Lady Bisons prepare for national AIHEC basketball tourney

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THE SALISH Kootenai College Lady Bison team prepare to enter the AIHEC National Tournament on March 15-16 at Rapid City, S.D. The Lady Bisons look to continue its winning tradition of winning AIHEC's. SKC has won five of the last 15 AIHEC National Tournaments. (Photo courtesy of Juan Perez)

Salish Kootenai College women’s basketball player Cecelia “Cece” Koskela vividly recalled her first-ever AIHEC National Basketball Tournament in 2013.

In Koskela’s first season with the Lady Bison, her team finished third overall in the nation at the tournament in Minnesota. According to Koskela, the experience was a lot to take in.

“The experience was overwhelming and I wasn’t sure what to expect (at my first AIHEC),” Koskela said. “They were playing basketball games all day long and it was kind of in a rural area. I just remember getting off the bus ready to play. We met up with teams from all over the nation. We weren’t sure what to expect when we played teams from Minnesota and New Mexico. It was a lot different level of play when you get to the tournament.”

Koskela, now in her fifth consecutive AIHEC tournament with the Bison, hopes to pass on her tournament experience to her younger teammates, who have never experienced the intensity level of AIHEC.

“We are always being told during practice what it is like during these games,” Koskela said. “A lot of other players on the team haven’t experienced AIHEC and we have to remind them what it is going to be like. You have to be ready for this tournament and I am hoping that we are able to prepare them for what is in store.”

Koskela, who said she will be entering her fifth and final AIHEC Tournament, said she works with a lot of the younger players to try to get them used to the rigors of SKC basketball.

“At the beginning of the season, a lot of these girls are coming straight out of high school and we have to tell them ‘this isn’t high school basketball,’” Koskela said. I have to talk to the players that they need to be doing their homework starting in Aug. and that is really important because we are gone every weekend (on the road). It’s important for these girls to know the expectations (at the start of the season).”

Koskela, a senior at SKC and one of the team captains, said she felt it is important to pass on the expectations of the SKC culture and tradition.

“Being from SKC, we always have higher expectations and other programs know our reputation,” Koskela said. “Every year, other teams come a little more prepared. Being a member of SKC, we know we have to be prepared to see the team’s best when we play them.”

Lady Bison’s Coach Juan Perez, now in his 15th season of coaching, has won five AIHEC titles and said he knows it will take a “complete effort.”

“When you are involved so long, you have an idea of what it takes to be successful in the tournament,” Perez said. “Our players know and understand what they need to do (in the tournament) and we really just push them to excel.”

Perez talked about the increased level of competition every season at AIHEC, and because of this, his team increased its strength of schedule in preparation for the tournament.

“We try to schedule games where we are going to have to work hard and grow as a team,” Perez said. “That will hopefully be our preparation for the tournament. We played tougher teams earlier in the season and that really helped build character. We were able to work on our strengths and weaknesses. Our record was actually better and we won’t necessarily face the same caliber of teams at AIHEC (that we faced earlier in the season).”

Perez talked about the difficulty of pool play as he anticipated tough games from Stonechild. Currently, the Lady Bisons are 3-1 against them in the regular season.

“Our mentality is that preparing for AIHEC is a gradual process, we don’t want to peak too early, and we want to be playing our best basketball at AIHEC,” Perez said. “The last two weeks we’ve done some lifting, on-court drills and basketball-specific drills for conditioning and development. We practice a couple of hours a night to get to the point where we need to be at during the season. One of the teams that we have to play (in pool play) has won the tournament the last two seasons. We will be hunting for that championship in the second game.”

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