By Dan Ninham
Celleia Simmons Merrill is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota and she is also from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She is a senior at Isle High School during the school day and competes with the Mille Lacs Raiders basketball team after school. The Raiders are a cooperative school between Isle HS and Onamia HS. She has played basketball in Isle since the fourth grade and also competed for the Finest Basketball Club (FBC) AAU basketball team.
Simmons Merrill has had more than a few highlights in her basketball career. She was named the Most Valuable Player of her team and also named honorable mention All Great River Conference her junior year.
Another highlight of her athletic career was being named team captain as a junior and senior. Her leadership was a strong part of her game to show others they can play and practice the best they can.
“I think a major value I have while competing is having humility while playing and practicing,” said Simmons Merrill. “But also having respect for my teammates and opponents.”
During her recent senior night, she had a career high 21 points. She said, “It was just a fun night with my team, and after hearing my teammates’ speeches about the seniors it made me want to play harder.”
Mentors help guide student athletes to work for their goals on and off the court. Gail and Terry Oswald, Celleia’s junior high coaches, also served as her mentors. “They really made me into the player I am today, and without them I probably wouldn’t have played basketball at all.”
“I think being honorable mention really pushed me my senior year,” said Simmons Merrill. “I wanted to try new things outside of my conformist zone like being the point guard or just having the ball more. It was kind of reassuring, and it made me feel actually good at the sport and made me feel like I had made a lot of progress throughout the years.”
“Being captain helped me learn to advocate for other players on the team and also advocate for myself about my exceptions for the team. It was also a big responsibility, like making sure I stayed focused at practice and holding my teammates accountable,” she added.
“My junior high coaches really impacted my basketball career my seventh and eighth grade years,” said Simmons Merrill. “They urged me to be confident when I had the ball and taught me all my post moves. This is also when I started getting varsity playing time and they were really supportive and helped me whenever I was nervous about practicing or playing varsity. They were always willing to go to the gym during summer or off season and practice shooting and helping me get stronger underneath the basket.”
Gail Oswald talked about one of her junior high volleyball and basketball athletes. She said, “My husband and I continued to help and support her throughout her high school athletic career by working with her on her skills and attending her games. I have watched Celleia over the years grow into being a leader on and off the court. She earned the title of captain her junior and senior year which is indicative of her leadership skills. She was the voice for her team between the players and Coach when needed.”
“Celleia also organized Captain’s practice and communicated team information. Celleia took an active role in organizing and participating in a Native American presentation for our student body,” added Oswald.
Katie Raverty, American Indian Liaison for Isle Schools, has a daughter on the team this season. She looks up to Celleia as many others do.
“Celleia is an amazing role model, excels in sports and academics, and has the best sense of humor,” said Raverty.
“Celleia is our senior captain,” said Aleia Haggberg, head varsity girls basketball coach for the Mille Lacs Raiders. “She is an outstanding young lady. She creates a fun atmosphere on the court for our team. On the court she is averaging 7.6 points, almost eight rebounds, two assists, and one block a game for the season. She took on a new role this season as our ball handler.”
“Off the floor Celleia is a great student. She is currently undecided on a college but wants to pursue a degree in tribal policies. Our team will miss Celleia next season!” added Haggberg.