A few short months ago members of a Native girls' basketball squad from New Mexico did not even know their teammates' names. But players from the under-14 club certainly like what they're being called now - national champions.
The New Mexico side captured the gold medal in its division at the U.S. Indigenous Games, which were held in Milwaukee from July 11-14. The New Mexico team had to travel about 26 hours by bus simply to arrive in Milwaukee. The drive was certainly worth it in the end as the club won all four of its games in its division, which featured seven entrants.
New Mexico defeated North Carolina's Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians 39-36 in its championship final.
"It's a national title and I think the girls are really happy to win," said New Mexico's coach Khara Davis. "We had prepared ourselves and we wanted to win it."
New Mexico's 12-player roster was selected in mid-April, following tryouts that were held in three locations in the state. More than 50 athletes had attended the tryout camps.
After its roster was selected, the team entered three tournaments in May, all in Albuquerque. Davis recalls the side did not have much cohesiveness during its first tournament.
"They didn't have any structure," said Davis, who is a Turtle Mountain Chippewa. "They didn't have any practices and they didn't even know each others' names."
The team's players are from various parts of the state. They will attend 11 different schools this coming year. Yet the New Mexico club managed to finish second in the first event in entered in May. It also registered second-place finishes at its two other tournaments staged later that month. Davis' charges were also busily gearing up for the Milwaukee competition.
"We tried to have practices twice a week in May and June," she said. "The practices were in Albuquerque and Sante Fe. And for the most part everybody was showing up to those practices."
This marked the first year of the U.S. Indigenous Games. These Games were created after a Milwaukee group withdrew its offer to stage this year's North American Indigenous Games.
Those games were eventually cancelled when no other group stepped up and offered to host.
Milwaukee officials though opted to replace that multi-sport competition with the scaled-down U.S. Indigenous Games. Besides host Wisconsin and New Mexico, the event attracted representatives from California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington.
"It was good competition," Davis said of those that competed in the girls' under-14 hoops category.
But the New Mexico club was able to register three rather convincing victories prior to its championship final. The team kicked off the tournament by doubling Minnesota 56-28 in its opener. New Mexico then defeated Iowa 45-24 in its next outing. And it thumped Michigan 51-4 in its third match. Davis said her team was a notoriously slow starter.
"Most of the games we played they had a hard time jelling," she said. "It was always in the second half they would play better and score most of their points."
In the gold-medal game in Milwaukee, the New Mexico squad trailed 21-16 at halftime. But as it had done in many previous performances, the team outscored its rivals in the second half (23-15) to ensure its gold-medal feat.
Basketball action at the U.S. Indigenous Games also featured under-16 and under-19 divisions, for both females and males. But Davis' team was the only basketball entry representing New Mexico at the games.