Salish Kootenai College Has High Hopes for Hoops

Feb 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-3: Building Prosperity, Tribal College News
By Jack McNeel


COACHING. Salish Kootenai College women's basketball coach Juan Perez talks with team members Carla McLean, Genevieve Cochran, and Kodi Kuka during a practice. Photo by Jack McNeel

Salish Kootenai College (SKC, Pablo, MT) is beginning to build a basketball dynasty among Native colleges. The men’s team has won the National Tribal College Basketball Championship the past 2 years, and with six returning players and some promising newcomers, they hope for a third consecutive championship. The women’s team hasn’t been at that level of success recently, but it’s certainly the goal.

Zachary Conko Camel (Salish/Kootenai) has coached at SKC for 8 years and is now in his 5th year as men’s basketball coach. This year’s team is a little smaller than last year, but he’s expecting another excellent year.

Women’s team coach Juan Perez (Klamath) said that basketball at SKC dates back to the early 1980s and was organized basically to play for the National Tribal College Basketball Championships. “Since then, the program has progressed, and we’ve added more games and more structure. We have about 25 games scheduled this year, depending on a couple of tournaments, and will be on the road quite a bit.”

“Both teams played in the Thunderbird Classic in North Dakota last year and both were successful against United Tribes Technical College, which is a more established program. Then during the Tribal College Basketball Championships in Lawrence, KS, our men’s team played Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU) on the team’s own floor and was successful against them in the championship game.”

SKC is a 4-year school, but this year’s women’s team will only have one upperclassman. Recruitment for both teams is largely via word of mouth. No athletic scholarships are available, although tuition is waived during their first year out of high school.

SKC has been somewhat handicapped by not having a gym of its own, but that’s about to change. The teams practice at Two Eagle River School next to the college and play home games 6 miles away in Ronan. A gymnasium is presently under construction on SKC property, and it should be completed sometime during the 2007 – ’08 basketball season. It will hold slightly more than 2,500 fans. They expect the gym will be filled most nights.

Perez said, “We always had fairly full stands at the Ronan Events Center, which seats about 2,000. We also have a number of Blackfeet girls on the team, and having them here will pull in people from across the mountains.”

Camel hopes to see the college join a conference, and having a gym should advance that goal. SKC Board Chairman Bud Moran said, “We’re very supportive of the basketball programs. It makes us proud. We’re a small college, but I always say we’re the No. 1 Indian college in the nation. The dedication of these coaches, Zach and Juan, with the tight budget, they give a lot of their own time. It’s what you need in a small program, and we also have good support in the community.”

And how do the players feel about the program? Pius Takes Horse (Crow) was working for the Job Corps before starting to play ball at SKC and will graduate next spring. He plans to transfer to the University of Montana and go into sports management. “I want to become a basketball coach and teach young kids. If not for basketball, I wouldn’t have gone to college.”

Carmelita Matt (Salish/Kootenai) is majoring in dental assisting and plans to go on to Montana State University-Great Falls for its hygiene program. “This year’s schedule is really good. We’ve never played any of the Washington teams before. The fan support here is awesome.”

Rikki Ollinger (Blackfeet) is a freshman. “I like the team. There’s a little teasing about the different tribes, but it’s actually pretty fun. We work real well together.”

Perhaps Perez summed it best: “When you play your hardest and the best you can, that’s all we ask. That’s being successful.”

Jack McNeel is a freelance writer who can be reached at (208) 665-9233. Reprinted with permission from Indian Country Today.

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