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.
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)
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
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.
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
"They probably already know," Berridge replied. "You can't hide
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
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
"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
Winnebago knew it belonged. One year later, with Berridge coaching
solo, his team proved it.
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?"
They high-fived him, even hugged him. They'd been following
"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
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
Mathew Wingett, state championship medal around his neck, watched
the kid and laughed.
"It's his time to shine."