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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Fueled by Love And Hate,
Winnebago Wins Respect
by Dirk Chatelain - (Omaha, NE) World-Herald staff writer
Winnebago's David Wingett, left, and Kobe Smith sit and enjoy the moment after the Indians won the Class C-1 title. (photo by Darin Epperly - Omaha, NE World-Herald News Service)
LINCOLN — With 32 seconds left, Mathew Wingett scored his 22nd point, the last one of his high school career. The horn blared, and he and his younger brother, David, walked together off the court.

They'd played every second of the state championship game. Finally, they could rest.

For the first time, Mathew looked up at his home crowd. The faces that watched him grow up. The faces that followed the team to little gyms across northeast Nebraska. The faces that devoted a weekend to chase Winnebago's first state championship in 75 years.

"It's about you," his mom had told him this season, "but it's bigger than that, too."

When the next horn blared, Wingett and his teammates dog-piled at midcourt. They clipped the nets. Before the medal ceremony, Mathew detoured behind the Winnebago bench and embraced his mom: "I love you," he said.

Winnebago's championship story belongs among the greatest in recent state tournament history.

The reservation school ranks 50th of 55 in Class C-1 enrollment. It hadn't faced a ranked C-1 foe all season. Its coach is a 26-year-old who paces the sideline in Jordans.

Yet a year after blowing an 18-point lead in the district final, Winnebago took down three C-1 kings — Wahoo, Grand Island Central Catholic and Columbus Scotus.

The Indians trailed for less than two total minutes. Cumulatively, they led 63-22 at the end of the first quarter. Their combination of skill and athleticism was a marvel to watch.

Call it Rez Ball if you want. More teams should try it.

"I'm still kinda sad this season's over," Mathew said. "I wish it wouldn't end."

How did it happen? How did Winnebago play its best when it mattered most? Back home, the Winnebago tribal council is in shambles following corruption allegations. Two weeks ago, a popular Winnebago teacher died of cancer. Point guard Cory Cleveland's father has been in the hospital for two months.

Combined with the heavy expectations of the community, nobody would've blamed Winnebago's players had the pressure overwhelmed them.

But for every potential distraction, there was a piece of motivation. The state tournament wasn't just basketball to Winnebago, it was a mission to earn respect off the reservation.

Winnebago Coach Jeff Berridge

"We came down to prove everybody wrong," coach Jeff Berridge said. "We came down here to prove to everybody that Rez Ball, that Winnebago basketball can thrive. Everybody doubts Winnebago. My boys know it already. But this group of boys feed off of hate."

The most publicized incident happened Thursday when a Wahoo radio announcer made a reference to "firewater" in the wake of Winnebago's opening-round win. A few people told Berridge to keep it from the players. Don't let it distract them. It's all over Facebook, Berridge said.

"They probably already know," Berridge replied. "You can't hide that."

So he told his guys.

"We're always going to deal with racism just because we're Native Americans," senior Isaiah Medina said. "Just like that comment 'Firewater.' Yeah, it kinda hurt us, but at the same time it helped us."

It wasn't the only incident of the weekend.

When he was walking back to the hotel on Friday night, Medina said, a car drove by and some kids opened the windows and taunted him. War whooping, he called it.

"I didn't do nothing," Medina said. "I just looked back and smiled."

Also Friday, Berridge said students from another C-1 school mocked his niece at a Lincoln mall. More war whooping. His niece told her father, who confronted the kids. They apologized. They said they were kidding.

Berridge referenced the incident in his pregame pep talk Saturday.

"I told 'em that story to give them that extra fire."

The racial incidents are personal to Berridge, who 10 years ago was a junior guard when Winnebago traveled for a road game.

What happened that January night sticks with him today. Winnebago's players and fans thought the officiating was unfair. They also thought fans of the other team crossed a line, alleging taunts and racist chants.

"I call it a riot," Berridge said. "Our fans started saying stuff, started throwing stuff. It got so out of hand that people got thrown out of the game."

He was livid. At the other town. At his coach. At his administration. Nobody, he felt, stood up for the Winnebago players.

The school board called an emergency meeting to discuss the incident. What to do next. How to make sure it didn't happen again. Berridge perceived it as the school blaming Winnebago.

He spoke up, admonishing his own coach for not standing up for the players. The way he remembers it, a board member downplayed his complaint, telling him it's just basketball.

A decade later, it still angers him.

"This game means more to different people," Berridge said. "It's a way of life. Some people like me and a lot of these players, basketball's life to them. They live, eat and breathe it. That's how I was. That lady sitting there saying that, 'Oh, it's just a game, it's just a game.' It wasn't a game. It was not a game to us. It was life.

"I told the school board, I'll be back. I'm gonna go to college. And I'll be back to coach this team."

Sure enough, he played three years at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, then returned to Winnebago. He was working at the wellness center, focusing on diabetes prevention, when the Winnebago basketball coach knocked on his door and asked him to be a volunteer assistant.

"I'm in," Berridge said.

The head coach left the next year. At 23 years old, Berridge became co-head coach.

Mathew Wingett was a sophomore. Cory Cleveland and Isaiah Medina, too. Winnebago went 15-8. In 2013-14, they added Mathew's 6-foot-5 little brother, David, and made it all the way to the district final.

They led Fremont Bergan by 18 points in the fourth quarter and lost. The pain was even worse when Bergan went on to win the state championship.

Winnebago knew it belonged. One year later, with Berridge coaching solo, his team proved it.

"Legends" pose with their championship trophy.

"We've been talking about it," Wingett said afterward. "We said, 'After we play our game and win the state championship, we're gonna be gods. We're gonna be legends.'"

And maybe not just on the reservation.

Isaiah Medina heard the taunts Friday night outside his hotel. He knows about the Wahoo radio announcer and the kids at the Lincoln mall. But he was at the same mall on Friday afternoon.

A few hours after Winnebago's semifinal win, he was getting pizza in the food court when a couple of strangers approached him.

"Are you No. 15 from Winnebago?"


"Isaiah Medina?"

That's me.

They high-fived him, even hugged him. They'd been following Winnebago.

"We really hope you guys win it," they told him.

Winnebago fed off the hate. But it also fed off the love. Medina is pretty sure there will be more of that in the future. Winnebago earned its respect. It's up to the next generation to keep the ball rolling.

As Berridge and his players walked away from the locker room following their victory, his fourth-grade son, Dyami, was lugging Dad's backpack, wearing a scowl.

Dyami had a youth tournament game in Lincoln Saturday afternoon. And he wanted to know who was going to take him. Be patient, Berridge told him.

Mathew Wingett, state championship medal around his neck, watched the kid and laughed.

"It's his time to shine."






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