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Lady Indians practice before their final game

LAWRENCE, Kan. - It's been a tough five years, but Haskell Indian Nations University's head women's basketball coach is beginning to feel a bit more comfortable in his new roles.

In the five years since Phil Homeratha inherited the women's basketball team, he's seen it go from competing against junior colleges to university-level competition. While the road hasn't always been easy, Homeratha has seen positive personal changes and changes in the team since he took the assignment.

"I've had to learn how to coach women," Homeratha said. "My friends say it is amazing how much I have changed!"

Homeratha, a member of the Otoe Missouria tribe, came to Haskell in 1971 and has a background coaching track and football. During one of many budget crunches, Homeratha was named head women's basketball coach. At first he didn't take the job too seriously, but after working with the team for the first season, Homeratha got excited about the drive and talent of his players and went headlong into trying to make the team one of the best in the nation.

Changes in Haskell since he started have been phenomenal, Homeratha said. "During our junior college years, we were basically a junior college that was kind of established for kids that might not be ready to go to a four-year school."

But the introduction of baccalaureate degrees and the transformation of Haskell to a four-year university changed all that and Homeratha saw a need to look at player recruitment in a different way. He began looking for women who would be able to bring not only talent but also brains and quality to the team. He was looking for young women who could excel on and off the basketball court.

With a current team all either on the President's List or the Dean's List for academic excellence, it appears his recruiting paid off. Two seniors who leave the team this year both plan on graduate studies. But the scholastic achievement of his players is complemented by the bond the teammates have developed with one another.

The Lady Indians have become an extended family, living in the same dorm and working through the transition from junior college competition to facing tougher, four-year schools.

The end of this season is bittersweet for the team and its coach. For the Lady Indians there will be no series of tournaments, because the team isn't a part of any league yet. Homeratha said it has been difficult for the school to get into a conference because many associations require that colleges and universities applying for membership have a varied number of sports offered at their schools.

Despite the struggle to get into a conference league, the women's team fits Homeratha's agenda and he is more than pleased with the team that has evolved. He said he looked at building his team in a holistic way and it has been successful. The young women who make up the team are emotionally, spiritually and academically successful even if they aren't going to play in any tournaments at the end of this year.

After a brilliant 1999 season that took the Lady Indians to the national championship, it is frustrating not being able to go beyond the normal playing season, Homeratha said. He added that not being in a league makes even scheduling games difficult.

"Fridays are reserved for league play, so we have to schedule on other days. We end up losing two days of classes sometimes when we have to travel to games on the weekdays."

But with plans for a soccer team and with more sports offered at Haskell, Homeratha believes it should be easier for the university to be accepted by one of the conference leagues.

Homeratha is already looking ahead to the next season, and he has ideas on recruiting new players. The team is a good fit and he said he is hopeful any new recruits will also become a part of the family the young women have made for themselves.

With his team finding its niche and succeeding, on and off the basketball court, the coach thinks they are already champions, league or no league.