Basketball is king for many youth in rural Alaska. A brightly lit gymnasium and rack of basketballs can serve as a refuge from the long winters and cold nights that characterize the far North.
Two of the Seawolves’ own grew up in this environment. Senior forward Christian Leckband of the men’s team was raised in Nome, Alaska and starred for Nome-Beltz High School from 2007-11.
Senior guard Jenna Buchanan was recruited by the Seawolves out of Galena, Alaska, a small village in between Fairbanks and Nome on the Yukon River. Buchanan played on the Galena High School team from 2008-2012 and helped the Lady Hawks win their first-ever state championship as a senior.
The similarities between Leckband and Buchanan don’t stop there. Prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, the two have played in the exact same number of college games: 83. The two also shoot the three ball with virtually the same precision. Over the past three seasons, Leckband has shot 39% from long range while Buchanan has shot 40%.
In an exclusive interview with The Northern Light (pages 16-17), TNL delves more deeply into the lives and basketball careers of these two Alaskans.
Major: Early Childhood Development
Minor: Special Education
TNL: What was distinct about growing up and playing basketball in a rural community?
Buchanan: “Well, basketball is huge in Galena and in all rural villages. It’s like that’s the only thing to really do. There’s school and then there’s basketball. That’s a big reason why I chose to play basketball — both my parents coached, so I was always around it. I would say growing up in a village is a big reason why I’m here at UAA. They [the Galena community] support athletics so much. I traveled to basketball camps and I played all through high school and junior high and it was all the fundraising that I did back at home that allowed me to go to those places. Their support is a big reason why I’m here and I chose to stay in Alaska, because I wanted to be close to home and be able to see people that I grew up and have them be able to watch me play.”
Who has been your biggest mentor regarding your basketball career?
“I’ve had several. When I was younger, there was this girl who used to babysit me and she also played basketball for my mom. She played at UAF actually. She’s a big reason why I chose to play basketball because I just wanted to be like her. And then my mom and my dad have been big with basketball — they both coached and both played. And then the coaching staff we have here [at UAA] has taken my development to a whole other level.”
How has UAA basketball contributed to your college experience?
“Playing college basketball is definitely hard because you are traveling so much and you have to keep up with school, but I really don’t know how much school I would’ve actually gone to had I not been a part of basketball. The reason I am going to classes and passing classes and doing the best in my classes as I can is so that I can play basketball. And then being a part of the athletic community here has really helped out with my college experience. I know so many people because the athletic community here is so big. I automatically have this friend group. And then having the teammates that I have just makes everything so much better.”
What’s the hardest part about being a student athlete?
“The traveling is the hardest part. We have about five days at Christmas to go home and then we don’t get a spring break at all. That’s kind of hard, you know? Our season is seven months long, including preseason, and so not being able to go home and visit is definitely hard, but the traveling during school aspect is definitely hardest. Our teachers here at UAA are so helpful — we tell them right away ‘You know these are the days we are going to be gone,’ and they work with us so that we can achieve as high as we can in those classes.”
What do you want out of your Senior basketball season?
“The ultimate goal is to win a national championship. Last year, we were able to be number one in the nation. We were able to host the West regions here and then we ended up losing in the first round. So, you know, on this last go around, it would be nice to finish out on a win and to be a national champion.”
What’s the UAA Seawolves women’s basketball been like since you’ve been playing? How does this year’s team compare?
“My freshman year here was actually a very unique year. We had a brand new coaching staff, so our coaches now have actually only been here for four years as well. So it’s been a learning experience — I think for everyone. To see where we were our freshmen year to now is crazy. I don’t now what to say so far about this year — we’re five games in and we’re 5 [wins] and 0 [losses]. Last year, we had a pretty good record with 29 and 2 which is unbelievable. I think my freshmen year we only won 17 games, so it’s a big jump. It’s nice to see the growth and where we’ve come in these four years.”
What do you attribute the improvement in the team over the last four years to?
“Well, our freshman year we got a new coach and it was pretty late in the year, like right when school started. A lot of players had left the year before, so we had about seven players and that was it, that’s what we had to work with. So the next year, the coach was able to recruit players and slowly build what his vision of the program was to be. So a lot of it has to do with that — the building of the vision. We have seven seniors this year, so leadership is huge. We have two of us who have gone through four years here — and some that are here for their first year, but a lot of us have been through the system for a couple years now and I think that really helps. We know what is to be expected.”
What are your plans after you graduate?
“So I have one more year and then, I don’t really know what I want to do. I don’t know if I want to jump right in to teaching. I might to just get a job for a while and kind of just, live my life a little bit. Being in college sports, and my whole life, everything has been devoted to basketball. Like, my summers, while yes, it is a free summer, I am still training every single day. I want to hang out for a while. I want to have a job that doesn’t commit me somewhere forever.”
What’s your favorite part about playing basketball?
“My favorite part about playing basketball is the competition part. I love seeing the other team, there, in their jerseys, and knowing that we’re about to go to war with this team.”
What has been your favorite shootout memory thus far?
“Beating UC Riverside in double over time in 2013.”
Who is your favorite basketball player?
“Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.”
What do you, in particular, bring to the Seawolves Women’s basketball team?
“I think something that I bring to the team would probably be leadership. I’ve been here for four years, under the same coaching staff, and I know what is to be expected.”
Have you had a favorite class at UAA?
“My favorite class was my English class my freshman year. It was just a lot of fun. She [my teacher] made it very fun and I learned so much. It was a great way to start of my transition to college.”