TOPPENISH, Wash. — Moving to another school wasn't the issue for Isiah Strom when he got the news before his eighth-grade year. He'd moved before, even to another state, and handled it well.
It was which school.
"There was this perception by most everybody that it was a last-resort school," he recalls. "It was mostly for kids who were kicked out of other schools. This is where they went for a last chance."
Nevertheless, Strom was enrolled at Yakama Nation Tribal School in the fall of 2013 as part of a major family move and nothing on the little Toppenish campus has been the same since.
Today, with one step inside the school's front door, there's a completely different feel. And, through the gym doors to the left, you can hear the reason why.
"Every school and team has a concept of family, but for these kids it goes much further," says Arlen Washines, a former head coach and now mentor for the Eagles. "There has been a stigma here as kind of a daycare for troubled kids, but now there is such pride. These kids feel good about themselves, and they embrace the idea of playing for their people."
Two years after Isiah arrived, his twin brothers Bryce and Bryan enrolled in the school, which spans eighth through 12th grades and requires students to be of at least one-quarter Native American descent. Together they helped Yakama Nation Tribal earn the program's first trip to the Class 1B state tournament after over four decades of trying.
It wasn't a quick visit. They brought home a fifth-place trophy — the school's first in any sport.
And it was just the beginning.
The Eagles have returned to Spokane every year since — earning trophies each time — and last season they reached the championship game for their best run yet. This year's boys squad, which was named the WIAA's team of the month for December, is 12-2 with a nine-game win streak.
"I look at it as an honor playing here," says junior Mylo Jones, who came from White Swan to Yakama Tribal before his sophomore year. "I've learned so much about the culture and the tribe. I can introduce myself and count to 30 in the native language. We get so much support from our community and it's growing. I never imagined any of this when I came here."
In the beginning, neither did the Stroms.
In 2013, Adam and Relyn Strom decided it was time to bring their family back together again. Adam was the boys basketball coach at Hermiston, Ore., Relyn was the principal at Yakama Nation Tribal and all that commuting was wearing thin.
With Isiah entering eighth grade, and eligible for YNT's varsity, Adam moved back to the Valley as a teacher and coach for the school. Adam was a member of the Yakama Nation but hadn't raised his kids with a full measure of the history and culture, so this was an opportunity for his boys to experience it.
It was a move that made perfect sense for the family, but for a coach who had built a nice resume at larger schools it was jarring to say the least.
"In the classes and in the halls, I don't want to make to sound like the kids were bouncing off the walls but there wasn't much foundation or structure for them," he says. "Accountability and discipline, things that have haunted this school in the past, needed work. The school needed an identity, some source of pride to help remove that sigma of being a drop-out school."
And so it began.
Adam attracted enough players to form a JV team that first season, and on the way to the first game he and assistant Willy Blodgett had to stop in the Tri-Cities to buy shorts. The program didn't have enough for a second team so they found a Big 5 and bought the cheapest blue shorts they could find.
The Eagles' varsity found quick success with Adam's guidance, sharing a league title the first season and advancing to regionals in 2014 and 2015. But they came up short in pursuit of the school's much-coveted first trip to Spokane. And this, too, was tied to a perception about Yakama Tribal basketball that, at the time, was mostly true.
"The idea was if you could get us into a fundamental, more disciplined game you could beat us," Adam says. "These were just kids who wanted to run and shoot and didn't necessarily care that much about a team outcome. Those first two years with the losses at regionals, we were still learning how to win big games like that."
What Adam and others were working against was a cultural mindset that saw failure coming and, in most cases, simply expected it. Kids who had — and were — enduring challenges and hardships in and out of school found it difficult to trust these new demands and the rewards they might offer.
But, by increments, a transformation was in motion.
"There was a huge shift going on around that time, you could definitely feel it," Isiah says. "We were understanding how to play the game better, how to be a team, and we were winning more. More and more people from our community were coming to the games, and it was a cultural thing for us. Things were changing."
For the 2015-2016 season, Adam had several key players back and a few additions, kids who saw what was happening at the Tribal school and wanted to be a part of it. That team broke through with a regional victory, moved on to Spokane, reached the state semifinals and brought home a a prize that once seemed unattainable.
The Yakama Nation Tribal Council issued a proclamation for a day of appreciation in recognition of the school's first state trophy.
"For those kids, that was just huge," Adam says. "They could see how they weren't just playing for their school, they were playing for their people. That was kind of a turning point for the whole school. We had something to rally around, something that was ours."
Isiah's younger brothers were eighth-graders on that team, having come in from Wapato Middle School. They had both imagined playing for Wapato's highly successful program — where Adam once coached — but they had no issue with sticking to the family plan.
It wasn't just about basketball, it was something much bigger. Just look at the mascot logo of Xwayama, the golden eagle from local native legend.
"When my parents said they wanted us to go to the Tribal school, I understood why and I liked it right away," Bryce says. "They wanted us to learn more about our culture and be a part of it. Looking back, it was a blessing. Everything has grown and changed here and there's so much pride now. It has changed me."
After three seasons building the boys program to new heights, Adam took the women's coaching job at Yakima Valley College in 2016. He stayed on the campus, soon becoming YNT's principal and athletic director, but the Eagles remained in the hands of a Strom as Adam's brother, Greg, took over.
With Adam's three boys on the roster along with his own son, Justin, Greg has done just fine. His first team returned to Spokane to place fourth, the Eagles then won a school-record 21 games in 2018 and last year they reached the championship game for another program first.
The foundation grows firmer, and the trajectory remains upward.
"I've tried to keep us growing together as a program," Greg says during one of his busy and crowded practices. "In the earlier years, the comfort zone was running up and down the floor. What Adam started we've built on — learning new sets, slowing down at times and coaching other ways to play. I've had a lot of help from a lot of people."
More than the trophies is the growing participation. The little school is currently fielding three boys teams with a turnout of 38 while the girls have 26 in John Scabbyrobe's program. Over 50% of the student body is involved in fall and winter athletics.
These burgeoning programs have quickly outgrown the school's gym, which can't contain the rising popularity. The Eagles have only four home games scheduled this season and the home contest with rival Sunnyside Christian on Feb. 7 will be played at Granger to accommodate the large crowd.
But it's a small price to pay for what the school has gained.
An identity. And it's taken seriously.
Both the boys and girls teams recite a Tribal prayer and sing a song before games, and they eagerly look forward to hosting the school's annual tradition-laden dinner for Tribal elders. Greg is planning to take his boys for a team sweat before district at a longhouse in Brownsville.
"Maybe there was a reputation here as a school for troubled kids, but all I see now are kids who actually want to be here," Bryce says. "It's not only to play basketball but to learn about the culture. To me, it feels more like a family than a school."
Stronger than ever
Yakama Nation Tribal School still harbors a student body faced with many of the hardships that plague its culture at large — poverty, alcoholism and parental absenteeism. Adam doesn't like to use the phrase, but concedes historical trauma has an undeniable presence.
But, he quickly adds, the school has made incredible progress in recent years and evidence is everywhere. The revolving door of kids coming and going has been mostly shuttered, and athletics, he's convinced, has been the catalyst.
"We can see so many parallels with what's happening on and off the court," Adam says. "These kids have made a strong connection to their community and they feel a responsibility with that. Behavior issues are down and attendance is up. We're now attracting more applicants for our teaching positions because they've heard positive things.
"We've come so far and so many people have had a hand in this," he adds. "We pride ourselves on being a school of choice and not a school of last resort."
Washines, the Human Services Deputy Director for the Yakama Nation, is grateful this bond between the school and community has become so deep. It's not that people hadn't tried before, but it's clicked with this generation.
"This school has always been a great help to some kids, especially those with broken homes or who are homeless," he explains. "A lot of kids were just here on their own, but now you see a stronger feeling of family. I talk to these kids and they listen, they understand that the Tribe is their fan base. It's their people."
The Yakama Nation community that's embracing the school and these teams spans all ages, from the elders who perform pre-game drum chants to the little kids who revere the varsity players.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on them about being role models," Greg says, "but there are a lot of young eyes on them."
If it's any pressure, it's the kind these teenagers don't mind. They try to win or lose with class, show respect on and off the court and embrace the expectations of their native community.
Isiah, now a sophomore guard at YVC, was there when it all started. He knows the distance that's been covered.
"There's an identity now and the negative has been taken out," he insists. "I go around the Northwest playing in college games and guys have heard of our school and they know it's strong. It all starts with representing the school and Tribe in the right way.
"These guys now, I'm so excited for them. It seems like they're on a mission with a chance to do something special."
It's already happening.
• Reach Scott Spruill at email@example.com and follow him on twitter at @ScottSpruill.