Four Winds/Minnewaukan doing whatever it takes to keep season alive
Last season, the Indians were at the top of the North Dakota basketball world. The team had only lost two games and clinched the No. 1 seed in the 2020 Class B State tournament. A 16 point win over another Region 4 favorite, St. John, punched the Indians' ticket to Bismarck.
However, their state quarterfinals meeting with Richland never happened. The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic cut the state dreams short of the Indians. After having its season cut short, summer scrimmages limited, and a two-week postponement of the start of the 2020-21 season, Four Winds/Minnewaukan has finally returned to the court after nine long months.
"For the boys and girls, they are just excited to be back," Indians head coach Rick Smith said. "Even with the face masks, they don't care. They will do anything to play. It's a little bit odd, but they want to be out there."
The growing process to get back where they were in March is different than in past years. Not only are players working to get back into shape and a groove, but they are adjusting to playing without fans, practicing with masks on and other stipulations put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It's a different environment, but not all of it is bad.
Smith said he's happy to see the kids laughing and smiling again after having to work through the news of their season unexpectedly ending. The news of the two-week postponement brought back more unsettling memories from March, but the return to the court has brought some much-needed excitement back to Four Winds.
"It's been up and down for them," Smith said. "Hopefully we can stay on this positive swing now and keep moving forward. We're hoping that this is a step in the right direction, and it won't seem real until we play that first game...the kids will do anything to keep moving forward."
The effort to say on the court for as long as they can is headed by the senior class: Keldon Keja, Jacob LaRock, Brady Cavanaugh, Keyen Omen, JaeShaun Shaw, Caelen Lohnes, Jonah Jackson, and Bronson Walter.
They were apart of that Four Winds team who had its title dreams taken away in a second and saw the impact of that loss on last year's senior class.
The eight seniors in this program have worked their way up from a young age, like many before them, to get to where they are at today. With a new reality in place, the leadership of the senior class is also focused on keeping their teammates healthy.
"Like any successful program, you have a group of seniors that have put in a lot of time ever since they were young men," Smith said. "They have goals and dreams, and it's hard to see some of that shattered. It's hard to see what they went through last year. They have their fingers crossed, and we're hoping that they can continue to achieve their goals.
"Baby steps" is a phrase that Smith has used in relation to moving back to hopeful normalcy, and one of the biggest factors is fans at games. Rain or shine, the Indians would pack the gym almost every game. That's not happening this season, or at least for now. No fans will be allowed into games, with the only option to watch over NFHS Network. Four Winds players and coaches are hopeful that they can soon start letting fans in, starting with senior parents.
The effort to return goes beyond the players as coaches are asking players and their families to follow COVID-19 precautions to continue the season. Four Winds athletics has already been hit hard by COVID-19 this year as the volleyball team ended its season due to COVID-19 exposure. They were one of the handfuls of programs in the state that has COVID-19 decide the fate of their season.
"Our parents are extremely supportive of our program, and they need to bring that home," Smith said. "You can't tell them what to do, but you can request and ask this of your parents. Hopefully, it's not forever, and it only needs to be this way for a couple of months."
On the court, the Indians are focused on getting back into game shape after so much time off. The new challenge that the program faces this year is that the players haven't had the same outlets to practice and train in the offseason due to COVID-19. Smith said that it's going to be a tiring effort to get back into shape, but it'll pay off.
Working with masks has also presented its challenges to the team, specifically in relation to communication. The players are currently wearing their masks when not exerting high amounts of energy. It's not ideal, but Four Winds is focused on following the NDHSAA's rules to continue playing.
The change hasn't been easy, especially for the younger players, but the Four Winds senior class continues to drive home the mask-wearing policies to start the season. Goals have been accumulated by this senior class for over five years and they are doing whatever it takes to make them a reality.
"We're really lucky we have these seniors on this team," Smith said. "They are going to do whatever they can to play. That means wearing a mask, or a stocking hat, or whatever. They'll be shooting around with their masks on and doing drills with their masks on, but when they are doing some exertion running, they pull the mask down under their chin so they can breathe a little better. They've been adjusting and it hasn't been an issue."
Four Winds has one more week left of practice before taking on Beulah on Dec. 18 at home. While they are returning to the gym in a very different world from March, the Indians are overall just excited to be back and even hungrier for a state title.
"There's a ton of teams that have high expectations for both boys and girls, and all you want to do is get a chance to get out there and play," Smith said. "There's always been that doubt since school started if we're going to play...you've seen the disappointment and teams are wondering is this going to happen again."
"Now that we got started and have guidelines in order to play, we're going to do it. All the kids want to do is participate and play, and are tired of being stuck at home...they're not asking for much and they'll do what it takes."
Four Winds/Minnewaukan schedule
Dec. 18 vs. Beulah
Dec. 21 vs. Ederlin
Dec. 29 at Dickson Trinity
Jan. 2 at Hatton/Northwood
Jan. 7 at Larimore
Jan. 8 vs. Benson County (at Minnewaukan)
Jan. 9 vs. North Star
Jan. 15 at Hillsboro/Central Valley
Jan. 18 vs. New Rockford-Sheyenne
Jan. 21 at Benson County
Jan. 23 at Oak Grove
Jan. 26 at Langdon/Edmore/Munich
Jan. 29 vs. Dakota Prairie (at Minnewaukan)
Feb. 2 at Harvey/Wells
Feb. 4 at Lakota
Feb. 9 vs. Rugby
Feb. 11 vs. Dunseith
Feb. 16 vs. Warwick
Feb. 20 at Shiloh