Four Winds/Minnewaukan finishes in 4th place, senior class leaves lasting impact
A breath of fresh air blew over the Four Winds bench late in the fourth quarter in its final game of the season against Grafton. Down by double digits, the game was out of reach for the Indians and all but finished. However, despite the score, their coach had told them to finish straight through.
That mentality hasn't changed throughout the season as they have played with a similar effort even when they are up by 100. It what the eight seniors who have played under Smith for four, five seasons have heard and instilled on the court night in and night out. And with only a few hundred seconds left in the game, their careers as Indians came to a close.
First seniors Jacob LaRock and Jonah Jackson take a seat after substitution. The pair have acted as the Indians' sixth and seventh starters for the team, juicing up Four Winds whenever they needed it. Then Smith called a timeout, seeing the bench and guys on the court switch spots.
In one movement, seniors Brady Cavanaugh, Keyen Omen, Caelen Lohnes, JaeShaun Shaw, and Keldon Keja checked out for the final time for Four Winds. In their place was potentially next season's starting five: junior Jayden Yankton, freshman Deng Deng, junior Jacolby Pearson, freshman Dalen Leftbear and sophomore Kelson Keja, who subbed into his older brother.
The seniors embraced their coaches when they arrived on the bench and sat out the final minute and a half of the game, getting a look at what their squad may look like next season. It wasn't the way that the Indians wanted to end their season, falling to No. 2 Grafton 58-47 in the third place game of the Class B tournament, but fans, coaches, and players aren't defining their season by how they played over the last three days.
"It was a good year," Smith said. "We didn't finish the way we wanted, but we got here, and that was our goal. We reached that goal and finished the season on two losses, but I don't think anyone is going to remember that. I think they're going to remember how good this team was...the two games don't dictate how our seasons went."
Basketball was the stage, but after a pair of losses, Smith echoed sentiments to his team of the life lessons the game teaches them. After losing to Kindred on Friday, Smith told his squad, who felt like the loss was the end of the world, that life goes beyond basketball and that they were going to be ok.
The adversity bug is one that this group has dealt with for the bulk of their careers. Having last year's tournament stripped from them due to the then emergence of COVID-19 in the United States, Four Winds would rally off a 23-1 record to return to the tournament not just for the second straight season, but as the top seed as well.
However, even in the final game of the season, the Indians were still dealing with adversity. Senior center Bronson Walter would sit out the game against the Spoilers after suffering an ankle injury the night prior against the Vikings. Coaches had worked with Walter before the game, seeing if he could run on it, but he told his coaches he would be able to do much. His absence left a void on the court, but nevertheless, Four Winds continued to fight and play through.
"When things don't fall your way, you keep plugging and you keep plugging and you keep plugging. You leave it out on the floor and we did that," Smith said. "If we're going to lose, we're going to lose going down fighting. You just don't give up and that's going to go with life. I told them in the locker room that they are going to have more disappointment than just basketball, especially you seniors. Life is going to be full of disappointments and how you handle that will turn you into a man."
As another season comes to a close for Smith, he said that he puts this season squad up with some of the best to come through the Four Winds program. Smith said Even though they didn't win the title, they are still up there with a squad that won in 2016 and the one that came in second in 2017.
Even before the final buzzer sounded, there was already excited for the Indians squad returning back to the gym next season. Four Winds will be returning one of its star guards in Yankton along with their eighth and ninth men off the bench in Deng and Pearson. Deng, while young, played a saving role in the center position while Walter was out.
Kelson Keja also enters that starting five, taking over the role Keldon has had this season. Keldon said before the tournament that he wanted to set an example for his brother not just in the guard position, but a leadership position so that Kelson would be ready when he stepped into that role.
"They're a really athletic bunch," Smith said. "There's a lot of long arms out there, but aren't the bulkiest bunch, so we'll have to change our game around. They really get after it and it's going to be fun to get those guys on the floor next year. I think they're going to surprise a lot of people."
Despite wins or losses, reservation ball had a major impact on the state-wide stage this season. To add to Four Winds' overall performance this season as one of the two high schools on the Spirt Lake Reservation, Smith would be named NDHSAA Class B Coach of the Year.
The accolades of reservation ball would be heightened even more as White Shield High School, located on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, senior guard Jessie White was named NDHSAA Senior Athlete of the Year and eventually 2021 North Dakota Mr. Basketball. The states third all-time leading scorer has connections to the boys in Fort Totten according to Smith
"Kids on the reservation work just as hard as anyone else," Smith said. "They are great kids. They're tough kids and good kids. Jessie deserved that award and I'm so happy for him. I hope he picks up that last one because he deserves that one too. It would've been fun to see their team in here because a lot of people haven't seen the way he plays and he's amazing."
On the south shore of Devils Lake, the group of 20-ish boys brings the communities of Fort Totten, Minnewaukan, and across Spirit Lake Nation together over the game of basketball. In three days alone, fans decked out in blue and white, with some dying their hair to match the Indians' away jersey, could be spotted all over the Minot State Dome.
"You have a lot of tough issues on the reservation and basketball seems to bring everybody together," Smith said. "It's only a sport, but dang it, if we would've been in the championship game tonight, you would've seen this place just wild. It brings people together and it's just something good in their lives. Sometimes some of these kids don't have anything good to look forward to, so it's something good in their lives. They're going to remember it always."
As the Indians boarded their big white bus at the south entrance of the Minot State Dome, the mood was not as sad as others might think. The Kindred loss was heartbreaking, but the game against Grafton provided closure for Four Winds. Even though they lost, they were still able to get "back to B" closing one chapter in this senior core's lives and opening another.
"They knew this game was coming, so I think the mood was better than it was last night," Smith said. "The best thing about it is their best memories are yet to come. Walking across that stage. Life after. They'll be fine because they are good young men."
Grafton 58, Four Winds/Minnewaukan 47
Grafton - 12, 17, 19, 10 - 58
Four Winds/Minnewaukan - 5, 17, 10, 15 - 47
Grafton -- Albrecht 11 0-2 26, J. Garza 5 2-2 12, Balderas 3 0-0 9, Garza 2 1-1 5, Jiskra 2 0-0 4, Kern 1 0-0 2. Totals 24 3-5 58.
Four Wind/Minnewaukan -- Shaw 5 0-0 13, Lohnes 4 0-0 10, Jackson 4 1-2 10, Yankton 3 2-4 9, Pearson 1 0-0 3, Keja 1 0-0 2. Totals 18 3-6 47.
3-pointers: Grafton 7 (Albrecht 4, Balderas 3). Four Winds/Minnewaukan 8 (Shaw 3, Lohnes 2, Jackson 1, Pearson 1, Yankton 1).