Animas High School produced a high school national champion and one of the nation’s top basketball recruits this year.
Noah Blue Elk Hotchkiss led the Denver Jr. Rolling Nuggets to the team’s first National Wheelchair Basketball Association championship last month. Hotchkiss was dominant in the Louisville, Kentucky, tournament and received Most Valuable Player honors.
The impressive showing prompted the end of an intense recruiting process, as Hotchkiss decided to give his verbal commitment to play basketball at the University of Illinois. He plans on signing his National Letter of Intent next week and will study computer science and mathematics at the Big 10 school in Champaign, Illinois.
“The coach at the University of Illinois has been recruiting me for at least a year,” Hotchkiss said. “I didn’t realize until then that I had a good chance of going to college to play basketball. I’m really excited because they were one of the first high school wheelchair programs all the way back in 1947.”
With all the accolades, highlight reel plays and now a hefty Division I scholarship, it would be easy to assume that Hotchkiss grew up playing wheelchair basketball. In reality, he has less experience than a vast majority of his opponents.
“That’s what amazed most of the college coaches that came to see him play,” Noah’s father Jason Hotchkiss said. “Most of the elite players his age have been playing since they were 4 or 5 years old. Noah has only been playing for a little more than two years. When the coaches found that out, they wanted him even more.”
Hotchkiss was injured in a 2009 car accident when he was 11 years old. He is a T6 paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down. He got involved in adaptive sports after meeting with Farmington’s legendary 2010 Paralympic monoskiing gold medalist Alana Nichols, who also is a gold medalist in wheelchair basketball and played in college at the University of Arizona. Nichols is a three-time Paralympic gold medalist.
“Alana came over and met me when I was first getting into adaptive sports,” Hotchkiss said. “She let me wear her medals and I thought that was the coolest thing. She told me I could become whatever I wanted. I felt really happy about that.”
Like Nichols, Hotchkiss originally had his sights set on a career in monoskiing and became one of the fastest under-18 monoskiers in the world. Instead, he developed a love for wheelchair basketball and chose to pass up the potential danger that comes with monoskiing to test himself on the hardwood.
“This winter, I put up my monoski racing career, because when I weighed my options, I felt like I could get really good at basketball and compete at the next level without risking major injury monoskiing,” he said. “They just go too fast, and one bad break could have ended all of my hopes at college basketball.”
It wasn’t just the danger. The time Hotchkiss spent competing away from home also became unbearable. Numerous monoski events, basketball tournaments and Native American outreach efforts resulted in Hotchkiss attending just 12 days of school last year at AHS between October and April.
“The school has been so accommodating to my efforts,” he said.
“They’ve given me a lot of support over the years and I can’t thank them enough for that. All the travel has made it tough in school, but it also made it tough as a competitor. I love Durango, but it’s just kind of out of the way.”
Denver is the third team Hotchkiss has played on in his three seasons in the NWBA. He played for Phoenix and Albuquerque but got his first title shot with the Nuggets and made the most of it.
Hotchkiss said practice time and team chemistry are difficult to find because most of the players are from areas far from the cities they play for. For example, Denver has players from Durango, Grand Junction and as far east as Kansas.
“It was kind of tough getting used to each team’s playing style and understanding the role I’m supposed to play,” he said. “This year, I finally got to take more of a role I was interested in. I’ve always been a good ball-handler and passer, but this time they looked for me to be the guy to put the ball in the basket.”
Hotchkiss filled his new role just fine.
He led the Rolling Nuggets in scoring in all three tournament games. He was hot down the stretch and led Denver with 20 points and eight assists in the team’s 40-33 comeback quarterfinal win against the Chicago Synergy Rolling Bulls. He followed up with 23 points and seven assists in a 46-41 semifinal victory against the Michigan Rolling Pistons.
The Animas High senior put on a show in the finals against the Peoria (Illinois) Wildcats. Hotchkiss outscored the opponents’ entire team with a career-high 27 points and dished out seven assists in a 45-17 blowout win in the championship game.
Though Hotchkiss was the clear superstar, he emphasized that it was a full team effort and everyone was a contributor.
“It all boiled down to chemistry this time around,” he said. “I’ve played on some teams with guys who have bad tempers that cause the team to get down. This group was all good friends and we just vibed really well together.”
Before heading off to school, Hotchkiss will spend his summer helping Southwest Colorado’s fellow adaptive sports youths.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with the tribal adaptive organization putting on camps over the years,” he said.
“But this year, we want to work more in Durango. We’re hoping to do camps for disabled kids, but we’ll also reach out to the public to raise awareness and introduce the opportunities that come from wheelchair basketball.
“Last week, I did an introduction to wheelchair basketball at Florida Mesa Elementary School. We played for hours and they had so much fun. That’s what it’s all about.”