Even before he set foot on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, last week, Metlakatla basketball star Chris Bryant knew there was something special about the school.
"I was on the plane from Denver to visit the campus on the recruiting trip, and I was sitting next to all these people from Iowa," Bryant said of his visit. "All they kept talking about was how things were changing at Drake with the basketball program and that everyone was going to their games. Before I even got there I was really excited to see what I could do."
Now, the senior forward from tiny Metlakatla High School has earned his chance.
After four years of thrilling crowds in Southeast and helping the Chiefs win their first Region V championship in 16 years last season, the first-team all-state selection signed his national letter of intent Sunday to play for the Drake Bulldogs.
Bryant becomes the first basketball player in Metlakatla history to sign with an NCAA Division I program, and also serves as the first Division I signee from Southeast since Carlos Boozer of Juneau-Douglas signed with Duke in April 1999.
"It feels great just to have everything done," said Bryant, who was contacted throughout his senior season by interested schools. "I really think Drake is a good fit for me. They told me I had the opportunity to play and to potentially start, but that the workload would be on me. And I liked that challenge."
The 6-foot-2 inch Bryant was named to the Anchorage Daily News/Alaska Media's 3A all-state first team following his senior season, during which the Chiefs posted a 24-4 record overall. The Chiefs finished fifth in the state tournament.
"I'm very happy for him and for his family," Metlakatla coach Josh Muehlenkamp said. "Christopher has always wanted to achieve some tough goals, and this is the first part of that coming true for him. When he gets the chance to play against very competitive players every day and with a coaching staff that will help him grow as a player, he will become an even better player than he's been for us."
Drake is a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, a 10-team league with members including frequent NCAA tournament qualifiers Southern Illinois and Creighton. The Bulldogs went 12-16 last season.
Drake assistant coach Chris Davis - who championed Bryant's recruitment after he saw the Chiefs' star play over three days in an Amateur Athletics Union All-Star tournament in Houston in mid-April - said the jump from Class 3A Metlakatla to Drake will be a tough one.
"For the most part, everyone in this conference was the best player on his high school team," Davis said. "And some guys had the talent in high school to just coast through, but we didn't see that in Chris. I think he realizes everyone will be fighting for a spot here."
After months of receiving attention from schools such as Creighton, the University of Alaska Anchorage, North Carolina's Gardner Webb and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Drake slid into the picture less than a month ago, when Davis contacted Bryant about a potential scholarship and roster spot with the Bulldogs.
Before that phone call, Bryant said he was almost certainly headed to UAF to play for the Division II Nanooks, as Muehlenkamp did in the mid-90s.
Newly-hired UAF head coach Frank Ostanik visited Bryant in Metlakatla to offer a full scholarship not long before Bryant made a trip to play in Houston in front of collegiate coaches like Davis.
"It would have worked out at UAF, but when Drake called, it was exciting," Bryant said. "I wanted to go as big as I could, and play with the best players I could."
"From the first day I got here, Chris has always talked about playing Division I basketball," Muehlenkamp said. "During his freshman year, I think he'll develop into a much better basketball player if he's willing to sacrifice and keep his goals straight. And I told their coaches that if that happens like you would expect it would with Chris, they're going to come up with a real steal by recruiting him."
Davis watched Bryant play with a team of prep players from California during the all-star tournament in Houston, and said that he was impressed with Bryant's physical play, shooting touch and strong rebounding.
"He has a tremendous upside," Davis said. "When you go to one of those AAU tournaments you see a lot of good players, but not a lot of them are willing to get on the floor for loose balls the way Chris did or who show that level of desire and work ethic. We just felt that he would really fit well into our system."
Davis then returned to Des Moines and brought up Bryant's name to head coach Tom Davis, who joined Drake in 2003 after establishing himself as the winningest coach in University of Iowa history in 13 years with the Hawkeyes.
Bryant said that although he didn't work out for the Drake coaches on the four-day recruiting trip last week, he did get to meet current players and speak with Tom Davis at length.
"He even talked about playing at the next level, and that was amazing," Bryant said. "When you have a well-respected coach that talks to you about what you can do and how to improve, you listen."
Two things changed when Bryant signed his letter of intent over the weekend and returned to Metlakatla on Sunday. He became an instant celebrity, and he began focusing on a rigorous workout schedule suggested by Drake's coaching staff.
"After I got back to town I went down to the courts to shoot hoops with my buddies, and every time they made a play on me they'd say stuff like, 'oooh, I just blocked a Division I player!'" Bryant said. "They were just being themselves."
Bryant started his new workout regiment on Monday with Muehlenkamp, and Chris Davis said the work should help Bryant make the transition into Division I a smoother one.
"You don't need to be bulking up in our system, because we press and run a lot," Chris Davis said. "It caters to guys that are good high school players. We'd like him to be wiry-strong, and for him to bring his jumpshot with him."
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