December 4, 2013

Willamette's basketball team powered by Samoans

More news about: Willamette
Samoans Avery Manu, top, and Talanoa Smith came to the U.S. to play for a Samoan coach.
Willamette athletics photos

The fierce warrior culture synonymous with American Samoans often translates to success on the football field.

But the “skinny basketball Samoans” such as Willamette coach Kip Ioane and his players Avery Manu and Talanoa Smith are applying that same aggressive attitude and work ethic on the hardwood – or in some cases even the concrete.

“It's a culture that if you're going to do something, you're going to go 100 miles per hour and go through every wall that you see because that's what you chose to do. You're going to represent yourself and your family and your culture to the fullest,” explained Ioane, who is in his fifth year as the Bearcats’ head coach. “I think naturally, football lends itself to that more easily.

“You can still be an aggressive Samoan warrior on the court, but it's more easily found on the gridiron,” Ioane added.

Ioane played several sports growing up, including football. But his father was a basketball coach, so Ioane was drawn to the game. When he came to Willamette as a player, he became more enthralled while learning from longtime coach Gordie James.

“I fell in love with the intricacies of the game,” said Ioane. “In our house, we were always breaking down basketball film.”

Likewise, both Manu and Smith chose basketball over other sports.

“My junior year, I randomly had a really good season in basketball, which had never really happened before. That's when it really sparked my interest,” Manu said, noting he originally had intentions to play collegiate football. “I remember telling my dad that I didn't want to play football my senior year of high school. I just wanted to try and work on basketball. … He was pretty mad.”

Manu wound up playing football his senior year of high school but chose to pursue a college basketball career following his graduation.

“Football is like the main focus sports-wise. I think the reason being is we see so many more success stories, like Troy Polamalu,” Smith said. “It puts it in the minds of kids to play football.

“When I was a kid, I grew up watching more basketball. Even though football was more around me, I enjoyed the talent and the different ways basketball players played and how it looked,” he continued. “I liked playing basketball more because I felt like I had more talent and ability to be better at basketball than football.”

Ioane’s Samoan heritage helped him connect with Manu and Smith, who are both starters for the Bearcats this season.

Manu’s father came to the United States from America Samoa while Smith grew up on the Islands before traveling to the U.S. to attend college.

Ioane said being Samoan helped both families feel comfortable sending their sons to play for Willamette.

“The parents obviously trusted me, knowing my background. They know our program is based on that same family concept of big brothers taking care of smaller brothers and respecting your elders,” Ioane said. “I think that was easy for the parents … to trust me with them 10 months out of the year."

Smith – who plays for the American Samoan national team – found Ioane and Willamette by coincidence. He was sending out highlight tapes to colleges all over the west coast, hoping to find a place to play.

“Kip was the first one to reply back. And him being Samoan was another factor that opened my eyes to see Willamette,” Smith said. “Just to know that there was another Samoan who knew who I was and knew my culture – I feel like that gave my parents a comforting feeling.”

The Samoan heritage lured Manu to the Bearcats’ program as well.

“It was pretty cool when I found out there was a Samoan coach,” Manu said. “My dad said, ‘It's probably the only Samoan head coach you're going to find on the mainland.’ ”

When Smith arrived in Salem, Ore., there was a unique challenge he had to adjust to – playing on a basketball court instead of cement.

“As a freshman, he had never played on hardwood before. Just getting him used to hardwood vs. concrete hangar floors was a whole year-long adjustment,” Ioane said.

Smith has done his best to promote the sport in his home country. He spent some time this summer at a basketball clinic, introducing the sport to young American Samoan athletes.

“It's a really humbling experience, actually. I remember when I was that young and learning the game for the first time and having these older figures showing me the way," Smith said. "I just wanted to give back and help other kids.”

Ioane feels the experience has helped Smith’s leadership skills, making him more valuable to the Bearcats.

“Being an ambassador is lot of responsibility, but I think it's been great for him,” Ioane said.

Smith hopes to give back to his country more by playing for that national team in the 2015 South Pacific Games.

“If I have nothing important going on at that time, I plan on going back and representing my country,” Smith said.

Manu is finding a lot of success on the court as well. He leads the team in scoring, averaging 14 points per game.

But his road to 2013-14 season was a bumping one after an academic set back a year ago.

“That was a really disappointing time in my life, and that's never happened to me before. I've never been bad in the classroom,” Manu said. “When I found out about my ineligibility, that was really tough.

“This summer, I really focused on being both academically prepared and athletically prepared for this season.”

“It was a great wake-up call for him and he got his grades together. Now he's the player we always knew he could be,” Ioane added.

Samoan culture influences the way Ioane, Manu and Smith approach the game on the court. But last season, they gave their teammates a glimpse of their heritage away from the gym with a pig roast during a team retreat.

“You have to dig the pit. You have to get the pig. You have to gut it. You have to fill it with whatever you want spice-wise. You got to wrap up it. You have to light the fire,” Ioane said. “It's probably a 13-hour process.”

As the Samoan representatives, Manu and Smith led the process and were in charge of preparing the food.

“It was fun to share our culture with our teammates,” Manu said.

“It was just fun seeing other kids on the team having their first experience roasting a pig and everything that went with it,” Smith said. “As long as the food tasted good, I feel like we did our job.”

1,000 points

Chapman’s Kimi Takaoka surpassed 1,000 career points recently. She scored 26 points Nov. 23 in the Panthers’ win over George Fox to reach the milestone. The senior guard is just the 10th player from Chapman to reach 1,000 points.

Nathan Kohler scored his 1,000th career point for Illinois College when the Blueboys defeated Principia College, 114-53, in their season opener Nov. 15. Kohler – who entered the season with 993 career points – scored 18 in the win. His teammate Brandon Berry is also approaching the milestone. Berry has 98 points this season, giving him 985 on his career.

Where they rank

The Region was well represented in the second regular season Top 25 polls.

In the men’s Top 25, UW-Stevens Point is ranked No. 2. They received six first place votes and sit 15 points back of No. 1 Amherst.

The Pointers’ WIAC rival UW-Whitewater also received a first place vote and are ranked No. 4.

CCIW foes Illinois Wesleyan and Wheaton (Ill.) check in at Nos. 5 and 13, respectively.

St. Thomas is ranked No. 15, St. Norbert is No. 18, and Augustana is the19th ranked team in the country.

Whitworth, UW-Platteville and North Central (Ill.) all dropped out of the Top 25 this week, but received votes. North Central got 42 votes, Whitworth received 34 and Platteville got nine.

Augsburg (32), UW-Stout (20), Dubuque (13), Carthage (11) and Loras (1) also received votes in the men’s poll.

In the women’s Top 25, three teams in the Region were ranked in the top 10.

Whitman is the highest ranked team at No. 5 while UW-Whitewater sits at No. 9 and St. Thomas ranks 10th.

George Fox checks in at No. 12 while Carthage is No. 16. Wheaton moves up five places to No. 19 and UW-Stevens Point is No. 22.

UW-Oshkosh (20), Cornell (15), St. Benedict (6), Simpson (5) and Lewis and Clark (1) also received votes in the Week 2 poll.

Marquee games

An interesting MIAC matchup headlines this week’s games. No. 15 St. Thomas will travel to Augsburg, which is receiving votes in the poll. The Auggies enter Wednesday’s game with a 3-0 record while the Tommies look to begin their conference title defense.

Also Wednesday, No. 19 Augustana will play at Loras in non-conference men’s action.

On Saturday, No. 7 Illinois Wesleyan will host No. 4 Washington U.  in non-conference play while No. 14 Wheaton (Ill.) will take on a ranked non-conference opponent in No. 11 Calvin.

Check in

Do you have a story idea for the Around the Region column? Contact me about approaching milestones, broken records, break-out players or any other storylines in the area’s conferences. Or just drop me a note and let me know what you like or don’t about the column. All ideas and feedback are welcome. Email me at josh.smith@d3sports.com or follow me on Twitter at @DU_Josh_Smith.

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Josh Smith

Josh Smith covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3sports.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism. Around the West for D3football.com.