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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Area tribal colleges to start hoops programs, join Oak Hills in NIAC

Representatives from three area colleges met last week to finalize Red Lake and Leech Lake’s inductions into the NIAC. From left: Red Lake Nation College President Dan King, Oak Hills Christian College Athletic Director Dan Hovestol, Leech Lake Tribal College President Don Day, Leech Lake Tribal College Vice President/Athletic Director Beverly Rogers, new Leech Lake head basketball coach Brady Fairbanks and Red Lake Nation College Director of Development Eugene McArthur. Jack Hittinger | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Dan Hovestol is, understandably, concerned about the size of the gymnasium at Oak Hills Christian College.

Hovestol, the school’s director of athletics, gave reporters a tour of the small gym last week. It doesn’t have bleachers, and spectators usually have to stand on the sidelines to watch the Wolfpack play basketball.

Usually, Wolfpack games against Northern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NIAC) and Manitoba College Athletic Conference (MCAC) foes are modestly attended – the gym can fit around 200, which is what the team usually gets.

Expect that to change next year. Red Lake Nation College and Leech Lake Tribal College will be joining the NIAC next season, the first season of basketball for both tribal colleges.

“We’re going to have to find an alternative location for our home games,” Hovestol said with a laugh. “I told our coaches, there ain’t no way. The reservation schools will fill that up a half hour before each game starts.”

Representatives from the three schools met formally last week at the Oak Hills campus south of Bemidji to finalize their announcement that the three Bemidji-area schools would be members of the same conference. All three parties are looking forward to the partnership.

“With Leech Lake and Oak Hill now playing somewhere else in town, I see this doing a lot for the whole region as far as college-level basketball in the area,” said Dan King, president of Red Lake Nation College. “Plus it helps us in keeping kids on the right track. We’re trying to help them get a higher-level education and hopefully continue on and get four-year degrees, masters degrees, PhDs. Doing it along with sports is a good way for them to do it.”

Starting from scratch

Both tribal colleges will be starting their programs – both men’s and women’s teams – from scratch.

Don Day, president of Leech Lake Tribal College, said starting athletics departments can be costly but added that they should pay for themselves – especially considering it may help attract students who may not normally have been interested in college.

“It will help us get more students, that was part of our reasoning,” Day said. “I think it will help boost student enrollment. It will probably help all the colleges.

“The tribal colleges are public institutions. It’s not just for Indians. Our tuition is lower than most of (Minnesota State College and University system) schools, so I think we might also attract more non-Indian students to our schools.”

Whatever their background – be they native or non-native – it’s clear that even rumors of a basketball program at the reservation schools have students in the area excited.

“It means a lot to the kids,” said Eugene McArthur, Red Lake College’s director of development.

“People come up to me and say, ‘Red Lake and Leech Lake are really going to have a basketball team? And they’re going to play in a real conference?’ They can’t believe it… they’ve never been able to visualize it. So it’s exciting because we’re finally doing it.”

Red Lake’s teams will be known as the Migizi (Eagles) and will be coached by Red Lake High School legend Gerald Kingbird.

Leech Lake will also be coached by a former area high school legend. Former Cass Lake-Bena star Brady Fairbanks will coach the as-of-yet-unnamed Leech Lake squad.

Fairbanks played two years at Bemidji State before transferring to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., to complete his college career.

It’s his first head coaching job but Fairbanks has a clear vision – get more kids in the area to go to college.

“I’ve met a lot of area players who are still in high school and talked to them, asked them about college,” Fairbanks said. “A lot of them said there weren’t a lot of options for them. It’s hard for them to pay for their tuition, go to college. Being a college student is hard: practicing, going to class, taking care of kids, job, family to look after.

“So I think going to school in town will be helpful to a lot of kids and having a basketball team makes that more of an option.”

Beverly Rogers, who is Leech Lake’s vice president – and, as of last week, the athletic director – has the same vision.

“It’s critical to get students that wouldn’t really think about going to college to come to college and further their education,” she said.

The schools will be using NCAA standards for determining eligibility and officials stressed that academics are the most important part of the equation. The tribal colleges will be members of the NJCAA’s Division III, which means no scholarships.

“To be able to play on any of these teams you have to have good academic standards,” Day added. “If you’re not a good student, don’t even try out.”

Working out the logistics

The two tribal colleges will be joining a league (NIAC) that has five other schools spread out from the Twin Cities to north central North Dakota.

Aside from Oak Hills, the NIAC includes Crossroads College in Rochester, Association Free Lutheran in Plymouth, Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, N.D. and Turtle Mountain Community College in Bellcourt, N.D.

The teams generally play doubleheaders to reduce travel costs, although with Leech Lake and Red Lake now in the mix it should be easy for the three Bemidji-area schools to play home-and-homes against one another.

That is, once the schools find a place to play.

Red Lake has its own gym; but Leech Lake does not. Rogers said they’d have to improvise for the first few years of the program.

“We don’t have a court yet,” she said. “We’ve been working with Cass Lake-Bena schools and exploring how to use their gym. We have plenty of practice space but not a lot of places for people to watch games.”

Rogers said the school has also been discussing using facilities at Bemidji State, but nothing is finalized as of now.

It’s not a stretch to think games between the three area colleges could see hundreds of spectators. King said a recent exhibition game between Red Lake and Turtle Mountain (also a tribal college) drew around 500 spectators.

The schools will start playing in November, and they said they’ve already heard from some other colleges to schedule games. The schools are still looking for players, King said, as well as coaches for the women’s teams at both schools.

The NIAC conference tournament will be played next February. As luck would have it, Oak Hills has the draw this year.

“It will be nice for all of our schools that we’re going to get to stay here,” Hovestol said. “We’ll just need to find a bigger gym to play in.”