Salish Kootenai College builds basketball dynasty

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PABLO, Mont. – Salish Kootenai College on Montana’s Flathead Reservation is beginning to build a basketball dynasty among Native colleges. The men’s team has won the National Tribal College Championship the past two years and, with six returning players and some promising newcomers, they may be on their way to a third consecutive championship. The women’s team hasn’t been at that level of success recently but it’s certainly their goal.

Zachary Conko Camel, Salish/Kootenai, has coached at SKC for eight years and is now in his fifth year as men’s basketball coach. “We’ve done great,” he said. “In five of the seven years I’ve been here we’ve been in the championship game.” He won that title with the women one year, and twice with the men. The present team has two players from Washington, two from the Flathead Reservation and the remainder from throughout the state. He said 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, commented that basketball at SKC dates back to the early 1980s and was organized basically to play for the National Tribal College 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, which is a more established program. Then during the Tribal College Championships in Lawrence, Kansas, our men’s team played Haskell Indian Nations University on their own floor and was successful against them in the championship game.”

SKC is a four-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 six 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 and expectations are that 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,” adding, “We also have a number of Blackfeet girls on the team and having them here will pull in people from across the mountains.”

Camel commented, “Community support is getting there; it’s growing.” Both coaches said they felt they needed to do more advertising to increase community support and have plans to do that this fall.

Camel hopes to see the college join a conference. “Seven years ago I met with our president and told him I wanted to get into the Frontier Conference here in Montana. I also spoke to the presidents and athletic directors from that conference. They were all for us getting in but were waiting to see what would be done with the gym.

“That will be done this year, so it’s time to make some decisions if we want to take our college to the next level. I think that’s what is missing. We’re pretty big. There are a lot of students here. That would take it to the next step, being part of the Frontier Conference. We want these kids to have a fun college experience. There’s no reason they shouldn’t have that.”

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 MSU/Great Falls for its hygiene program. “This year’s schedule is really good. We’ve never played any of the Washington teams. 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 best you can, that’s all we ask. That’s being successful.”