Back to the B: After 10 years together, Four Winds' core has one more shot at Class B dreams
There's a rich history of basketball along the southern shoreline of Devils Lake. Along the gym's southwest wall at Four Winds Community High School hanging high are 24 team banners, with a 25th to be added following last season's finish at regionals. Off to the right of those banners are 35 individual banners highlighting region and state standouts.
Among all the accolades hanging above the bright orange basketball at center court, there's one banner that different than the others. It's bigger, doesn't have the Indian head on it like the others, but a team photo, and in ways unites the 59 combined banners in a way, spanning between the two sides of the wall. It highlights the program's biggest accomplishment: 2016 North Dakota State Class B Boys Basketball Champions.
The Indians have been a force in the state for years, but have only finished as champions once. However, the Indians have put in a focus on developing teams from the ground up. Youth league hoopers, who are barely tall enough to put the ball in the basket, dream of taking the floor in front of a sold-out gym, wearing the arched "Indians" lettering on their chest.
In Fort Totten, the basketball players are driven from a young age to become the players that they idolized from the bleachers. 10 years ago, a group of nine wide-eyed third graders, Keldon Keja, Jayden Yankton, Jacob LaRock, Brady Cavanaugh, Keyen Omen, JaeShaun Shaw, Caelen Lohnes, Jonah Jackson and Bronson Walter began their journey, in hopes to become apart of the legend that is Four Winds basketball. Now, eight of them are playing their final games as Indians and the one will be separated from his pack for the first time.
"It's sad that this is our final season together because hardly any of us are going to go to the next level," senior forward Caelen Lohnes said. We haven't had a state championship and that's what we're working for right now. It's our last year and basketball has really helped our bond as friends."
Basketball has brought the nine players together not just as a team, but as friends, some of them see themselves as brothers. It's a bond that has made this group a special one on and off the court and has helped each other more than they could've ever imagined.
Coaches, players, and the community believed that last season was this group's season to write their names in North Dakota basketball lore as champions. The Indians had one loss on the season to power them to a regional title and their first appearance in the state tournament since 2017, where Four Winds fell to Hillsboro/Central Valley in the title game.
Fans stormed the court at the Sports Center at Devils Lake High School to celebrate the victory. They were going into Bismarck as the No. 1 seed and were only a few wins away from turning dreams into reality. Senior center Bronson Walter said it was a moment that couldn't be described. You just had to feel it. It was an electric feeling and excitement for what was next...and then it wasn't.
It was a matter of hours that the Indians were back in Fort Totten learning that what they had experienced last night was an illusion. It was one of the hardest conversations Indians head coach Rick Smith had to have in his life. The Indians weren't going to Bismarck. No one was going to Bismarck. COVID-19, which has seemed like something so far away from rural North Dakota, had taken away a life long dream upon its arrival into the United States.
"It was shocking and you don't know how to feel or what to do after that," junior guard Jayden Yankton said. "After a big win and preparing to go to Bismarck to play in the biggest tournament, when it actually mattered, was disappointing. It would've been our first time together in the state tournament and like Caelen said it would've been nice to win it together."
The Indians felt similar feelings around Class A teams and other Class B boys teams around the state of having a dream "stripped away after working hard all year". However, the bond of friendship kept the group afloat from March to November. Contact between each other on the court was limited, but they were always there for each other. That support hasn't stopped with the re-start of the season as everyone has been there to given someone a lift when needed.
"If a person is down, we all need to bring them up and get them on the same page as us, and just be able to play on," Yankton said.
The pick-up mentality and supportive energy have had a larger role this season than it has had in others. Games against No. 2 Enderlin and No. 4 Beulah would have had all of Fort Totten's population centralized in the gym, with fans acting as the sixth man, but it was almost silent in those tilts. The Indians have learned to take advantage of the loudness in their gym, but COVID-19 restrictions have taken that away.
In replacement of that energy is the Indians bench that had provided that positive support when there's a big block or a big basket made. At the same time, no one is overdoing it. Everyone is on the same wavelength when it comes to cheering. It may not seem like an important aspect, but guys on the court have said the lack of stand out cheering keeps them zoned in.
The small aspects like that are apart of the Indians' overall drive to get back where they were last season and make up that ground that COVID-19 took away. Four Winds' talent didn't take too much of a hit from season to season, but they know with a heavy senior core, this is their final chance as a band of brothers to win the state title.
And it's not like anyone has another goal in mind or is looking to cruise in their final season. It's the same thing up and down the roster.
“We want to win a championship and get it all," senior guard JaeShaun Shaw said. "We want to get that feeling back of how it feels to win.”
"We want to make it to the state tournament and finishing out the season, hoping nothing happens," senior forward Jonah Jackson said.
“We have one goal and it's to win a state championship," senior guard Brady Cavanaugh said.
It's all the same. There's some doubt that the uncontrollable might happen again, cutting the veteran group's title hopes off for good, but what they can control is what they're taking advantage of. Alongside the working ethic on the court, Four Winds players and staff are always masked. During stagnant moments in practice, during warm-ups, and on the bench, masks are up. Players have seen what COVID-19 can do to their dreams and know that this time, there is no season to go at it again.
"Getting that feeling taken away is momentum for us to work 10 times harder in practice and work throughout the season to hopefully get back, but this time to an even better feeling," Yankton said. "It's going to be the simple things that are going to make that happen though. Keeping a mask on during practice and being smart outside of practice. It's just having the whole team dedicated to it."
It's a process that the Indians are pounding at tooth and nail, again, in order to "get back to the B" as Yankton describes it. Just over halfway through the season, the Indians haven't shown any signs of slowing down, and are pushing themselves to an even higher level. Against state-ranked competition, Four Winds has gone 3-1, most recently knocking off No.4 Langdon/Edmore/Munich by 25. They have also handed No. 1 Enderlin their only loss of the season early on by 14.
While Indians teams in the past have gone through the process of getting to state and winning it in 2016, this year's squad is different. Yes, in 2016 and 2017 Four Winds did go to the state championship game in back-to-back years, but they had won it prior. This year's squad is not fueled off of what was or not even what could've been to get back to the state tournament, but are rolling off the mentality of we want to do this now.
"Getting to the B would be great alone," Yankton said. "But being in that environment, having people support our team, and getting that last feeling with those guys would be great."
The dream of celebrating on the court at Minot State is one that is currently driving the Indians now. However, stepping back, whenever this odd and delicate season ends, the now 17 and 18-year-olds who were watching the Indians win a title five years ago are realizing the impact that this group united under one logo has altered their lives.
It's not an easy answer to put into words. When asked what does all of this mean to you, all nine boys got silent. They chuckled in slight embarrassment, egged each other on about breaking the silence, and asked multiple times what the question was. The eight words rang heavy in the hearts of the Indians.
“It means a lot to me because I’ll probably never play with these guys on the same team ever again after this year," Jackson said. "I’m glad I grew up with you guys and grew a very close bond. It means a lot to me”
The reality of not playing together is one that becomes more and more real each day. These guys aren't just numbers on a roster to each other, but life long friends whose relationships have been weaved by basketball.
"It means a lot in being with everyone I grew up playing with and my love for them," Walter said. "It’s going to suck when we go our separate ways next year, but that’s life.”
"It’s gonna suck not having these guys around next year," Yankton said "I grew up with them since I was young and always played up with them. Next year is going to be different not seeing all of these guys around. They’re always going to be family.”
In being apart of the basketball history that is rich with success, there are those on this team that feel the need to prove that they are the best Indians squad out of their parents, cousins, siblings, and others close to them that went through the program.
"It means a lot and you basically want to be like the older teams that went to state and experience what they experience and be better than them," Lohnes said.
“I have brothers that have played and won state," senior guard Jacob LaRock said. "We always argue if their team is better than this team. We just have to go there and prove it.”
"We all grew up watching the older guys play at state and it would be cool for them to watch us have that experience," Cavanaugh said.
And then there's their captain, senior guard Keldon Keja. He sat in corner of the room quietly. When the question came upon him, he adverted the request back over to his teammates that hadn't answered yet. However, the question rounded back to him and he spoke with nothing but his teammates' successes in mind.
“It means everything to me," Keja said. "Growing up you want to turn dreams into reality and win the state championship. Hitting the court and pushing each other. I want every one of us to be better on and off the court and tell them what they need to hear."