Pendleton — If you know anything about 1A from Central Oregon, then you’re familiar with Nixyaawii. The school is located in Pendleton near the I-84 freeway and primarily serve the Native American population from that particular part of the state. The Golden Eagles are all too familiar to the basketball programs in 1A, as Nixyaawii found themselves in back-to-back state championship games back in 2017 and 2018. Those teams faced off with Molalla 1A powerhouse Country Christian, splitting the results with a roster carried by all-state selections Mary Stewart and Milan Shimmel. Their 68-39 steamroll of Country Christian in 2017 gave the Golden Eagles their second state title in school history (2011), with Nixyaawii falling a mere three points short of back-to-back titles in 2018 against the same Country Christian program. After a few years in a slump and a promising Spring, Nixyaawii has the roster experience and an impressive resume that makes returning to state an expectation in 2022.
Fast forwarding to this season, Nixyaawii has put together some quality games that bolster the type of street credit the program gains in the 1A landscape, with their road dub over 2A #4 Union being the crown jewel of those performances so far. Mersayus Hart stands out as the leader of this team on the floor, demonstrating her ability to take over on both sides of the ball. Hart leads by example: Takes calculated risks on defense to create more possessions, and she takes the ball right to the opposition without fear. She doesn’t settle for anything less than an opportunity at a shot, drawing many fouls in the process of things. Alongside Hart is an army of shooters that decide to play like Iowa State, throw up treys and hope that they stick. The team shoots roughly at a 35% to 40% clip from downtown, making them a difficult outing for opposition that have size advantages. Sistine Moses and Sophie Bronson excel in this department, standing out easily as the Golden Eagles best three-point snipers on the floor.
Nixyaawii is at a size disadvantage in comparison to Crane, Country Christian, Jordan Valley, and Damascus Christian, touting their tallest player at around 5’9″ or 5’10”. With that in mind, Golden Eagles Head Coach Michael BadWarrior has developed a system that adapts to their strengths and puts them on full display. The perimeter centric approach was literally designed with teams like Nixyaawii in mind, it keeps a team that’s undersized competitive by giving them perimeter options to gain points without facing the big middles in the paint. Against Union, seven to eight times out of every ten possessions the Golden Eagles would revert to deep or mid-range jumpers, occasionally driving to the rack with mixed success against a larger Bobcat height lineup. On defense, they clog the paint with a 2-3 zone that forces opponents into lower percentage shots, essentially playing Russian Roulette that the opponent won’t hit more of their shots from deep than they will. It’s not an ideal approach, but it has brought Nixyaawii success this season against bigger teams from the 2A level like Union and Stanfield.
The Golden Eagles should roll through the Old Oregon League and find themselves with a Top 5 seed in the 1A playoffs. Their cold starts defensively, and offensive turnovers are a point of concern. Those types of things get you blown out or in a hole against the cream of the 1A crop, but as Crane, Jordan Valley, and others have demonstrated, they’re just as vulnerable to those issues as Nixyaawii has been. The Golden Eagles must use their league play and other tournaments to work on cleaning up their game, fine tuning it, and ultimately mastering it. They’ve demonstrated their potential and I’m excited for their program, but it’s still a work in progress for them. If they can achieve this by March, then Nixyaawii has a realistic shot at bringing home a blue trophy in 2022. With nine juniors and two seniors, the Nixyaawii will be a program in the mix the next two seasons so keep an eye on the Golden Eagles, as sleeping on them would just simply be a crime…
Footnote: Header image is credited to Nixyaawii Community School!