Playing in the national tournament is a new experience for the Haskell players and coaches, but one they are willing to learn from.
Hagerstown, Md. -- The Haskell Indian Nations University women's basketball team's first trip to nationals well could be its last.
The Indians will make their first appearance in the National Junior College Athletic Assn. Div. II national tournament today. HINU (26-1) will face Kankakee (Ill.) Community College in the first round of the 12-team, double-elimination tournament at 3 p.m. today at the Hagerstown CC Athletic Recreation and Community Center.
Whether they play at all next season remains to be seen.
Because HINU -- a federally funded school for American Indians -- is making the transition from junior college to four-year university, its athletics program will have to make the transition, too.
On the eve of what could be Haskell's final junior-college basketball appearance, coach Phil Homeratha couldn't help but ponder the future of his program.
"I don't know if we're going four-year or not," Homeratha said.
To hear Homeratha tell it, Haskell's coaches support a four-year program affiliated with NAIA Div. II beginning in 2000. He said they told outgoing Haskell President Bob Martin of their preference, and he concurred. Now the board of regents must approve the move.
"If they do make the determination to go four-year, next year would be a transition year for all of Haskell's athletes," Homeratha said. "We wouldn't play. It would be like a red-shirt year. If we're staying a junior college, I'm losing out on a lot of recruiting time."
What he's losing in time, however, he's more than making up in exposure. The Bureau of Indian Affairs -- headquartered in nearby Washington D.C. -- is tickled with the publicity of an all-American Indian team playing in nationals. Regional publications have come calling, as have the Navajo Times, the Big Horn Country News and Indian Country Today.
In other words, the Indians are big news.
"In terms of athletics, this might be one of the biggest things to happen to Haskell in a long time," Homeratha said. "There are four Indians on the Mesa (Ariz.) team. I talked to them. Three of them said they heard about Haskell but didn't want to go that far away from home. The fourth had never heard of us. They've heard of us now. My recruiting budget is $1,000. That's it. So I need all the exposure I can get, and this is like KU and the NCAA Tournament at a little bitty baby level."
Not that the Indians are awed.
"I'm a little nervous, but I'm trying to keep myself in control," Haskell sophomore guard Robin Shield said. "I've never been here before, so I didn't know what to expect. So far, it's been amazing, but I don't feel any pressure. It's just like any other tournament."
Sure, except it's halfway around the country. As such, it required a plane ride -- another new experience for many of the Indians.
"The only thing that scared them," Homeratha said, "was that rush when you take off. And then when we got here, we had to circle three or four times. They said there was something wrong with the wing or the wheel or something. They were kind of funny about it."
"It felt funny," added Shield, one of the airplane rookies. "But it was a fun experience."
The aftermath wasn't.
The Indians left for Hagerstown -- about an hour-and-a-half west of Baltimore -- on Monday night. Their flight out of KCI was delayed, and when they arrived at Baltimore's BWI Airport, one of their rental cars wasn't available. They scrambled to find a replacement and finally arrived in Hagerstown around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday.
"I'm still feeling it," Homeratha said.
Imagine, then, what the Haskell band is feeling. The first-year band made of current and former HINU students raised enough funds to bus from Lawrence to Hagerstown. Their 22-hour drive came to an end Wednesday afternoon.
"It makes a big difference to have them here," Homeratha said. "They might have been the difference in us getting here. We got a $1,000 donation from the Kickapoo tribe. But the band 5- and 10- and 15-dollared it. I admire that. And they got some help from the president's office. It's kind of hard to say no when people keep coming through your door."
The Indians sported new warmup gear Wednesday purchased by the HINU alumni association. The nice purple outfits were a step up from their old, ratty, worn and torn gear.
"Before, we'd be out and all we could do was dress up," Shield said. "People wouldn't know we were a team. We'd look nice, but we wouldn't look like a team. You get here and all these teams are wearing nice warmups and they look like a team. They get automatic exposure. We're definitely pleased. But it's not our uniforms. Our uniforms don't win games for us. We win games. It doesn't matter what you look like or what you wear."
The four-year distinction could affect Shield. As a sophomore in a two-year program, she's through after this season. If HINU goes four-year, she could sit out a red-shirt year and still have two years of eligibility to play.
But Shield has all but decided to go to a four-year school and play next year, and she has contemplated walking on at Kansas.
"My goal is to go somewhere," she said. "It's nothing against Haskell. If my heart didn't tell me I have a chance and to go after it, I'd stay at Haskell."
At least Shield can rest easy knowing the Indians had the best season ever in Haskell's junior college history, regardless of the outcome over the next couple of days.
"We've all accomplished so many good things this year," she said. "This team has a lot of things to be proud of. I'm pleased I can say I played on this team. It's the last time coming to the NJCAA tournament. Everyone of us should feel special because we got to come here."
It's not a basketball-only trip. The band planned to tour the White House -- courtesy of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. -- on Friday. The team planned to visit Gettysburg today before the game and tour D.C. on Sunday.
"I want this to be fun and educational for them," Homeratha said. "It's not too often Haskell goes to a national tournament. I want them to enjoy it."
-- Andrew Hartsock's phone number is 832-7216. His e-mail address is email@example.com.