Saturday, April 01, 2023

A Maiden (and Chief) voyage for Ronan hoops

Daily Inter Lake | January 12, 2023 11:55 PM

To this point Leina Ulutoa, the leading scorer and rebounder on this year’s Ronan basketball team, hasn’t traveled far for a basketball game.

Polson, for example, is a dozen miles away from Ronan. Libby is a bit of a haul — 150 miles, give or take.

Anchorage, Alaska? Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-four miles.

Fortunately the Maidens (and Chiefs) will fly to their destination Sunday, to play in the Alaska Airlines Classic basketball tournament.

“It’s crazy,” said Ulutoa. “I never thought I’d leave the state for basketball. Half our girls have never been out of the state before.”

The midseason tournament brings together teams from all classes from all over Alaska, and makes sense in a lot of ways. Metlakatla, for example — and the documentary “Alaskan Nets” about the boys basketball team is how this all started — is 15 minutes by ferry or float plane from its closest mainland city, Ketchikan.

The “Met” boys team is also called the Chiefs, by the way, and the documentary about the program’s — OK, the town’s — quest for a state championship is gripping. There’s tragedy and drama and some pretty good hoops displayed by the Chiefs, who drew from a student body of 72 kids that 2017-18 season.

Met coach TJ Scott is still guiding the boys team; his first season, 2012-13, the Chiefs lost in the 2A title game. They’ve gotten to the championship four times since, including last March.

It’s the Met girls, who are called the MIss Chiefs and are 4-2, that will take on the Ronan Maidens. The Ronan Chiefs open with West Anchorage, which plays in Alaska’s highest classification (4A) and is 3-1.

Each team gets three games, beginning next Thursday.

It’s been over a year since the possibility of a trip to the 49th state first came up, Ulutoa remembered. In sort of a sweepstakes-style contest, schools were asked to show the documentary and then make a presentation to earn a spot in the Classic.

We should mention here that sixth-year Maidens coach Steve Woll has been a guiding, if not unstoppable, force for this trip.

“Woll, he was in it to win it,” Ulutoa said. “He wanted us to win this with his whole heart.

“We thought it would be cool to go to Alaska, but we didn’t know if we’d go.”

The documentary was a hit: “We served Indian tacos and had all our families there,” Ulutoa said. “We honestly watched the movie and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really close to our lives here.’”

Ronan is on the Flathead Reservation; Metlakatla is on the Annette Islands, which is the only Indian reserve in Alaska. It’s mainly a fishing community, though diving for sea cucumbers and geoduck clams has become a burgeoning and extremely dangerous side industry.

Met is home to 1,400-1,600 residents. Ronan has north of 2,100. We’re not sure how many Ronan players ride their quad to practice, or if they have diving as an elective class, so there are some differences.

But the role basketball plays in the community is big. When the pool of entrants was pared down to four, Ronan was still there. Four Chiefs and four Maidens were chosen to speak by Zoom with judges on a day in late April.

“We talked about our lives, our basketball team,” Ulutoa said. “Everybody was super nervous and super sweaty. Then I shared a little bit about how the basketball team was kind of a sisterhood for me.”

She laughed. “It’s all kind of a blur.”

Then Woll led the group and a cameraman out to the gym, where the student bodies of the high and middle schools had formed an R in the bleachers. A pep rally ensued, and one of the film’s producers was there.

“I remember the producer asking, ‘You ready for the trip to Missoula, to get on an airplane?’ I saw people crying,” she said. “Woll was crying. I cried too, a little bit.”

The Maidens and Chiefs will be gone for a week, which might be rare territory for a Montana team (but with Metlakatla, it happens quite a bit). They’ll come back having had possibly a once in a lifetime experience.

“I think the trip is just going to be a happy experience,” Ututoa said. “A lot of joy from it.”

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or

Recent Headlines