SANTEE — Tribal schools stick together at state tournament time.
When one or more of the state’s four predominantly Native boys basketball teams makes it to Lincoln, there’s not envy from the rest. Only support.
Winnebago was there four years in a row from 2015-2018, winning its first boys state title in 75 years in 2015. Walthill qualified in 2016, when it advanced to the finals, and again two years ago. Omaha Nation in Macy was last there in 2009.
All those times, the players from Santee — a tribal village tucked away below the Knox County hills leading to the Missouri River — have gotten out to the main highway, traveled down to Lincoln, and cheered on their brothers in basketball.
Could they be next? From a school that never has qualified for the state tournament.
“It would be other Native schools coming to watch us instead of us having to watch them,” said sophomore Kellen Medina. “It would be their turn to support us.”
The Santee (Isanti) Warriors have the state’s most prolific scorer. They have a glittery 13-4 record. They are No. 10 in the Journal Star’s rankings for Class D-2, the division for the smallest schools in the state. They were in their first conference tournament championship game, coming up short in the final minutes against a larger school.
They will host their subdistrict tournament this week. Even if they don’t win, their chances remain strong to advance to the district final round. And possibly host the game that could send them to state.
“I just rewind to hosting the conference semifinals. I mean, that’s historic for us,” Santee boys coach Waylon LaPlante said. “It was just an awesome day for our community.
“Our community couldn’t get over it. At first, they weren’t really buying into believing that this could be the team that gets us to the state tournament. And now that things are more reality, we have more and more people that are buying in. We have a crowd right now that is pumped and amped and they’re loud when we make a basket and right behind us cheering on our kids.”
Santee’s primary scorer is 6-foot-4 senior Austyn Saul. He averages 28 points a game, best in the state by more than two points, with a school-record 51 in a win over Tiospaye Topa, South Dakota, in December. He’ll play in an all-star event in Barbados in June and several small colleges are recruiting him.
Nunpa Torrez is next in scoring, averaging 16 a game. Justus Denney, TaSunka Starlin and Brad Strickland are the other starters. Medina is one of the first to come into games off the bench. Also in that category are Hoksida Wabasha and Marquis Tuttle. Alex Rodriguez, Isaiah Yellowcloud, Christian Torrez, Nate Sutta, Dakota Denney and Jake LaPlante (the coach’s son) are the others on the varsity.
Santee’s style is fast-paced. The night Saul scored 51, Santee scored 112 points, a school record and the state high this season. It hasn’t lost to a team in its classification. The setbacks have been to larger schools — Class C-1 Winnebago and Class C-2 Omaha Nation and Elkhorn Valley.
John Miller’s Stuart Broncos, a good team that’s one spot behind Santee in the Class D-2 rankings, have lost twice to Santee in the past few weeks.
“They have some kids who can ball,” said Miller, who has coached more than 750 victories in boys and girls basketball.
Santee’s unorthodox style on offense — Miller wasn’t sure how to describe it — makes the Warriors hard to guard.
“They move to openings, they penetrate a lot and they can shoot,” he said. “The first time they beat us, it was 84-81 and they hit 18 three-pointers on us. Wow. I was kind of mad, maybe at myself and our defense, then when I watched a film, I swear 12 of them were highly contested threes that they just hit over us.”
Last season, coach LaPlante’s first, the team finished 11-11. Illness went through the squad late in the season, when it lost three of its final four games while being without three of its six best players. Apathy also could have crept up. The coach said he’s noticed through the years that there would be a game late in the season, regardless of the outcome, and the team would lose interest after that.
He doesn’t want to see that in this potentially historic team.
“The No. 1 word we’ve been using this year is focus,” LaPlante said. “For us, as we’re such a small school and come from a small community in the hills, a lot of this stuff is life lessons for them.
“Just the littlest things, they can get upset about or frustrated about and I’m trying to teach them that when that play’s over with, you’re going to move on and look forward. Just like in life, if something goes wrong you always have tomorrow to fix it.”
This is LaPlante’s 17th season on the Santee bench, as an assistant or head coach, since 1999. After a seven-year absence, when there were other coaches, he applied when the head coaching position opened in 2021. His son, Jaylon, is his assistant coach.
LaPlante, 44 this month, has lived in Santee since he was 5. His father, the late Charles LaPlante, moved the family from Lincoln for his job as a substance abuse and mental health counselor for the Santee Sioux Nation. The younger LaPlante played basketball for the Warriors.
He’s been a criminal investigator. Director of security and assistant manager at the tribal casino and hotel. Two years ago, he had a kidney transplant. Now he works in the Dakota Tiwahe Service Unit recruiting foster parents.
So immersed is he in helping his community that he’s one of the three commissioners on the gaming board. He’s a new school board member.
He’s seen growth in the village. Santee’s population grew from 346 to 424 from 2010 to 2020. The school’s historically low graduation rate has turned around, the past two years being 100%. The casino and its Tatanka championship-level golf course, which has received national honors, have been job producers.
“We’re just kind of booming right now. Northeast Nebraska, small Class C-2 casino, there’s people that come from all over the place to check us out because we have nice facilities,” LaPlante said. “Definitely we have a sense of pride, even down to our high school kids that don’t really get into the business part of it.
“But they know we have Feather Hill that gets a lot of customers and they know we have the casino, that they can go off and get a burger and see all the lights and glamour inside the building and then be able to go golf, because that’s our school’s home course.”
Will Santee stay the course on the court, keep its focus and earn its first ticket to the state tournament? Miller, the coach at Stuart, believes it’s possible.
“I think Santee is probably going to be down at state, too, because even if we beat them (in subdistricts) I think they’ll get a good draw for their (district) game,” he said. “They deserve to be there if they get there.”
It would mean everything, Medina said.
“It’s now or never for us,” he said. “That’s what we’re pushing for and hopefully we get there.”
While the Santee Warriors never have been to the state tournament, a team from Santee qualified in 1936.
Its players attended the Santee Normal Training School (1870-1937), which forced assimilation.
A Santee school district was formed in 1976. High school grades were added a year later. School officials say that’s when their athletic history starts.
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