Pine Ridge Reservation Basketball Team Heads to State, Helps Town Rebound

Little Wound High School Mustangs prepare for game against Pine Ridge Thorpes (photo by Dale Vocu)

While millions across the country are glued to March Madness brackets, the district of Kyle on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is feeling extra pumped for basketball games this weekend.

The varsity boys’ basketball team at Little Wound High School in Kyle is headed to the state finals. This marks the first time the LWHS Mustangs have qualified since 2007 and the fifth time in the team’s 40-year history.

Seeded fifth, the Mustangs are the region 7A champion and finished the regular season 17–3. The state tournament began on Thursday.

As word spread and wins stacked up through the season, more and more people from the community filled the stands, following the team to games at other schools.

“It means a lot to [the team],” says Mustangs Varsity Basketball Coach Jay Jacobs. “They get to experience what the community can be like, and I tell them to enjoy that public support. It will carry them through, especially when you go through the games and get tired, have little injuries here and there.”

The team’s accomplishments come at a good time for the community, too, which has faced a challenging winter.

Since December, seven young people have committed suicide on Pine Ridge Reservation. Their peers and relatives have begun organizing healing camps and suicide prevention weekends to create a support system for others. But basketball is playing a part in the community’s healing process, too.

The Mustangs celebrate their regional championship win, with Coach Jacobs pictured center (photo by Dale Vocu)

More than a distraction, the sport offers “a big source of positivity to get behind,” says Jacobs, who is set to receive his master’s degree this spring in Counseling and Clinical Mental Health.

Mustangs fan Loretta Takes War Bonnett attended the school growing up and now has three sons enrolled there. This season, she went to multiple games, cheering for a team she says she hopes her sons will play for someday.

“What the school has is tradition. Our traditional ways follow many of these young players and those who cheer for the Mustangs. There is respect amongst others’ lives. I will always be proud to be a Mustang fan and parent of future players,” Takes War Bonnett says.

Jacobs adds, “It’s a lot of validation that we have talented kids that go to school here, that grew up around here.”

A Coach’s Evolution

Jacobs himself grew up on the reservation and attended Little Wound School. Like the 14 boys on this year’s team, he also played basketball — and went to state in 1999.

“I think it means more to the kids that I played there. They’re able to connect better,” Jacobs says.

He returned to Little Wound five years ago as a coach, after leaving the reservation to go to school at South Dakota State University.

“One of the biggest motivational factors for myself was to get my own education and return to the reservation to help out. I wanted to help on the academic side of things because I felt like the good athletes have always been around here,” he says. “But if any athlete is going to get to the next level, they have to have their academics squared away.”

Jacobs got bit by “the coaching bug” and now works with three assistant coaches, including one who was his former high school teammate.

“I’ve been bugging my high school teammates to come help if they could because I know that their brain was an extension of mine,” Jacobs says.

On and Off the Court

Part of Jacobs’ philosophy in coaching this year’s team is keeping the players working — a lot. Since December 1 — and through winter break — the team practiced from 3:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

“They complain, but one of the things I always tell them is that they have to understand the hard work necessary for this kind of stuff. They’re going to have to go through it at the next level. I get tired myself. It’s just something we need to make sure we get together on,” Jacobs says.

Takes War Bonnett says she sees clearly the players’ fortitude and determination during the games. “They all come together as a big family. When they’re feeling down, they help each other back up.”

The Mustangs huddle up during a game (photo by Dale Vocu)

After practice, some kids live close enough to the school to walk home. Others have to take the bus as far as 50 miles, getting home after 7 p.m.

“Then they’re trying to do their homework and going to sleep,” Jacobs says.

The players’ efforts make for impressive numbers beyond the court. Jacobs rattles off their individual grade point averages. One senior is in the running for a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Another is third in his class. Overall, the team holds a 3.5 GPA.

“One of the things about our culture is we don’t brag, so you won’t really hear the boys say that. I just want to see opportunities for them. They’re doing their part — they go to class, they get their grades, they go to practice,” Jacobs says.

Regardless of what happens at the tournament, Jacobs appreciates what this season has meant for the students and the community.

“I’m really happy for the community that they have a great bunch of athletes that can represent them. You just have to consider the fact that unemployment is what it is, substance abuse rates are probably way higher than most places,” Jacobs says. “This takes people away from all their problems, their little demons. They can go back to enjoying basketball and supporting kids.”

South Dakota’s state tournament started March 19 at the Rapid City Civic Center. It continues through March 21. Watch the games live on South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s YouTube Channel, or follow updates on the Little Wound School Facebook page.

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