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COLLEGE FOCUS: Basketball big at Northwest Indian College

by: COURTESY OF NORTHWEST INDIAN COLLEGE - Josh Nelson of Northwest Indian College goes for a reverse layup.Northwest Indian College does not have your usual men's basketball program.

The Eagles do not play in a league. Nor do they compete in an official division of college basketball. Instead, they spend their season traveling around the country, playing any school willing to face them. Finding stats for players, including the Eagles' win-loss record, on the Internet is a futile task.

On their recent five-game road trip, two of the Eagles' starting players were unable to travel with the team because they could not get time off from their jobs.

The Eagles had only eight players in uniform on Dec. 19, when they played at Lewis & Clark. NWIC forward Josh Nelson had to wear the uniform of an injured player because he had forgotten to do his laundry before the game.

And yet, NWIC is the Duke or Kentucky of its world. The Eagles have beaten 35 other Tribal Colleges to win two consecutive American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) tournaments, after finishing second two consecutive years and third the year before that.

“It’s the only tribal college in the Pacific Northwest,” coach Greg Mahle says, of the four-year school that is run by the Lummi Tribune in Bellingham, Wash. “The closest other one is in Montana. We played in our national tournament, and two years in a row we’ve won. It’s a credit to the guys who work hard, day-in and day-out.”

NWIC was overmatched physically by the Pioneers in a 124-94 loss.

“We’re at the end of a long road trip,” Mahle said after the game. “We went through Montana for five days, came over here (to Oregon), went down to Western Oregon, and this was the end of it. Guys were tired. We lost guys with injury. We’re just shorthanded.”

Despite Lewis & Clark’s size advantage and the fact that NWIC had only three reserve players on its bench, the Eagles had something intangible on the court: They exhibited joy in every moment of the game.

Since Mahle took over the Eagles' program six years ago, he has had his team play upper-level talent so it would be well-seasoned by the time the AIHEC tournament comes around.

“When I started, we weren’t very good, and we weren’t very deep,” Mahle says. “We didn’t have a lot of talent. But we instilled a belief that the kids could play at any level. As the years go on, we’re making the schedules tougher and tougher. We’re taking our lumps, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

NWIC has players from tribes throughout the West Coast, and even some players from Alaskan tribes. Point guard Mike Schjang Jr. says having players from different tribes does not affect the chemistry of the team.

“We don’t really see our cultural differences,” Schjang says. “Natives are as one. There’s no real explanation of how we do it. It’s just something that’s in our blood.”by: COURTESY OF NORTHWEST INDIAN COLLEGE - Sophomore Mike Schjang Jr., of Northwest Indian College, gets inside the Edmonds (Wash.) Community College defense.

Still, the Eagles have many new players this season, and Nelson says NWIC needs to continue growing together as the season progresses.

“We’re starting to connect, slowly,” he says. “We all get along. But we need to keep working on our connection.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Eagles are able to embrace their cultural differences so easily is because the players see basketball as a lifeline that connects them to school and a better life.

“Basketball for a lot of kids means an extra chance and an opportunity to continue their education while doing something they enjoy,” Mahle says. “If they can play basketball and get a degree at the same time, they’re benefiting in two ways.”

On many reservations, basketball is like a religion.

“Basketball just seems to be the sport that everybody first chooses,” Schjang says. “I wouldn’t call it an Indian sport, but it’s something that’s easy to pick up.”

Schjang says that Louisville University star guards Shoni and Jude Schimmel, both graduates of Portland's Franklin High, are heroes to all of the players on his team. The Schimmel sisters grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

by: COURTESY OF NORTHWEST INDIAN COLLEGE - Freshman Dominique Hall of Northwest Indian College puts up a shot at the Skagit Valley Turkey Tournament.While Schjang does not know the Schimmels personally, he says they have been an inspiration.

“In the Native world, they’re celebrities,” Schjang says. “They’re what pushes us to do better, they’re what we look up to, and they’re role models for younger people on the Rez — to do better, to actually know that you can get off the reservation. They’re just an inspiration. They’re getting their name out there and opening up the door for younger athletes.”

As they look toward winning a third AIHEC championship, the Eagles players see themselves walking the same path as the Schimmels.

“We (at NWIC) use basketball as an outlet to veer away from alcohol and drugs,” Schjang says. “That’s what I’m trying to do with myself. I also want be a role model for kids all over the world. I want them to know there’s other things to do besides drugs and alcohol.”