The Nixyaawii Golden Eagles once again lived up to their name. But the girls’ high school basketball squad also went a couple of steps further this season and also made a bit of history.
For the second straight year the Golden Eagles, who are based in Pendleton, Or., managed to win their district crown, named the Big Sky Conference.
The Nixyaawii club then went on to capture their Oregon state 1A crown on Mar. 5. The Golden Eagles thumped a squad named Hosanna Christian 75-50 in the state final, staged in Baker City.
This marked the first time in the school’s seven-year history that the Golden Eagles captured the state championship.
“It felt amazing,” said Chelsey Minthorn, one of the Nixyaawii captains. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried from being happy before.” Other team members also had tears of joy.
“I was crying even before the championship game was over,” said Kanisha Perry, the Golden Eagles’ other captain.
Nixyaawii’s nine-player roster included six returnees from last year’s district championship squad. This year’s team also received an additional boost when a pair of senior players, small forward Jessie Simpson and point guard Makalya McKay – transferred to the school from Pendelton High, a 5A school.
Both Simpson and McKay are members of the Umatilla tribe, as are the majority of the Golden Eagles’ players.
“Even without them we knew we would have a good team,” said Nixyaawii head coach Jeremy Maddern. “With them though we knew that could put us over the top.”
The Golden Eagles compiled an over-all record of 23-3 this season. Two of the team’s losses – both by just five points – were against a league rival, the Ione Cardinals.
The Nixyaawii club avenged those setbacks, however, by defeating the Cardinals convincingly, 62-42, in their district championship final.
Minthorn felt the district tournament was a turning point in the team’s campaign. Handily winning all of their matches at the district event convinced Minthorn this was a club capable of capturing a state title.
“At the beginning of the season I felt we weren’t playing as a team,” she said. “I think we knew we had to come together.” Perry agreed the squad had some “different personalities” and that it took awhile for the players to mesh.
The Golden Eagles were the lone Native team in the state tournament, which featured eight clubs.
The Nixyaawii side edged the Mohawk Warriors 55-49 in their opener. The Golden Eagles then advanced to the championship match by downing the Perrydale Pirates 50-40.
The Golden Eagles were anticipating a much tougher final than the one they got – a 25-point blowout in their favor.
“It was a surprise,” said Minthorn, adding her side had not previously seen the Hosanna Christian side. “I thought it would be a lot harder.”
Though this marked their first Oregon title, the Golden Eagles had previously participated in one other state tournament. The club took part in the 2008 championships but was eliminated from further play after losing its first two matches.