Women’s basketball draws Native athletes

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PASCO, Wash. – Columbia Basin College will have a distinctly Native look to its women’s basketball team this season, with four American Indian athletes on the team. For the first time in Cheryl Holden’s six years of coaching the Hawks at CBC, she has Native female players on her team: and she’s already very happy with these new recruits.

“The respect that they came in with is incredibly refreshing and rewarding; and they bring that to our program, and it helps,” Holden commented. “They respect the coach, the adult, and they respect what that person says. It’s so refreshing in today’s world. It’s hard to find sometimes in kids. These four girls are all like that and I just love it. I don’t know how many games we’re going to win but I can tell you, this team is a great team – they have the drive.”

The four student athletes are Lindsey Begai, Navajo from near Winslow, Ariz., Rondelle Guthrie, Umatilla/Tsimshian from Zillah; Lela Buck, Yakama/Wanapum from Mattawa; and Izzy Walker, Nez Perce from Lapwai, Idaho. They are as enthused about CBC and Holden as she is about them.

Begai commented on how comfortable she felt at CBC with the school, the teachers and the coach: “The coach is really helpful and if you have a question about anything she’s there to help you.”

Guthrie remarked that the school felt more relaxing than high school, something she hadn’t expected, and appreciated the tutoring center. “It’s like having my own tutor all the time, and that’s nice.” As for basketball, she said, “The teammates have gotten along right off the bat. We play awesome together. We have team chemistry and it’s going to be a blast. I’m excited we’ll have two years together.”

“Everybody’s come in with an open mind, and it’s such a different feeling to have that,” Buck said. “The school has a great atmosphere and it absolutely helps having other Native girls on the team.”

Walker agreed but added, “It’s not just us four, but the diversity of our whole team. We’ve got a little bit of everything and you don’t see that very often.” In commenting just about the four Native girls, she said, “We’re proud of each other for being here, for pushing each other to be here and to stay here. We don’t want to be characterized in that percentage of Native Americans that drop out. We’re really lucky to have each other here.”

CBC is a two-year school but has a student enrollment of about 7,000, including full- and part-time students. It competes in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges Conference, which includes schools from throughout Oregon and Washington. In Holden’s five seasons at CBC prior to the current season, she has a cumulative record of 84 wins and 59 losses.

Holden explained her recruiting philosophy. “When we’re out recruiting, I’m looking for certain characteristics. Can they be a good teammate? Do they have a good attitude? What are their academics like – because they’re students first. We do have a great tutoring center and they do a minimum of four hours of study table a week. We’re looking for those characteristics that will help us win and these four have those characteristics. I don’t see them as Native Americans, but as having those characteristics we want.”

“When you have a person like Izzy who has all these characteristics, how can you not just jump on it and say, ‘We want you here’? She can be contagious with her enthusiasm and positive attitude. Just being around her, you can’t be negative. That’s the kind of thing we’re looking for. I just want kids that want to be here, want to be good student athletes and want to represent our community. I want them to see what it’s like to give back, because we have great community support.”

Three of the four live within a two- or three-hour drive of school and they’re anticipating many family members will be in the stands during games. “My mom will be here every game. She got a new car that’s better on gas mileage,” Guthrie laughed. Walker added that it’s more than just family. “Our tribes, our communities; there’s so much support,” she said. “Word traveled fast when they heard all of us were here so it’s going to be awesome.”

Holden summarized her thoughts about the four girls in this way. “What I’ve seen in the Native American kids is a passion. Izzy has a passion in her eyes. Lindsey, it’s a passion. There have been other girls that have come here and you don’t see that same passion. That’s a difference I’ve seen and it’s very interesting to me. I’m learning a lot because I haven’t had Native Americans girls on the team, but right now they’ve just been a joy.”

CBC’s athletics program includes two other Native students. Kristina Gonzales, Navajo from Red Mesa, Ariz., plays on the women’s volleyball team and Coty Reuben, Nez Perce from Lapwai, Idaho, plays on the men’s basketball team.