SANTEE, Nebraska — Following back-to-back wins over Native rivals to open the season, Santee basketball coach Waylon LaPlante believed the Warriors had what it took to make the Nebraska boys state basketball tournament.
Thursday, the iSanti Ozuyapi make school history with their first-ever appearance in Nebraska’s Class D-2 tournament, the smallest of the six class brackets in Nebraska. Seventh-seeded Santee, 15-5, opens Thursday against Shelton High School, 22-1.
Santee’s early season wins over Walthill and Omaha Nation set the foundation for a successful season that included winning 11 of its first 12 games and earning a spot in the state’s Top 10 rankings.
“I think it started clicking then that these guys understood we’re good enough to hang with the top dogs and make a run for state,” LaPlante said.
(The Flatwater Free Press is republishing this story from Indian Country Today, the nation’s most well-known Native publication.)
There are also barriers to success: Santee has played the fewest games among the eight teams traveling to Lincoln. The Warriors’ schedule features in-state Native schools, including traditional power Winnebago, as well as five South Dakota schools. It’s not for a lack of trying to schedule in-state schools, LaPlante said.
“Nebraska schools don’t want to play us,” LaPlante said. “Wynot, down the road from us (42 miles to the east on Highway 12) and the No. 1 school in Class D-2, won’t schedule us.”
That may change next season with at least four schools telling him they’re interested, said Santee Superintendent Dave Mroczek.
“They see the quality of play, how good this team is,” he said. “They see our fan support.”
The team’s success has won over some skeptics, LaPlante said.
“Early on, we had our naysayers,” the coach said. “They were saying we couldn’t win, wouldn’t go far. Now, they’re on the bandwagon.”
The bandwagon is now overflowing. Hundreds of Santee fans packed basketball courts at home and on the road. At the district final at Ord – a two-hour drive from the northeast Nebraska reservation – the Santee side of the bench was standing room only.
“I’m supposed to be the first one there, and when I arrived a couple hours before the game, there were at least 100 Santee fans already in the gym,” Mroczek said.
Following the 61-55 win over Mullen, the drive into Santee resembled a nighttime parade, with vehicles following each other with their flashers on, almost in unison.
With hundreds of local fans expected to attend Santee’s history-making game in the opening round, it will fulfill a dream for longtime fans, who have suffered through more than four decades of postseason drought. Santee Community Schools opened more than 40 years ago.
Santee’s bracket starts play Thursday, with the semifinals Friday. All championship games are played Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, home of the University of Nebraska hoops programs.
Santee hasn’t even played for a district title since 1988. That 1987-88 team came close to becoming the first in school history to play in the state tournament, leading Spencer at halftime, before falling in that district final.
“Everyone talks about that team,” said LaPlante, who was nine at the time. “They were leading at halftime and everyone was talking about going to State. Then, they remember the weird calls that went against them in the second half.”
Santee has encountered its share of questionable whistles this season, its coaches say. During the team’s overtime loss to Stuart in a subdistrict game, Tasunka Starlin received a technical for a phantom foul, LaPlante said.
A Stuart player tripped and fell on the court. LaPlante called Starlin over to the bench to discuss strategy when a referee announced the penalty. Both player and coach were surprised.
“I asked the ref what Tasunka did and he wouldn’t tell me,” LaPlante said. “Later, he finally said Tasunka taunted the player.”
Most Indigenous teams are used to competing against two teams on the court, Santee coaches say – the players and the officiating crew.
“We finally got a referee team at the district finals that decided they were going to let the teams play,” LaPlante said. “We only had three or four fouls at halftime. We usually have 17 or 19.”
In the end, it was a pair of trips to the charity line that sealed Santee’s victory. Justus Denney’s 3-pointer late in regulation sent the game into overtime tied at 47-47. Along with a basket by Austin Saul, Denney added four free throws to secure the 61-55 win.
While the 2022-23 season may go down as the greatest in school history, it’s merely the start of a new tradition, LaPlante said.
“We want this to be the first team to make it to state, but not the last,” he said. “We have a lot of really good players who can keep this going for a few more years, at least.”
The current team has played together since childhood. A photo has circulated on local Facebook pages of this group of players winning a tournament at Crofton in 2017 along with a photo of the district champions.
With three seniors starting – Saul, Nunpa Torrez and Marquis Tuttle – the Warriors will lose 47 points per game from its average of 75.2.
The coach isn’t concerned.
“We play eight guys deep, and everyone can score,” LaPlante said. Denney and Starlin combined for an average of about 20 points per game.
While the future looks good for Santee, it will be a challenge to replace Saul. The 6-foot-3-inch center led the state with an average of 27.3 points per game. He scored a school-record 51 points against Tiospaye Topa from South Dakota. Saul lives and breathes basketball, he said.
“I spend extra time after practice shooting,” said Saul, who has been invited to play in an all-star tournament this summer in Barbados.
Without a scholarship offer to a four-year school, Saul is considering playing at a junior college.
Santee’s love for basketball continues to grow, LaPlante said. The school fielded a junior varsity squad for the first time in years, finishing 6-0. The team was coached by Jaylon LaPlante, who serves as his dad’s assistant with the varsity team.
“We’ve struggled in the past,” the elder LaPlante said. “Traditionally, you know, it was just that they would never finish out seasons. Some players would quit at the end. I’ve seen that throughout the 17 years that I was coaching. We would get to that nightmare game. Win or lose. After that, it just kind of died out because guys would be done playing.”
LaPlante, who served as head coach or assistant for 15 years before taking a seven-year break after the 2014-15 season, returned to the bench last year. The Warriors finished 11-11, but set the table for their current success, he said.
While the Warriors are the first team from Santee Community Schools to make the state tournament, a team from the Santee Normal Industrial boarding school played in the 1936 Nebraska state basketball tournament.
As the community prepares to shut down for a few days while the Warriors play in the state tournament, LaPlante knows the future is bright for the iSanti Dakotah Ozuyapi.
“I’m proud of these boys,” LaPlante said. “The town is proud. The tribe is proud. As Kellen (Medina) said to the teams at state, ‘We’re coming.'”
The Flatwater Free Press republished this story with permission from Indian Country Today, the country’s best-known Native publication.