MISSION — When the Nixyaawii girls basketball team walked off the court at Baker High School last February, it did so with a state championship trophy in its hands and high expectations for 2018.
The Golden Eagles had just finished off a perfect 25-0 season and claimed the Class 1A state championship, the second in the school’s brief history, with a 68-39 win over No. 3 Country Christian — it was hard not to look ahead.
The Golden Eagles had only two seniors graduating, but returned four starters, an impressive lineup of Mary Stewart, Milan Schimmel, Kaitlynn Melton and EllaMae Looney.
And from that moment, the Golden Eagles made it their No. 1 goal to do it all over again.
“The expectations going into this year were pretty high,” said Nixyaawii head coach Jeremy Maddern, “though we set those expectations pretty high. They set them before the season and I’m happy they’re getting this opportunity to achieve them.”
The Golden Eagles have, so far, lived up to those expectations remarkably. With Wednesday’s 74-30 victory over No. 10 Damascus Christian in the Class 1A state quarterfinals, the Golden Eagles are now a perfect 27-0 on the season and sit just one win away from a chance at defending their championship.
In Wednesday’s game, the Golden Eagles held a mere 30-19 lead over Damascus Christian, but woke up in the second half and asserted their dominance. They outscored the Eagles 54-11 in the second half to secure the win.
Nixyaawii had four players reach double figures scoring in the game. Schimmel led the group with 19 points and added nine rebounds, seven assists and six steals, while Mary Stewart had 17 points, five assists and 7 steals. Inside, Melton finished with 14 points and eight rebounds and junior Ermia Butler had perhaps her best game of the year, recording a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Nixyaawii’s defense also forced 25 turnovers from Damascus Christian, which turned into 32 points for the winners.
It was the same road map that the Golden Eagles have used to breeze through their schedule this season — the combination of an athletic, swarming defense and a fast-paced offense that makes it hard for opponents to keep up.
They have scored the most points (1,968) in Class 1A this season, with their season-low total of 62 in a Feb. 9 win over Pine Eagle. Nixyaawii has won 16 games by at least 40 points and have won by fewer than 20 points only once — a 71-53 win over No. 3 Powder Valley in the district championship just 12 days ago.
What makes the Golden Eagles so dominant is, of course, some incredible talent, but also a familiarity and bond the players share — most notably the four-person senior class of Stewart, Schimmel, Melton and Looney.
The group has played basketball, and played it with great success, dating back to their days in middle school and in the AAU circuit. Now, they have powered the Golden Eagles to a 55-game win streak dating back to the third place game at the 2015 state tournament.
It’s the third-longest in OSAA history for girls basketball, trailing only Class 4A Sutherlin’s 60-game win streak from 2013-2015 and Joseph’s 77-game win streak from 1980-1983, according to OSAA historian Larry Moulton.
“It’s actually been a lot of fun,” Schimmel said of the season. “The senior class, we’ve grown up together playing basketball and AAU so coming into our last season together, maybe ever, it’s something we’re having fun with but at the same time we’re like ‘Oh snap, it’s coming down to it!’ But at the same time, we’re out here to have fun playing basketball now because that’s what we’ve done our entire lives so we just look forward to what’s coming this week.”
Every one of the senior starters has carved out a defined role that the team relies on in all situations.
Stewart and Schimmel get most of the headlines because of their do-it-all abilities. Both guards can score from anywhere on the floor — Stewart has accumulated more than 1,600 career points in three seasons — and also fill out the stat sheet each night with numerous rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots every night. Melton is a grinder inside, a tenacious rebounder and the physical post defender the Golden Eagles need. And Looney is a stout defender on the wing and can knock down the outside shot whenever needed.
But it doesn’t stop with them.
Butler has taken tremendous strides this season with her offensive contributions and is a great rebounder, Tristalynn Melton can handle the ball and shoot it well, and even freshmen such as MacKenzie Kiona have contributed down the stretch.
“Our bench is much deeper this year,” Schimmel said. “And the freshman last year, now sophomores have experience and have improved and know what’s going to come at them, especially coming into the state tournament because they were there.”
Along with its expectations, Nixyaawii brings a lot of confidence to the tournament this weekend, too. It’s the third straight trip to Baker City for the Golden Eagles, so they know what it takes to win at state. Plus, the Golden Eagles have played several of the top teams in the state over the past two seasons and won easily each time.
Most notably, Powder Valley and Joseph have been top five and top 10 teams, respectively, in the state each of the past two years, and they happen to play in the same Old Oregon League as the Golden Eagles. Nixyaawii’s played 11 total games against the two teams in the past two seasons and won all 11 easily.
“Joseph and Powder are some of the best in the state and having them in our league is definitely a blessing,” Schimmel said. “It’s good to be able to play teams that are really experienced and that basically prepares us for what’s coming at state.”
Now, Nixyaawii will have to go through Powder Valley for the fourth time this season to reach the state championship game. The two teams will meet on Friday at 1:45 p.m. at Baker High School in a Class 1A semifinal game. The winner will play either No. 1 Country Christian or No. 4 Days Creek on Saturday for the championship.
Schimmel knows that it is important that the Golden Eagles take the tournament one game at a time, because anything can happen in the postseason. But she already knows what it would mean to the Nixyaawii girls to bring another state championship trophy back to Mission.
“I think it would bring a lot of pride, especially to our community,” Schimmel said. “When I’m on the basketball court, I know I’m not just playing for my family, I’m not just playing for who I am, I’m not just playing for all these things about me. I’m playing for my community, I’m playing for my tribe, I’m playing for Native American people.
“It’s something we take a lot of pride in and we know that it would mean a lot to us.”
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.