Making the jump from high school sports to college can be a daunting task for many young athletes.
Making the jump from one of Alaska's smaller schools can be even harder, as the gap might seem like a never-ending chasm for athletes from schools where it may take the entire student body to fill out a roster.
But five Southeast basketball players are making that jump at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and all five got their starts playing for Class 1A or Class 2A high schools with enrollments of fewer than 100 students.
Nate Endicott, a 6-foot-8 junior center-forward from Yakutat, has had the most success at UAF and has started six of the Nanooks' eight men's games this season.
On the women's team are four Southeast players led by Adrienne Taalak, a 5-5 freshman guard from Mount Edgecumbe High School whose home is the tiny North Slope village of Nuiqsut. Taalak has seen action coming off the bench in 10 of UAF's 11 women's games and is the only Southeast female Nanook on scholarship.
Joining Taalak are walk-on players Halane Isidore, a 5-0 sophomore guard from Mount Edgecumbe whose home is the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village of Alakanuk; Courtney Mason, a 5-4 freshman guard who graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School, but got her start playing on the Skagway boys team when the Panthers couldn't field a girls squad her freshman year; and Jessica Peters, a 5-9 freshman forward from Klawock who also made UAF's volleyball squad.
The five Southeast athletes are part of the recruiting strategy of UAF men's coach Al Sokaitis and women's coach Jenny Benson. They want to attract the best athletes for their teams, but it's a big plus if they can grab an Alaska player. There are nine Alaskans on the women's team and eight on the men's roster, and many come from Alaska's smaller schools.
"Absolutely, any time we can get the best players in the state, we want them," Sokaitis said. "I think if you're a good player, you're a good player, no matter how big your school is. The Alaska small school players are overlooked, and we give them a chance to play."
"I will never overlook a kid from a small town, because I came from a small town," said Benson, who said her dream is to have a team capable of beating or matching last year's 20-9 record but have a roster that's entirely from Alaska.
Endicott, a civil engineering major, transferred to UAF three years ago after spending his freshman season playing for Brigham Young University-Hawaii. After sitting out a redshirt transfer year, he played in all 27 games last season (starting about half of them) as the Nanooks posted a 10-17 record and went 9-9 in the Pacific West Conference. Endicott averaged 3.4 points a game and 2.9 rebounds last year in his role as a banger in the paint.
This year, UAF is in a rebuilding year with only four returners and the Nanooks have struggled to an 0-8 record. Endicott is averaging 4.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists a game, but Sokaitis said Endicott's biggest contribution is his leadership as one of UAF's older players.
"Nate's upside is he works so gosh-darn hard and he gets everything done you need in order to win," Sokaitis said. "His downside is he doesn't play as much in the off-season as some of the other players, but that could be from not having as many good players around where he lives. What he does from September to April is outstanding, it just takes him a while to round into shape. His real advantage is he makes everyone play harder because of his work ethic, and he's been a good defender and a good leader by example."
Endicott said he understands his role with the Nanooks, and he enjoys playing for UAF.
"I'm pretty much like a garbage man," Endicott said of his role in the paint, grabbing rebounds and putting missed shots back up for a second-chance score. "I'm trying to make sure the offense gets going and trying to be a leader. We have a really good group of guys, and we all get along really well. We're trying to get a start going to our season, and once that happens I think we'll get going pretty good."
When he was in high school, Endicott said the biggest player he faced was about 6-foot-3 and many players were smaller than 6-0. In men's college basketball, a 6-3 player might be the shortest person on the court. During NCAA Division II UAF's first part of the schedule, when the Nanooks played several NCAA Division I teams, Endicott frequently guarded 7-footers.
The adjustment to playing against the larger, and quicker, college players means many small-school athletes need to take a redshirt year. In a redshirt season, players aren't on the game roster but they practice with the team and later they can have a fifth year of eligibility. That extra year of eligibility also can help small-school athletes adjust to the pressures of college classes and can give them an extra opportunity to complete their degrees.
Endicott said an advantage UAF has over the University of Alaska Anchorage is a smaller, more-involved campus. UAA is considered more of a commuter school than UAF, and that can make it a harder adjustment for students from smaller towns.
"That makes it easier to adapt to the team, when you've got another guy from Tanana and last year we had a guy from (Soldotna's) Cook Inlet Academy," Endicott said. "There's a lot more of a community at UAF, and coming from a small town like Yakutat there's more like a home atmosphere. I've enjoyed playing in the Top of the World Classic, but the players I got to play with and the camaraderie, that's been the best aspect of it all."
On the women's team, which has a 7-4 record, Benson said she's been impressed with Taalak's contributions as a freshman. Taalak, a shooting guard, is averaging 2.9 points a game, 1.4 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 12.2 minutes a game.
"Adrienne's a great shooter and she's probably the smartest freshman I've ever had about basketball situations," Benson said. "She's great at picking up on things. She's going to be a great player, and if she doesn't break out later this year, look for her to do it next year."
Mason and Isidore are both competing for the back-up point guard position, but they have two older players ahead of them on the depth chart. Both have seen action in just one game, with Isidore scoring three points and Mason going scoreless. Benson said she talked to Mason about taking a redshirt year, but Mason told her she thought she could move up to the second spot on the depth chart by the end of the season (Isidore used her redshirt season last year).
"Courtney feels she can be the back-up point guard, and I like that attitude," Benson said. "Her only problem is she hasn't been in the program for a couple of years where she could learn the system, so she's dealing with the learning curve. Once she becomes a leader and more mature in our system, her ability is way up there. Halane is the smallest player on the floor, but she can shoot it and make things happen. She understands the system."
Peters was a late arrival to the basketball team because of the overlap with the volleyball season, so she hasn't seen any game action yet. Benson said Peters has helped give the Nanooks a much-needed forward in practice, especially since many of her other players have class commitments that cause them to miss some practices. She also said she wouldn't keep anyone on the team if she didn't think they would ever play.
"Jessica's got a nice-looking shot and she's much bigger than the other walk-ons," Benson said. "Her work ethic is great. Her only drawback is she's a 'tweener, she's small for a 4 (power forward) and she's not really a guard either, so that limits her a bit."
University of Alaska Anchorage sophomore guard Tanya Nizich (Juneau-Douglas) scored five points, grabbed two rebounds and made two assists on Wednesday as UAA dropped an 82-54 decision to Montana State-Billings. Nizich is second on the Seawolves (3-6 overall) in scoring with 10.6 points a game, plus she averages 2.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists a game.
Santa Clara University senior guard Caroline Gruening (Juneau-Douglas) scored seven points and dished out four assists on Friday as the Broncos (9-2 overall) beat Portland State 73-49 for its fifth straight victory. On Wednesday, Gruening scored 16 points, grabbed six rebounds and added five assists as Santa Clara beat Temple 86-66. This season, Gruening is averaging 10.7 points a game, 3.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.0 steals per game, not including Friday's game.
University of Portland freshman forward-guard Amber Beardslee (Petersburg) made the team as a walk-on and has seen limited action this season for the Pilots (6-3 overall). Beardslee has seen action in two games, but has yet to score.
Pacific University senior guard Louise Walcott (Klawock) is starting to round herself back into playing shape after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in her knee near the end of last season. Walcott has played in five of Pacific's nine games (4-5 overall) and is averaging 4.6 points a game, with 2.4 assists and 1.0 rebounds. Last year she averaged 6.9 points a game before her knee injury. Walcott scored nine points in Pacific's 82-64 loss to Pacific Lutheran on Dec. 15.
Southern Oregon University junior forward-center Jaime Stanford (a Haines resident who attended Mount Edgecumbe) sprained her ankle on Dec. 14, but has still started all 10 of the Red Raiders' games. Stanford is averaging 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds a game for Southern Oregon (5-5 overall), and has led her team in scoring once and in rebounding five times this season.
Southwestern Oregon Community College's roster features six Alaskans, including freshman wing Amanda Kolanko (Ketchikan). No stats were available for the Lakers.
Biola University senior forward Nate Strong (Tenakee Springs) was listed as a preseason third-team all-NAIA all-American by Street & Smith's magazine. Strong is averaging 14.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists a game for the NAIA Division I No. 3 Eagles, who are undefeated at 11-0 this season.
Colorado School of Mines sophomore guard-forward Evan Tromble (Juneau-Douglas) has seen action off the bench in all seven games for the Orediggers (3-4 overall). Tromble is averaging 2.1 points and 2.4 rebounds a game.
Duke University junior center-power forward Carlos Boozer Jr. (Juneau-Douglas) earned ACC Player of the Week honors on Dec. 3. Boozer is averaging 17.0 points and 8.4 rebounds a game for the top-ranked and undefeated defending NCAA Division I national champion Blue Devils (10-0 overall).
Fresno State University senior sprint freestyle specialist Jesie Lewis (Juneau-Douglas) has twice earned Swimmer/Diver of the Meet honors for the Broncos this season. Lewis is second on the team with 14 top-three finishes this year, including four event victories. She has Fresno State's top times in the 50-yard freestyle (24.11 seconds) and 100 free (52.49), plus she ranks third in the 200 free (1:56.16) and third in the 100 backstroke (1:00.69). She also holds the school records in the 50 free (23.76) and the 100 free (51.55), both set last season.
Northern Colorado University sophomore individual medley/breaststroke specialist Hannah Robus (Juneau-Douglas) is swimming for the Bears again this season. No results were available for Robus.
Western Illinois University sophomore breaststroke/individual medley specialist Travis Watson (Sitka) and junior sprint freestyle specialist Ty Westre (Petersburg) both earned second-team all-conference honors after the Leathernecks took second place in the Mid-Continent Conference Championships on Nov. 28-Dec. 1. Watson and Westre, who were honored for their relay work, were both recruited by former WIU coach Jerry Champer (former Petersburg High coach), who is now a volunteer assistant for the University of Georgia. Watson took third place in the 200-yard breaststroke, took third in the 200 individual medley and was sixth in the 100 breast, plus he was a member of WIU's second-place team in the 400 medley relay and WIU's third-place 200 medley relay team. Westre took seventh place in the 100-yard freestyle, won the B Final (ninth place) in the 200 free and took 12th place in the 50 free, besides being a member of WIU's second-place teams in the 800 freestyle relay and 400 free relay, and Westre was on WIU's third-place team in the 200 free relay.
Auburn University sophomore sprint freestyle specialist Derek Gibb (a Juneau resident who attended Petersburg High) should become eligible to swim his first meet for the Tigers in January, after completing his transfer requirements from Golden West Community College of California. Gibb set the California junior college record in the 50-yard freestyle in the 1999-2000 season and narrowly missed the national record.
Seattle University junior distance freestyle specialist Sean Seaver (Ketchikan) won the 1,000-yard freestyle and took fifth place in the 100 backstroke to help the Red Hawks win a Nov. 16 tri-meet with Linfield College and Evergreen State College. Seaver transferred to Seattle from Drury University this summer.
Pacific University's roster features junior 141-pounder Josh Bonk (Juneau-Douglas) and sophomore 165-pounder Anthony Lindoff (Hoonah). Lindoff took fifth place in the Pacific Senior Open on Nov. 24. No results are available for Bonk.
Southern Oregon University sophomore 149-pounder Gary Reid (Juneau-Douglas), who is taking this year off to heal from a knee injury and help coach the Juneau-Douglas High School team, went to a meet on Nov. 17 and pinned unattached wrestler Kenny Prewitt and won by injury default over Alden Lee of Nevada-Reno. At the same meet, Southern Oregon University 285-pounder Seth Wilson (Juneau-Douglas) lost a 6-3 decision to teammate John Fisher, who attended Service High School.
Pacific Lutheran University senior 197-pounder Jasen Bennie (Ketchikan) is 0-2 since joining the wrestling team after the Lutes' football season ended with a 31-6 NCAA Division III playoffs quarterfinal loss to St. John's College on Dec. 1. Bennie played defensive line for the Lutes this season and had 15 solo tackles, 19 assisted tackles, eight tackles for losses and three sacks.
William Woods University senior midfielder JaLynda Adair (Juneau-Douglas) earned academic all-American Midwest Conference honors for the third time in her career with the Owls this year. Adair, a psychology and sports medicine double-major, scored two goals and had six assists for WWU.
The Juneau Empire's College Corner feature runs about once or twice a month during the school year and features updates on college athletes from Southeast Alaska at their schools around the country. It is compiled by sports editor Charles Bingham from university Web sites, information from local coaches and tips from interested readers. If you know of a college athlete from Southeast Alaska who should be included in the next College Corner feature, please fax the info to 1-907-586-3028 (attention sports) or send it by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (please no text attachments).