MISSOULA — The Arlee Warriors’ backcourt is staying intact and heading east to North Dakota.
Guards Greg Whitesell and Lane Johnson recently signed to play basketball for United Tribes Technical College, a two-year school located in Bismarck, North Dakota. They were on the Arlee teams that won two State C championships and had two runner-up finishes.
“It’s awesome,” Arlee coach Zanen Pitts said of seeing them move on to college. “It’s really rewarding to be able to know that their efforts aren’t going unseen, that they’ve put in all that time and they’re able to continue their passion to keep trying to do something with the game.
“Also what’s cool about having the game of basketball is it’s an incentive for those kids to pursue education and go on into the world to see what else is out there. If it wasn’t for basketball, they may just be continuing the life of living on the Rez. But now they’re able to expand. They’re able to go far away and meet new people and get new connections and become better basketball players and pursue their passion of getting a degree.”
Whitesell was a two-time all-state selection for the Warriors and reached the 1,000-point plateau during his senior season. In college, he’s expecting to move back to point guard, which he played during his first three years at Arlee before switching to shooting guard as a senior.
Since signing in late May, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native is pleased to have his future plans in place and reach his goal of getting a college education while playing basketball.
“It was a long and stressful period because I didn’t know where I was going to be at or if I even was going to be playing basketball,” Whitesell said. “It was the right decision. I was super excited about it. I was relieved because I knew what I was going to be able to do next year and I knew that my goals were able to be accomplished.”
Johnson switched positions and ran the point for the Warriors during his senior season, in which he was named to the all-conference first team. He earned an all-state nod as a junior. Johnson isn't sure what position he’ll play in college, but Pitts could see him at small forward.
“It’s an amazing feeling knowing that a college thought you were good enough for the next level,” Johnson said, “and now I just wanna work hard to show that I can.”
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Whitesell and Johnson will play for UTTC head coach Pete Conway, a Blackfeet Tribe member. Conway played for Billings West, where he was the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year and Montana’s Mr. Basketball in 1998. He then suited up for Montana State from 1999-2003, was on the 2002 conference championship team and earned all-conference honors in 2003.
“Pete Conway, he’s definitely a good coach,” Whitesell said of why he chose UTTC. “The way he talked to me about the team and the way he approached me and everything was just like you could tell he was real with everything.
“We went down there on a visit about a month ago … and got to tour the campus. It was a really nice campus. It was pretty small, too, so everything you needed was just right there. We played a little bit with the basketball team from last year. Everything just fit well. I enjoyed the campus. I enjoyed the team. You can feel a chemistry there already just from that one time playing. It just seems like the perfect fit.”
As for what sold Johnson on UTTC: “Just how much coach Conway cares about his players and is a great coach. And the school is just like home. There is a powwow in September and (it’s) just a very cultural college.”
With Whitesell and Johnson moving on to the college level, four of the five Arlee basketball players featured on the cover of the New York Times’ April 2018 magazine feature have been or will be playing in college. Phillip Malatare is at North Idaho College, and Will Mesteth is at Salish Kootenai College. The fifth player, all-state center Isaac Fisher, has some offers and is still in the decision process, Pitts said.
Pitts sees high potential for Whitesell and Johnson if they’re willing to put in more work as the competition level increases.
“LJ is a kid who can grind,” Pitts said. “He’s tough. He’s real physical. He likes to get in there and has no problem bumping and grinding with anybody down low, or even out on the perimeter if he’s got to play forward. Obviously, he’s not a big in the college ranks. He’s going to have to improve his ball handling and really become a pure shooter. A pull-up jumper would be really awesome for him because he’s going to play that small forward, wing man.
“Greg, it’s just being able to show that he can play defense at that level when he starts to play against those bigger guards. I really believe that he’s had so many good players around him that he hasn’t even seen the potential that he can reach as a defender because he’s been able to rely on guys that can rotate behind him. When he starts to be put in that situation where he has to really lock down a dude, you’re going to find out that, ‘Oh, this kid, he is as good as I thought he was and he’s tough.’ What’s really special about Greg, too, is he can play both styles. If you want him to slow the ball down and run a methodical game or if you want to turn the tempo up and get up the court, he can play both. Then he’s an incredible shooter, so that makes him a real hard opponent for anyone to guard because you’ve always got to know where he is, no matter the size of him on the court.”