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Archive for Friday, July 14, 2006

Haskell athletics no easy sell to high schoolers

July 14, 2006

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Phil Homeratha is looking for a big girl. Preferably a student at a junior college, but he's willing to consider a recent high school graduate. Jamie Morrison is looking for a few big guys. Age doesn't matter, but drive does.

Both men, coaches at Haskell Indian Nations University are in Phoenix this week attending the Native American Basketball Invitational, where they will see more than 600 high school players from reservations across the country.

Their job is to get athletes to come to school in a small college town that's a 19-hour drive from Phoenix.

"I tell folks we're the best kept secret in the world," Homeratha says.

The coaches have a limited number of cards to play to attract the right students.

"If they're looking for a school closer to home, a chance to play right away, I'm not going to get them," Homeratha says. "Right now, I just need one girl. One big girl."

Every year Homeratha talks to 60 or 70 players trying to get a handful to commit to play ball at the school. Part of his job is to convince parents that their children will do well at a school far away from home, their reservation. That their child will thrive at a school they've never seen, and about which they may have heard only negative things.

Jermaine Chee, 20, from Pinon on the Navajo reservation, is earning a degree in elementary education and playing ball at Haskell. He played at NABI three years ago.

"I'm the first one in my family to go college," Chee said. "A lot of people know I'm going to college. They know I'm playing basketball. When I go back home to my rez (reservation), a lot of people ask if I'm still playing basketball. That really inspires me."

A visit to Haskell drives home how isolated it is from the rest of the world. It is beautiful, with historic buildings and streets named after American Indians and tribes.

It's fewer than three miles from Kansas University, but it's also far from home. Students won't see mountains or canyons or forests. The trees are different. The rain smells different. The humidity is heavy in the spring. Temperatures drop below zero during ice and snowstorms. Tornados are a real threat.

Haskell could be its own reservation. The coaches remind students that attending Haskell means missing out on a lot of the hunting and fishing trips, the ceremonies, celebrations, funerals, potlatches, tournaments and powwows back home.

"The biggest thing I try to tell every kid when I recruit them is it's a major commitment," Morrison said. "It's not for everybody. You have to be prepared for it."

It's a challenge

Some parents drive their youngsters all the way to Haskell, and before they unpack the car, they turn around and drive their homesick kid home.

Haskell wants you, can take care of you, Homeratha says to American Indian athletes. It's wonderful to be at a school where everyone wants you to be around, to succeed.

"I try to appeal to (students) that you can save a whole bunch of money," Homeratha says. "The average college graduate is $50,000 or $60,000 in debt."

Students pay $420 a year in fees, and cover their school supplies and travel expenses. The school doesn't offer scholarships and has a limited recruiting budget.

Haskell was created in the 1880s to educate American Indians. It's been a four-year university for only four years and is an NAIA school. Before that, it was a junior college, a high school and a boarding school. The focus has always been academics, not athletics.

"Financially, we're a lot more feasible than other schools," Morrison said. "Culturally, we can offer more support some bigger universities may not offer. We're a home away from home. And it's still an opportunity to play college athletics at a fairly high level."

Some students attending NABI this week already have signed to play at schools. Haskell competes against larger schools such as Arizona State, Nevada Las Vegas, community colleges and other tribal colleges. Sometimes it feels impossible.

Take their pick

"Bigger schools are going to take their pick of the better kids, Indian, whatever," Homeratha said. "Players are going to go Division I or Division II if they think they can. I don't blame them. If you have a daughter who could play Division I in state, you'd want her to stay closer."

The last card the coaches pull out is pride.

Haskell is the only university in the United States where students can meet people from more than 140 tribes from 40 different states. The campus has 900 plus American Indian students, professors and staff of all ages. Indians with red hair, black hair, brown and blond hair.

Some students have skin that is fair and freckled. Others are darker than molasses. Students will meet people from unfamiliar tribes, hear accents and languages they didn't know existed.

"That intertribal experience and friendships, the knowledge you can acquire about tribes, issues and cultures is something you can't place a value on," says Venida Chenault, vice president of academic affairs. "Students feel that they're accepted. They don't have to explain. It provides them an opportunity to shine that they may not have at another institution."

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