and determination after his cardiac arrest and how that inspired thousands, including his teammates.

"Zach's working as hard as he can down there," Jordan Cresap said after the championship game. "And we knew we had to do the same."

Gabbard was absent from Saturday's championship game after making it to both the quarterfinal and semifinal games. Perham Athletics and Activities Director Fred Sailer said that Gabbard was simply too tired to make it to Saturday's game. Gabbard's parents had hoped to get him to Target Center by halftime, but doctors decided it was better for him to stay and rest.

"It broke his heart that he wasn't able to be here," Sailer said. "But it was the right thing to do."

So in the end, Perham's season was the convergence of many things, but could it be called fate? Or destiny?

"I think people overuse [those terms]," Sailer said. "But it sure seems like things came together for us. If nothing else, this season gave all of us a sense of what's important in life. It was a championship basketball season, and that's great, but we have a young man who's still alive, and he's getting better every day."