The Haskell Indian Nations Women’s basketball makes first NAIA tournament appearance

Rhonda LeValdo-Gayton
Sioux City, Iowa  (NFIC)

Maria Parker (Oneida) going
for two, she is Haskell’s all
time leading scorer.

Making History:
The opening game for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division Two National Basketball Championships is early, eight thirty a.m. specifically, but you couldn’t tell it by all the Native American fans seated to watch this historic game.

Playing was number eight-ranked Shawnee State University (Ohio) against number 22 ranked Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU).

But, before going into the game, let’s rewind six days prior.

Sitting and watching a live broadcast of the NAIA tournament seeds in a tiny classroom at Coffin Complex, the HINU women were eager to see where they would land

The Haskell Women’s Basketball
team watches as their name
is selected for the NAIA.

in the bracket. Shawnee State University (SSU) was revealed in the first pool and its opponent the announcer reads  “a new comer and making its first tournament appearance Haskell Indian Nations from Lawrence, Kansas.” Cheers, high-fives, congratulations and maybe an exhale from “officially” being selected.

The 2009-2010 season for the team chalked up 20 wins and eight losses and a major first, as the team was continually ranked in the top 25 in the nation. Two seniors, Justina George (Navajo) and Maria Parker (Oneida) both of who garnered many votes in the Midlands Collegiate Athletics Association (MCAC) for top conference player, led Haskell.  Only one could be selected, and George was named as the player of the year.

George said she is thankful for the opportunity not only to play, but also, to showcase Native America’s talent. “I feel really privileged, really fortunate, back home on the reservation, I know a lot of people who dream of having a successful career in basketball, and I feel by us making history it is opening a lot of doors, many opportunities to let others know this is possible to do here at Haskell.”

Haskell’s coach Phil Homeratha (Otoe-Missouri) can’t hide his smile, his pride is imminent in his voice when talking about what his team has just accomplished.

“We are the first all Native American college team to compete at this level, to be ranked at this level and to make it to this level, to me that is huge. That makes my career.  I dreamed of this, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t.”

A dream coming true and as the lineups are announced at the Tyson Event center it is now game time.

Justina George (Navajo)
MCAC player of the year.

The pace was fast, and each team battling to score.  It took a minute and a half before SSU scored first, but Haskell’s Justina George comes in for a steal and hits a three pointer to get the crowd going. It would be a constant barrage of misses and steals for the first half as Haskell trailed SSU 24 to 31.  Maria Parker and Autumn Burtt both tally eight points each for the first half as George was constantly pressured by SSU for three points.

The crowd amped up for the second half, SSU comes out on fire. Known for great three point shooting, SSU hits seven of nine shots to put a sizeable lead on the Haskell team. Compounding the problem was the amount of turnovers Haskell has ending with 27 in all.  With the shots not going in for Haskell, regulation runs out and SSU moves onto the second round of play with the score SSU 79 and Haskell 40.

Haskell fans stand up as the announcer says “their first tournament appearance good job Haskell.” Young and old clap their hands, waving signs that say “Haskell Pride,” many of them students from the nearby Omaha and Winnebago reservations. Dreaming maybe, someday, that could be them playing in the future?

One Haskell fan is an alumna from 1972. Bea Springer drove from Winnebago to support the team although the finish wasn’t what she wanted. “I was sad, they should have won, but I was proud of them, first time ever, you can’t put them down for that.”

Coach Homeratha comes out of the locker room smiling, and when asked what his impressions were, he is truthful in stating, “I am hurt, but the whole thing was just about getting to the national tournament, and I know it was going to be difficult. We only lose two seniors and we have all the rest coming back and we aren’t going to be any worse. The success of what we have done, you can’t believe what it’s done for my recruiting.  I am having more coaches call me and saying hey what about Haskell, and I am saying, yeah what about Haskell!”

With the first tournament appearance out of the way, and this team being the first American Indian team to play on a national stage, education about Native Americans was also evident as many more non-natives were introduced to the new kid in town, yeah, what about Haskell!