After the way his dream season ended last year at Montana State-Billings, Nate Strong of Tenakee Springs is just happy to have another chance at playing college basketball, even if he did have to transfer to Biola to continue his college career.
Strong, a 26-year-old, 6-foot-4 junior forward majoring in elementary education and PE, had to sit out the first part of this year's basketball season after becoming caught up in a complicated rules issue with the NCAA last year.
Since he became eligible to play for the Biola Eagles on Jan. 1, Strong's moved into the team's scoring lead at 18.4 points a game and is second in rebounds at 8.4 a game (he had 29 points and 10 rebounds Thursday night in a 77-74 loss to Azusa Pacific). In the 11 games Strong's been able to play this season, including two where he came off the bench, Strong led the Eagles in scoring seven times and in rebounding six times. Considering Biola's depth -- six players average in double-figure scoring -- Strong has made a major impact for the Eagles, who are ranked fourth in the current NAIA Division I poll with a 17-4 record.
"It was kind of disappointing to have to leave Montana," Strong said during a recent phone interview from Biola's campus in the Los Angeles suburb of La Mirada, Calif. "I loved it there. It was a lot like Alaska. But I like it here, too. There's some great basketball being played here. That's the big reason I came down here when I found out I'd have to sit out as much I would have if I stayed at MSU-Billings."
"We knew he'd fit in well," Biola coach Dave Holmquist said. "He's such a likable guy. He works hard. We knew he'd fit in once he became eligible. He'd been practicing with the team and they knew he'd be playing a lot later in the season. He's done a good job offensively, but he still needs to work on his defense. He's rebounded well. He's delightful to coach and he's very team oriented."
Strong was the recruiting find of the season last year in NCAA Division II basketball as he scored 21.0 points and grabbed 6.8 rebounds a game for the Yellowjackets. But Strong was a virtual unknown when he arrived at MSU-Billings after playing just one year for Skagit Valley Community College in Mount Vernon, Wash., and no high school ball in Tenakee Springs, a tiny community of 105 people on Chicagof Island southwest of Juneau.
After high school, where the only other student his senior year was his younger brother Uriah, Strong worked as a logger in Hoonah and he played recreational basketball. Until he arrived at Skagit Valley, Strong's only true basketball experience came when he played for the Hoonah-based team Kooteeya, which plays in Juneau's Ordway League, and he played for the Hoonah Totems in Juneau's 1998 Gold Medal Tournament, where he scored 53 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in a 93-91 championship-game loss to the Haines Merchants.
Strong was having a dream season when he arrived at MSU-Billings, including back-to-back games where he scored 37 points against the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves and 41 points against the UA Fairbanks Nanooks. But it was against the Nanooks that his dream season started to turn into a nightmare.
Somebody from UAF noticed Strong and thought he looked familiar. Even though he didn't play basketball, Strong briefly attended UAF for three semesters in 1992-93. But whenever he made repeated requests for his transcripts, UAF said it had no record of a Nathan Strong attending the school.
Those transcripts mysteriously reappeared toward the end of last season, when UAF and MSU-Billings were getting ready to play their second game of the season, and that was enough to put Strong in violation of an obscure NCAA rule. The 4-2-4 rule states that a student-athlete who starts classes at a four-year college then transfers to a two-year institution, must either earn an associate degree or sit out a full year before attending a different four-year institution.
When UAF continually said it had no record of his having ever attended the school, Strong didn't declare his three semesters there when he decided to go to Skagit Valley. He was going to leave Skagit Valley when his money ran out after one season, but he was offered a basketball scholarship to MSU-Billings the next year even though he hadn't finished his associate degree. When Skagit Valley finally got his UAF transcript and saw his credits, it immediately gave Strong an associate degree.
But the degree came too late.
Strong was already considered in violation of the 4-2-4 rule and was suspended by the NCAA. He missed the final couple of games for MSU-Billings last year, as the school imposed its own suspension when it self-reported the infraction to the NCAA. Then the NCAA said Strong would have to sit out the first 25 of the 27 games on the Yellowjackets' 2000-2001 schedule and, because of how many credits he had earned, Strong would also have to miss the first semester of the 2001-2002 season.
So, with MSU-Billings coach Craig Carse's blessing, Strong was urged to transfer to an NAIA school where he would only have to sit out half a season.
"It would be selfish on our part to ask him to stay," Carse told the Billings Gazette when Strong's transfer to Biola was announced in August. "He's played two years of organized basketball (Skagit and MSU-B). This gives him a chance to play almost two full seasons."
"Coach Carse didn't have to do this, but he wanted what was best for me," Strong said.
Carse called Holmquist and said Strong was looking to transfer and wanted to play for Biola, which is a Christian school (it used to be known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). Holmquist hadn't seen Strong play, but he didn't have far to go to get a scouting report. Holmquist talked to former point guard Josh Lockhart of Juneau, who graduated last year after leading Biola to the NAIA semifinals where Biola lost in four overtimes to Georgetown, Ky. (Life College of Georgia beat Georgetown, Ky., by two points in the NAIA championship game).
"I hadn't seen him play, but I talked to Josh about him and Josh thought Nate could play for us," said Holmquist, whose assistant coach and head recruiter is former Anchorage Christian Schools player Shane Rinner. "I knew I could trust Josh's opinion of him. When I talked to him (Strong) on the phone, I knew I liked him right away. He's a strong, driven competitor, but he's also a nice person and he's humble."
Strong will be able to finish out this season with Biola and will be able to play a full season next year. Even though he is a Christian, Strong doesn't think he'll be able to take the Bible classes required to graduate from Biola. So he'll probably return to MSU-Billings after his basketball eligibility is exhausted so he can complete his degree and do his student teaching.
"I'm just happy to be playing again," Strong said. "I always wanted to play, but I didn't have the money to go to school. I logged for a couple of years and saved what I could, and that's what got me to Skagit Valley. I'm not surprised I've had success here, because I'd had success at Montana State-Billings. I definitely need to work on my defense, but this is a big-time defense team and I can improve on everything."
University of Alaska Anchorage senior forward-center Shaun O'Shea, a Juneau resident who attended high school in Virginia, was one of five Seawolves to post a GPA of 3.0 or higher for the fall semester. O'Shea, a walk-on education major who comes off the bench, has seen his playing time increase lately and he has been scoring better than his 1.6 points a game average. He had five points in a victory over Western New Mexico on Jan. 19 and added four points in a victory against WNM on Jan. 20, then had four points and four rebounds in a loss to Montana State-Billings on Jan. 22.
University of Alaska Fairbanks junior forward-center Nate Endicott (Yakutat) is averaging 3.4 points a game 2.8 rebounds a game for the Nanooks in a role that has seen him start about half of UAF's games. Endicott, a civil engineering major, scored eight points in a loss to MSU-Billings on Jan. 19 and had six points in another loss to MSU-Billings on Jan. 20.
Ryan Lane (Sitka) is an off-guard for Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif. No stats were available for Lane.
Colorado School of Mines freshman guard Evan Tromble (Juneau-Douglas) is starting to see action for the Orediggers after riding the bench through most of the team's early games this season. Tromble scored six points (his first points of the season) and grabbed two rebounds in a victory over Colorado College on Jan. 23.
University of Alaska Anchorage freshman guard Tanya Nizich (Juneau-Douglas) was one of nine Seawolves to post a GPA of 3.0 or better for the fall semester. Nizich is coming off the bench as a reserve off-guard, and she is averaging 2.4 points a game. Nizich scored five points in a victory over Western New Mexico on Thursday, but was scoreless in a victory over Montana State-Billings on Saturday.
Freshman guard Halane Isidore (Mount Edgecumbe) is redshirting with the University of Alaska Fairbanks basketball team.
Freshman forward Tricia Young (Sitka) is playing for the University of California-San Diego, where she's seen limited action off the bench. Young has only played in two games so far, with one rebound and one assist for the Tritons.
Sophomore guard Andrea Benner (Ketchikan) and freshman center Lillian Gordon (Mount Edgecumbe) are both playing for Southwestern Oregon Community College. The two are among five Alaskans currently playing for the Lakers. No stats were available for Benner or Gordon.
Junior guard Caroline Gruening (Juneau-Douglas) scored 13 points, dished out six assists and grabbed three rebounds Saturday as the Santa Clara Broncos beat Gonzaga to take over the lead in the West Coast Conference. On Thursday, Gruening scored six points and dished out four assists as Santa Clara beat Portland. Gruening, a former walk-on who is now a starter, is averaging 11.1 points and 3.2 assists a game for the Broncos this season.
Sophomore guard Kiersten Smith (Juneau-Douglas) has left the Pacific Lutheran University basketball team for the remainder of the season due to "personal reasons," a school spokesman said. Smith, who transferred to PLU from Whatcom Community College in Washington, played in 10 games and averaged 3.0 points and 1.0 steals a game. She is expected to return to the team next season, the spokesman said.
Louise Walcott (Klawock), a junior guard at Pacific University in Oregon, scored 13 points before injuring her knee against Linfield two weekends ago. Walcott, who has missed the Boxers two games since her injury, was the team's second-leading scorer with 8.3 points and 3.1 rebounds a game. The team expects to know more about the extent of Walcott's injury later this week.
Southern Oregon sophomore center-forward Jaime Stanford (Mount Edgecumbe/Haines) has picked up her scoring average since a finger she broke earlier this season has healed. Stanford, whose season scoring average is 7.2 points a game, has been the second-leading scorer on the team at 11.2 points a game and the team's top rebounder at 6.3 a game since the Red Raiders entered conference play.
Wisconsin walk-on redshirt freshman middle blocker Anya Carlson-Van Dort (Juneau-Douglas) was on the sidelines as the Badgers lost the NCAA Division I national championship match to Nebraska, 15-9, 9-15, 7-15, 15-2, 15-9, on Dec. 16 in Richmond, Va. Carlson-Van Dort wasn't able to play as part of her redshirt season, but she practiced with the national runners-up and helped prepare the team for its most successful season (33-4) in school history. "At this point, we plan on having her back next year," Wisconsin coach Pete Waite said of Carlson-Van Dort. "She has not earned a scholarship yet, but she did make a lot of progress on and off the court. Her freshman year has been filled with situations that have challenged her and helped her realize the discipline necessary to compete at this level. I expect the spring training sessions will help her a lot because the players get more individual attention." A school spokeswoman said the team typically decides on which players earn scholarships during the spring training sessions, so there is still a chance Carlson-Van Dort could earn a scholarship for next year.
Montana walk-on redshirt freshman center James White (Juneau-Douglas) was on the sidelines as the Grizzlies lost the NCAA Division I-AA national championship game to Georgia Southern 27-25 on Dec. 16 in Chattanooga, Tenn. White practiced with the team, but wasn't able to play this year. He said he expects to play for the Grizzlies next year where he could be the second or third center on the team's depth chart. White, who is listed as 6-foot-1, 280 pounds, said he dropped his weight to 261 by the end of the season. "But I'm a lot stronger," White said.
Sophomore sprint-freestyle specialist Ty Westre (Petersburg) and freshman breaststroke-individual medley specialist Travis Watson (Sitka) are both swimming for the Western Illinois Leathernecks, who are coached by former Petersburg High School coach Jerry Champer. Westre has the team's second-fastest times in the 50-yard freestyle (22.47 seconds) and the 100 free (49.95). Watson has the team's second-fastest times in the 100 breast (1:00.62), 200 breast (2:18.50) and 200 IM (2:03.00).
Drury University sophomore distance-freestyle specialist Sean Seaver (Ketchikan) took second place in the 1,650-yard freestyle Jan. 19 as Drury beat Ouachita Baptist iin a dual meet.
Fresno State junior freestyle specialist Jesie Lewis (Juneau-Douglas) posted a season-best time Saturday as she won the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 24.34 seconds in a dual-meet loss to Oregon State, plus she won the 100 free in 53.17 for her two individual events of the meet. Lewis also helped the Bulldogs' 200 medley relay team and 200 free relay team both claim second place finishes in the meet.
Senior distance-freestyle and individual medley specialist Chelsea Colliver (Sitka) and junior breaststroke-individual medley specialist Carly Van Aart (Ketchikan) are both swimming for Linfield College in Oregon. Colliver has the Wildcats' top time this season in the 1,650-yard freestyle (19:40.04) and also ranks second in the 500 free (5:38.72), third in the 1,000 free (11:54.19), fourth in the 200 free (2:08.22), third in the 200 backstroke (2:27.49), third in the 200 IM (2:27.07) and third in the 400 IM (5:13.94). Van Aart, who missed the first half of the season while on an overseas study trip to Costa Rica, ranks third on the Wildcats in the 100 breaststroke (1:16.75) and fourth in the 100 back (1:10.53).
Sophomore sprint-freestyle specialist Derek Gibb (a Petersburg graduate who now lives in Juneau) is swimming for the Golden West Community College swim team again this season. Gibb, who was one of five Alaskans to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials last August, doesn't start his college season until the second week of February. Last year Gibb won the California Junior College state championships in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 free and his 50 free time was within a fraction of a second of the national junior college record for the event.
Junior Josh Bonk (Juneau-Douglas) is competing at 141 pounds and freshman Orion Bloom (Juneau-Douglas) is competing at 149 pounds for Pacific University of Oregon this season. Through meets of Jan. 12, Bonk had a 3-2 record and Bloom was 0-2 for the Boxers.
Senior Jasen Bennie (Ketchikan) is competing at 197 pounds for Pacific Lutheran University this year. No season record was available for Bennie, who took fifth place in the Great Lakes Regional last year.
Sophomore Seth Wilson (Juneau-Douglas) is competing at 197 pounds and freshman Gary Reid (Juneau-Douglas) is competing at 149 pounds for Southern Oregon University this year. No individual records were available for Wilson or Reid.
The Juneau Empire's College Corner feature is compiled by sports editor Charles Bingham from college Web sites and tips from local coaches and readers. College Corner runs about once or twice a month. If you know of a college athlete from Southeast Alaska who should be included in a future College Corner feature, please fax the information to 1-907-586-3028 (attention sports) or you can e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org (please do not send any text attachments).