Two new teams are eager to start a new season in front of their home fans on a special night for the Fort Lewis College basketball programs.
The men’s and women’s teams will hit the floor in their home openers Wednesday night in a doubleheader against Northern New Mexico. Both Skyhawks teams have rebuilt rosters from a year ago, but both have the same lofty expectations as always.
Fans of Fort Lewis will have plenty to cheer about during the game when they get their first look at the Skyhawks. They’ll also get their first look at the newly repainted court inside Whalen Gymnasium as well as a new video scoreboard installed only weeks ago thanks to the support of an anonymous donor.
“The scoreboard adds another element to the Whalen,” FLC men’s coach Bob Pietrack said. “It’s a historic Division II venue, and we’ve dressed it up the last few years between the new bleachers, the scoreboard, and we also painted the floor. Hopefully, from the fans’ point of view, it’s an event you want to be at.”
Both teams have recorded introduction videos, while the FLC athletic department has been hard at work learning the ins and outs of what is possible with the new video board. It went up in place of the old scoreboard and is much larger.
“It’s a big, exciting new toy,” FLC women’s coach Jason Flores said. “It shows commitment and people caring about the basketball programs that they’re willing to donate so much to try to improve things. We’re thankful for that. Once we get it up and running, fans will want to come early to games. They’re gonna love the intro hype videos, and I think it brings an entertainment factor that’s more in line with the way basketball is now. It’s obviously not an NBA arena, but there’s entertainment value to it and makes fun games even funner.”
Along with the home opener for both teams, it is FLC’s Nike N7 game. FLC is one of only 11 schools selected to participate in the program, including Florida State, Haskell Indian Nations University, Marquette, Mesa Community College, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma State, Oral Roberts, San Diego State and Stanford.
Nike N7 games correspond with Native American Heritage Month. The N7 Fund began in 2009 and supports sports and physical activity programs in Native American and Aboriginal communities and has contributed $5.6 million to 243 communities and organizations to reach more than 420,000 youths.
FLC will wear custom turquoise jerseys during the games, and there will also be special presentations from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Color Guard and Native American dance performances at halftime of both games.
It is a special night for six FLC women’s players with Native American heritage, including Tanisha Begay, Ilyssa Galindo, Kayla Herrera, Kalian Mitchell, Noni Thomas and Morningrose Tobey.
“We actively recruit the Four Corners area,” Flores said. “I grew up watching and then recruiting Rez Ball. I love it. We have six Native American players on our team, and it’s great representations and stands for everything that N7 is about through educating youth on reservations through sports.
“The girls we have on the team are role models in their communities and to younger kids who look up to them. It’s a heavy burden, but they’re such great people that they embrace that and it’s important to them and they want to give back to their communities. Having them playing college basketball and represent that, for us it carries a lot of meaning.”
Playing Northern New Mexico is a perfect time for the N7 games, Flores said. The Eagles feature several Native American players, several from the Four Corners. That should lead to a big crowd for Wednesday night’s game.
“We wanted to do this with them,” Flores said. “Coach (Tony) Gallegos does a really good job recruiting Native American players, as well. It’s only fitting they get to be involved and honor all the same things.”
After the womens’ game at 5:30 p.m., the men’s game will follow in what should be a good contest, despite Northern New Mexico’s NAIA status. The Eagles (3-2) have a 76-61 win against the Skyhawks (1-1) in what was an exhibition for the Skyhawks on Nov. 2 in Espanola, New Mexico.
Pietrack’s team is fresh off a weekend split at the New Mexico Classic in Albuquerque, with a big win against Eastern New Mexico before a tough loss to Western New Mexico behind a brutal free-throw shooting performance. An angry FLC team will hit the floor at Whalen Gymnasium, where the team has gone 48-2 under Pietrack the last three seasons.
“Although we’re going to have a lot of new faces, we want to keep our standard the same,” Pietrack said. “We don’t talk about winning and losing as much as we want to play hard and together and be a team that not only Fort Lewis College but the community of Durango can root for because of the quality of people we have.”