Wyoming Indian’s victory helps reservation heal

By Jack Nowlin
Casper, Wyoming (AP) 3-09

It was a celebration eight years in the making.

And it’s impact on the Wind River Reservation will likely be felt for years to come.

When Wyoming Indian rebounded Lusk’s final shot at the Casper Events Center, the Chiefs had their first Class 2A Wyoming State High School Basketball Championship since 1981 with a hard-fought 69-61 victory over the Tigers.

And a community that had spent the past two weeks grieving the loss of two of its elders once again had a reason to smile.

In the week before regionals, the Chiefs’ Melvin Villa lost his grandfather, Joe Oldman, and Mylan Glenmore lost his grandmother, Gladys Moss.

“It was real tough times for the whole community, because they weren’t just Mylan’s and Melvin’s family members,” Wyoming Indian coach Craig Ferris said. “They were elders in the community, and that’s a big thing in our community.

“To lose people like that really hits hard. It doesn’t just hit the family, it hits everybody.”

Villa, who’s defense on Lusk’s Cody Gault was a big reason for the Chiefs’ victory, collapsed on the court after the game and later broke down when talking about his grandfather.

“He passed away the day before regionals,” Villa said. “So I did this for him. I took it hard because he used to go to my games ... I did it for him.

“My dad just said that me and (Glenmore) got the power now and we had to use it. He knows that both of them are watching us.”

What they, and the thousands of Wyoming Indian fans in attendance, saw was a team overcoming tragedy and coming together with one purpose – bringing the state title back to Ethete and the reservation.

St. Stephens won Class 1A titles in 2004, ‘05 and ‘07, but the Chiefs remain THE team on the reservation.

“You have to go back to Wyoming Indian High School itself,” Wyoming Indian Elementary School principal Owen St. Clair, who was an assistant coach on the ‘91 team that won it all, said. “When we have games it’s a community. They take these players as their own kids.

“And when we win a state championship, the whole community wins a state championship. You can just see that with the overwhelming support from our community.

“It’s a big deal.”

It was also a big deal for the countless other Chiefs who played in the state tournament but never won a championship.

John Underwood played at Wyoming Indian from 1979-82, but the Chiefs never won more than one game at the state tournament during those years. Now in a wheelchair as a result of an accident two years ago, Underwood watched his son, sophomore Lorenzo Underwood, accept his championship medal after the game.

Moments later, Lorenzo climbed down from the platform, waded through the crowd and placed the medal around his father’s neck.

“I almost broke down and cried,” John said. “I’m glad he got it, because I was hoping one of my boys would get to state.

“It means a lot because my dad, he’s gone now, he always hoped I would get a championship too. So for (Lorenzo) to get one for his grandma and grandpa means a lot.

“I’m just proud of him and the team and what they did.”

Lorenzo, who nearly quit the team two years ago, was just glad that his dad was able to share in the moment.

“I’m just thankful that my dad is still here with me,” Lorenzo said. “I enjoy it when he’s here because we went through a tough time last year. But now he’s feeling good and I’m feeling good, so it’s great to have him at my games so he can watch me.”

Lorenzo was one of the last players to leave the celebration as he signed T-shirts and basketballs and posed for countless pictures with his father and family. Even though he has two seasons remaining to win another state title, it’s doubtful that he or any of his teammates will ever recapture the emotions of Saturday night.

“This is for my grandma,” Glenmore said. “That’s why I did it.

“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be playing, because she pushed me a lot to go out for all sports, even if I didn’t excel in them.”

The championship wrapped up a 28-1 season for the Chiefs and provided a fitting ending to a difficult two weeks.

“It’s one of those things like you’re being challenged in ways that you’re not really used to being challenged,” Ferris said. “In a way I think that everything that happened kind of got us a little bit more focused for regionals, a little bit more focused for state.

“Things like that kind of wake you up and make you realize that life’s not all fun and games.”

Saturday night, though, the Chiefs were able to gather strength from those distractions and turn it into a championship.

“This means a lot,” Wyoming Indian senior Chasky Valdez said. “Because on the reservation basketball is pretty much everything.”