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Student athletes shine in Lakota Nation Invitational.

By David Melmer -- Today staff

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Four different basketball venues were needed to accommodate the 32 teams that competed in mid-December for the coveted title of 2006 Lakota Nation Invitational tournament champion.

At one time in the LNI's history, a gymnasium at the Pine Ridge Reservation could host what was then called the All-Indian Tournament. Popularity moved the contest to the Rapid City Civic Auditorium, and now it takes three additional courts to get all the games in.

Sixteen boys' and 16 girls' teams vied for time on the courts, but the venue also had to accommodate a growing crowd of spectators and dedicated fans.

The 2006 hoop contest started out somewhat slow, with some developing teams eliminated early and sparse crowds. But as the brackets filled, the crowds brought the noise and the teams became more closely matched in skill level.

While basketball is undoubtedly the focus of most fans' attention, the knowledge and language bowls, an art show, a hand game competition, and wrestling and boxing matches completed the four-day event's agenda.

The LNI is the first major tournament that shows early talent and sets some teams up for a season run at state-level competition come March. Seeded eighth in the state, the Little Wound Mustangs boys' team, from Kyle, and upended St. Thomas More of Rapid City, the statewide top-seeded team and 2005 LNI champions. The Mustangs are coached by Jamie Feather Earring.

St. Thomas More played from behind the entire game by six to eight points, and closed in with a one-point deficit in the fourth quarter. But the Mustangs were just too much, on the inside and with free throws, for the sometimes struggling St. Thomas More.

St. Thomas More coach Dave Hollenbeck said the Mustangs made his team earn everything they got.

The Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes, always a threat on the court, out-distanced the Cheyenne Eagle Butte Lady Braves with a 63 - 33 victory to earn top honors.

The Lady Thorpes dominated the field from beginning to end, with wins by large margins over Lower Brule, Red Cloud and Todd County. Talk among the fans has already placed the Lady Thorpes in the state tournament.

Thoughts of state tourney play for the Little Wound Mustangs also came from dedicated fans and from opponents' benches.

The Cheyenne Eagle Butte Lady Braves also made it look easy on their way to the finals with victories over the Heart of the Earth Eagles, from Minneapolis; and St. Thomas More, a non-Indian team from Rapid City.

The championship games were played before a crowd of more than 3,000 fans that came from three states and from across South Dakota. This year, Wyoming was represented in the LNI, with St. Stephens Indian School boys' and girls' teams. Heart of the Earth came from Minneapolis for the first time. The Heart of the Earth Eagles girls' team had a difficult time, but the boys proved solid competitors.

Every year, one player shows exceptional talent that fuels the conversation between fans and athletes for the tournament and the rest of the season. Basketball fans in South Dakota will watch the local sports pages for the name of T.J. McCauley from Little Wound, dubbed the tournament's most valuable player.

McCauley turned in 10 points in the championship game, but dropped in larger point numbers in earlier games and also dominated in defense and play-making to lead the field, as MVP.

On the Mustangs way to the top, McCauley netted 37 points against Takini; he scored another 27 points against Red Cloud and 19 points against Lower Brule to help his team earn a trip to the finals.

Christian Janis, the girls' tournament MVP, echoed the fan sentiment of a state tournament slot after she and her teammates breezed through the tough field for a championship trophy.

While fans flock to the arena to watch the first tournament of the season, more is going on in the LNI than meets most people's eyes. The entire week of the tournament is dedicated to youth, academics, health and pride. The common phrase spoken by LNI volunteers and staff is that the entire event is designed to make young people smarter, healthier and proud of who they are.

The sound of the drum during the hand game tournament can be heard throughout the arena area, students can be seen studying Lakota vocabulary in the halls outside the Language Bowl venue, and students sit on the floor and benches outside the secured room that will hold the testing for the knowledge bowl.

A large contingency of people is needed to pull off this annual event. The tournament started with two people, Dave Archambault and LNI Director Bryan Brewer, in 1977 and has grown into a five-member board of directors, numerous event coordinators, 20 officials (at last count) and a cadre of announcers, scorers, statisticians and others who keep traffic flowing and offer assistance to anyone. The numbers begin to grow into the hundreds. The event takes a lot of money, which comes from gate receipts and donations from businesses and individuals.

''There is no better way to enter the holiday season than by watching our children compete in healthy, positive activities,'' Brewer said.