Former Muskies learn on the college courts

The familiar confines of Fort High’s “Fish Tank” and Rainy River Community College across the river in International Falls may be mere kilometres apart but for first-year hoopsters John Sivonen and Sarah Noonan, the change from high school to college has taken some adjusting.
“I have a completely different role than last year,” said Noonan, 18, on her first year as a starting guard for the Lady Voyageurs, averaging close to six points per game.
“I’m no longer the best shooter on this team,” she noted. “It’s a different role for sure, more of a defensive role. That’s something I’m trying to focus on.”
Meanwhile, Sivonen, 19, is coming off his last Muskie season in 2000-01 where he, along with fellow graduates Gary Wager and Evan Woodland, accounted for 70 percent of the senior boys’ offence in leading the black-and-gold to their first provincial berth in 24 years.
These days, he’s content with averaging 10 minutes of playing time a game as a point guard rather than a shooting guard who’s given free reign on the high school courts.
“It’s a little bit of a change for me,” Sivonen admitted. “The important thing is to continue to improve.”
The sheer pace of Division III basketball—where entire teams are made up of top players from various high schools—was the biggest difference the former Muskies had to make.
“It’s a lot faster. Just a little more athletic than high school ball,” said Sivonen while watching the Lady Voyageurs defeat the Central LakesRaiders Saturday before his team was to step on the court.
“It’s just a total step-up,” agreed Noonan. “Every player is capable of stepping up here.”
Both their teams are in the hunt for Minnesota Junior Community College conference titles. The men are 5-6 overall while the women are 11-2—and ranked second in the U.S. among National Junior College Athletic Association teams.
Lady Voyageurs head coach Dieter Humbert, who first scouted Noonan during a summer league over there, admitted he’s only tried to recruit from Fort High a handful of times in the 14 years he’s headed the program.
But he was happy RRCC landed her.
“It’s a big jump but Sarah’s really made a quick transition,” he said. “She’s learning to expand her vision to see the floor better. She’s a real asset to our team.”
Noonan was a real asset to her Muskie girls’ volleyball, soccer, and basketball teams last year (all three of which competed in their respective NWOSSAA finals), winning female athlete-of-the-year honours in the process.
She admitted it was a tough choice between pursuing college basketball and coming back to Fort High for her OAC year.
“I definitely do miss my high school teams but this was the better choice for me,” Noonan remarked. “This experience is really something that will prepare me.
“I don’t think I would have gotten that playing for the Muskies.”
Sivonen, who like Noonan is in the standard two-year general studies program at RRCC, was drawn to the program as a way to get his feet wet—both on the court and in the classroom.
“I didn’t have an idea what I wanted to do. This was a good opportunity to stay close to home and take some courses,” he reasoned.
And mere kilometres certainly isn’t much compared to the distance between how Canadians and Americans feel about basketball.
“It’s weird. We’re so close but they have a different mindset when it comes to basketball,” Noonan noted. “The sport is just a big part of them. The team gets great fan support. In Fort, everything seems to revolve around hockey.
“It’s just a nice change.”
“Of course [basketball] is more popular in the U.S. than it is back home,” echoed Sivonen. “Canadians are starting to appreciate it a little more but not on the same level as Americans.”
Still, neither one has totally shaken the black-and-gold out of their system. Sivonen competes against current and former Muskies during the Monday night men’s league at Fort High while Noonan helped Mike Busch coach the junior girls’ basketball team to NorWOSSA gold this past fall.
“I loved coaching,” she said. “I didn’t make it to as many practices as I’d liked but that was a talented group of girls.
“I’d definitely like to help make basketball a little bigger in town.”