At Wyoming Indian, every player practices for a championship

The Chiefs varsity and JV players gather around coach Craig Ferris at the end of practice. At Wyoming Indian, junior varsity players test their skills against the varsity starters at every practice. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)
By Ron Feemster
February 5, 2013

For the Wyoming Indian boys basketball team, no games against archrival Lovell truly matter until the state tournament. Sure, the West Region tournament in Riverton later this month is important, but Chiefs basketball has something in common with New York Yankees baseball. The regular season is secondary. The championship game defines a season.

Ron Feemster

So when the Chiefs lost twice to Lovell this year, including a 68-61 home game that was closer than the final score, coach Craig Ferris and the boys who play for him almost took it in stride.

“They beat us last year, too,” Ferris said. “They beat us by 30 in their gym and by about 40 here. But we beat them when it counted.” Despite the lopsided losses in the regular season, they came back and beat Lovell in the state finals last March.

In the most recent game, the Chiefs led after the first quarter and at the half. The lead seesawed back and forth by just a point or two for much of the game. Even so, it isn’t the last game the Chiefs keep in mind. It’s the last championship game — and the next one. In all, Wyoming Indian has won three of the past four state 2A titles. The year they didn’t win the title, they played in the final game and lost. In all, Wyoming Indian has won nine state basketball titles.

Losing regular season games is unusual for the Chiefs. They are 17-2 this year and have won by an average of 20 points per game. But they still have an occasional close call on the way to the finals in Casper. Last weekend they beat Greybull 48-47, a team they also defeated by one point in the state semifinals last season.

“Their guy goes down the court and misses a layup at the end of the game,” remembers Alvin Spoonhunter, a guard and the Chiefs’ top scorer this year. “If he makes that layup, we don’t play in the championship game.”

But much of the time, the Chiefs play opponents who are just plain overmatched. Against Riverside last Friday, the Chiefs led 13-0 after one quarter and 39-5 at the half. The Chiefs junior varsity players were on the floor when the mercy rule went into effect. When one team leads by 40 points, the referees finish the game on a running clock, with no stoppages for fouls or out-of-bounds plays. Only a timeout or the end of an 8-minute quarter stops the clock. The Chiefs won 67-25.

Opening tip-off in the Chiefs’ game against the Riverside Rebels. Wyoming Indian would lead 39-5 at the half and go on to win 67-25. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)

“One of our secrets is how we practice with the JVs and the freshmen,” Ferris said. “A lot of teams have three practices going at the same time. The varsity is over here and the JVs are over there and the freshmen are somewhere else. For us, they are all together.”

The result is a cohesive team on which young players match up against the varsity starters every day in practice. “You may have to sit for two years or more before you start here,” Ferris said. “But when it’s your turn, you are ready to play.”

Riverside, a team that has struggled this year, started a young squad that was confused by the trapping, pressing defense of the Chiefs. Instead of trying to find an open man in scoring position, the Rebels seemed desperate to get rid of the ball.

“The kids said it was like they wanted to pass without getting closer to the basket.” Ferris said.

When the West Region tournament starts on Feb. 21, the Chefs will see stiffer competition again. Greybull will be there, as will Lovell.

The biggest challenge might be containing Cody Savage, the 6-foot-6 center who dropped in 31 points in Lovell’s last win at Wyoming Indian, scoring at will with either hand under the basket. He also came up big on defense, guarding Trevor Williams and Joseph Howell, the Chiefs’ big inside threats, and even coming out to the top of the key to get a hand in Spoonhunter’s face.

“We have to find a way to keep the ball out of Savage’s hands,” said Ferris. “It’s going to be tough. Our goal now is to win three at regions and win three at state.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was as a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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