The people's team
Party won't be in Durango, but Skyhawks are worth celebrating

The people's team

Fort Lewis College Skyhawks celebrate a huge win in Grand Junction last weekend./ Photo by John Livingston

John Livingston - 03/09/2023

Disrespected by the powers that be but far from defeated, Fort Lewis College proved once again it is among the best NCAA Division II basketball colleges in the country.

Now ranked seventh in the nation, the Skyhawks (28-3) traveled to Grand Junction last weekend for the final four of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament. All four teams were ranked in the top 16, all four were selected for the national tournament. But only the Skyhawks lifted the championship trophy.

It was an all-time moment, celebrating on their arch-rival’s court at Colorado Mesa University having beat another longstanding nemesis, No. 13 Colorado School of Mines, 82-76.

“Championship moments, those are special and few and far between, even for programs with a history of winning,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “It made it all that much more special to cut down a rival’s net. The word ‘special’ gets overused, but Saturday night was a masterpiece for our program.”

This was FLC’s second RMAC tournament title and third regular season championship in eight seasons under Pietrack. These Skyhawks also tied their single-season wins record and are guaranteed at least one more game Saturday when they travel to Texas to play against Lubbock Christian in the opening round of the NCAA South Central Region of the national tournament.

“We have a chance to do a few things no Fort Lewis men’s team has ever done, and we all want that opportunity,” FLC senior forward Brenden Boatwright said. “If you really want to see some good basketball, you gotta go watch Fort Lewis play. We play hard, we play fast and, hopefully, most nights, we play good.”

‘Earned the right’

Shocking the deserving Skyhawks and Durango fans, the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament will not be held in Durango despite FLC being ranked No. 1 in the two previous regional polls and only adding to its résumé last weekend. Just as in 2016 when FLC was 27-3, the NCAA awarded the top seed and host rights to a school out of the Lone Star Conference that had a worse overall record. The elevation of Durango was the convenient excuse then. It always comes down to money when the NCAA is involved.

This time, West Texas A&M (25-6), in Canyon, Texas, was selected as host. Conveniently, A&M’s Athletic Director, Michael McBloom, is chair of the Division II Men’s Basketball Committee and oversees NCAA tournament selection and the region committee.

 “This has become the norm, unfortunately,” Pietrack said. “Our program is an underdog in the RMAC when looking at other schools and certainly an underdog in the region.”

Pietrack said as a 23-year resident of Durango and years of “quiet support” from many local fans, he wanted to bring the tournament to the community so they could see the quality of basketball played in the national tournament. “But that’s going to have to wait,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be this year, though I want to make it very clear the players and staff had earned that right.”

Such letdowns aren’t new for the Skyhawks. Pietrack and his predecessor, Bob Hofman, are the only coaches in RMAC history to win a championship and not be named coach of the year.

FLC boasts perhaps the best D-II shooter in the nation in junior guard Akuel Kot, who has set the single-game (45 points) and single-season (756) FLC scoring records. But he was bypassed for player of the year in favor of Black Hills State forward Joel Scott for a second consecutive year. 

Kot, who averages the fourth-most points per game (24.4) in all of D-II, responded in the RMAC semifinals by scoring 32 points to beat Scott’s team for the third time. After he scored another 23 against Mines, Kot was named the tournament’s best player and was showered with “M-V-P” chants from the contingent of FLC fans.

“I couldn’t control the player of the year award, but I could control helping my team win,” Kot said. “I wanted to show everybody what caliber player I am. This whole year, we’ve gotten no credit, so we’ve expected all of this.”

‘A really sweet tasting sauce’

The 2022-23 team represents everything Americans claim to love about sports: a perennial underdog torn down after early success, only to return to prominence.

In 2017, Pietrack was the fastest coach to 50 wins in the history of NCAA men’s basketball. In 2018, he became the fastest to 50 RMAC wins, accomplishing it in only 59 games. It’s been a long road back to a title following three losing seasons from 2019-21 and a first-round tournament exit in 2022. Injuries played a part, and personalities didn’t gel in a manner consistent with contending.

But Pietrack stayed the course no matter how loud naysayers of his leadership became. His record now stands at 159-70, and he owns the second-most wins in program history.

“I think there’s a level of appreciation more than the first time around,” Pietrack said. “The first three years came so quick, but then you have some struggles. Just like anyone in life where you had something and it got taken away, the second time around, you’re just grateful and thankful.”

Fans can also look to the humble superstar Kot, who has overcome growing pains early in his career to reach the pinnacle of D-II basketball. He now draws comparisons to FLC legends such as Joshua Blaylock and DeAndre Lansdowne.

“When my coaching is finished, I’ll look back, and one of the highlights of my life will be being able to say I spent time with Akuel Kot,” Pietrack said. “He’s sensational in every way, and he’d be the easiest player of all time to root for, if you knew his background.”

 Originally from Amarillo, Akuel is the son of Sudanese refugees and one of six children. “His parents work hard every day to just provide enough,” said Pietrack. “And then there’s Akuel, who comes to Fort Lewis and is going to get his degree and is completely changing the stars of his life, and it’s through basketball.”

Boatwright said this year’s team bonded more than any other during his tenure, which started with the 2018 championship. It’s thanks to a core of players that includes Brendan La Rose, Junior Garbrah and Scottie Stafford, who have stuck together instead of looking for opportunities elsewhere.

They’ve also returned to glory behind key acquisitions such as savvy senior guard JaQuaylon Mays and sophomore guard Obi Agbim. And when Pietrack needed to hire a new assistant coach ahead of the 2021-22 season, he found Ty Danielson, who has proven to be the perfect man to become part of the ’Hawks.

“It’s making spaghetti sauce,” Pietrack said of building a roster. “A lot of people think they can make a spaghetti sauce, but it doesn’t all taste the same. You gotta find the right ingredients to make it just perfect. With this group, no matter how it ends here – and I think we’ve got a long way to go – this has been a really sweet-tasting sauce.” ?