MISSION — Nixyaawii’s basketball fans have been spoiled in recent years.
Since Jeremy Maddern’s first season as head coach in 2006-07, no girls’ team in Umatilla County has won as frequently as the Golden Eagles.
Of the 279 times the Eagles have taken the court in Maddern’s 11 seasons, 205 ended with wins for a .735 winning percentage.
Only Hermiston’s .728 (209-78) challenges the Golden Eagles over that stretch, and only Condon/Wheeler’s .758 (216-69) is better among teams in the East Oregonian’s distribution range.
So it comes as no surprise that fast starts are nothing new to the Golden Eagles, which won their only 1A state championship in 2011.
But despite six seasons of at least 20 wins, no Maddern-coached Golden Eagles team has been able to make it this far into the season without suffering a loss.
With every win the 12-0 Golden Eagles are rewriting program history. They overtook the previous record for a season-opening win streak set by the 2007-08 team with a Jan. 5 win over Echo that took them to 9-0.
Maddern said he was a little surprised to learn eight games was the longest they’d made it before their first loss, and it’s easy to see why. Last season the Golden Eagles won 17 of their first 18 games, but dropped the season opener to Country Christian. In the championship season of 2011, Nixyaawii won 12 of its first 13, but only its first four in a row. The season before the Golden Eagles won 13 of their first 14, but lost in the second game of the season. After losing their ninth game in 2008, Nixyaawii would win 24 of its first 25.
As far as their place in program history is concerned, the current convocation of Eagles aren’t too impressed with themselves. At least not yet.
“Our goal is to get to state,” said junior Kaitlynn Melton after practice Tuesday, then corrected herself.
“To win state.”
A second loss to Country Christian last season, this one in the state semifinals by a 58-37 score, has been a big motivator for the team ever since.
“We were pretty upset about it,” Melton said. “I think we came into that game scared, more scared than we should have. I think we could have beat them last season if we would have put our minds to it and I think that just motivates us even more this year.”
Nixyaawii, No. 4 this week in the OSAA rankings, earned a modicum of revenge with a 54-51 win at Country Christian in the second game this season.
“That was our toughest game,” said junior Mary Stewart, the returning league player of the year who led the team with 30 points that night. “We wanted that really bad.”
Maddern said it wan an early test the team needed to pass.
“I think just going through that battle and winning it, it was psychological like, ‘Oh we are pretty good, we’re one of the elite teams,’” he said. “We did a really good job of just matching their physicality which we hadn’t in years past. That was a great test for us.”
Since then it’s been relatively smooth sailing with the Golden Eagles winning by an average margin of 28.5 points. Their largest win was 72-19 over Dufur on Dec. 29.
“We’re still doing the same things we were doing with those great teams before,” Maddern said. “I just think that this year, unlike with the state championship team years ago, it took a lot of games for them to gel. These girls, going through what they did last year, that’s the difference. This team has the state experience that some of the teams in the past didn’t have and that’s what’s propelled us to the winning streak that we have now.”
Nixyaawii also leads all 1A teams in scoring with 57.2 points a game.
Even more impressive than those numbers is the fact that they haven’t even had their full lineup on the court for an entire game this season.
First-team all-league post Sunshine Fuentes went down with a knee injury early in their fourth game of the season. That was also the first game for guard Milan Schimmel, a late transfer from Pendleton who gives the team another dangerous shooter. Stewart also has missed time as well.
It’s forced the team to work more as a unit, and allowed more players to build confidence.
“I feel like last year during state we got a little too cocky and we didn’t pass the ball,” said senior wing Stacy Fitzpatrick. “It was more about who can shoot it, who can make it, not more of a team. So this year I feel like we’re functioning more as a team.”
Maddern has taken notice.
“What I’ve been most impressed with, with a lot of kids, is just their willingness to help each other in practice,” he said. “They push each other in practice, and that’s what I think will propel them to reach their goals.”
Schimmel has also made a big impact in a short amount of time, and led the team with 17 points and six assists when Stewart was out with an illness.
“Most of these girls I’ve played with basically my whole life, and we can read one another and we know where each other are on the court,” said the younger sister of the WNBA’s Shoni Schimmel. “It’s a great thing to have again because we’re great as a team and we know how to pass the ball.”
That unselfish play is what excites Maddern most about this season’s team.
“One of the stats that’s really stuck out to me this season is some of the assist-to-turnover ratio,” he said. “We’ll go some games where we’ll have 16-17 assists and we’ll only have three or four turnovers. In all my years coaching I’ve never seen that.”
Maddern said he expects to get Fuentes back before the district tournament, and she’s been making progress in limited practice time.
“We expect to have her back in a couple of weeks and be nearly full strength by the time districts rolls around,” he said. “We still have not gotten everybody on the court yet. We haven’t even seen what the full lineup can do, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it obviously.”
The last undefeated seasons in 1A were back-to-back as Condon/Wheeler went 30-0 in 2013-14 and Damascus Christian did it the next season.
Nixyaawii’s next game is Friday when it hosts Joseph at 6 p.m. There are nine games left in the regular season, and the Golden Eagles aren’t putting any pressure on themselves to win out.
“We aren’t focused on that,” Melton said. “We’re just focused on what’s next, day to day. Our priorities right now are just showing up to practice every day, giving it our all, really getting physical with each other because we have to prepare for those games later on.”
Contact Matt Entrup at firstname.lastname@example.org or (541) 966-0838.