MOSES LAKE — Dennis Ulyanchuk walked into the DeVries Activity Center looking for a place to shoot some hoops during an open gym and ending up jumping in with the Big Bend team. Couple buckets here, couple of buckets there and he started drawing some attention.
“The guys said, ‘I like this new recruit coach,’” second-year Runnin’ Vikes head coach Mingo Scott said with a smile. “Thing is, I hadn’t recruited him. He just walked in looking for a place to play.”
It was a little different for Sadie Nielsen. The Moses Lake native thought the volleyball dream was over when she pursued a track and field career at Brigham Young University. She came back to the Columbia Basin and was helping out Big Bend volleyball coach Mike De Hoog’s wife Jennifer with a summer club team when the topic of playing again came up.
“Jen told me if she could go back and play one more time, she’d do it in a heartbeat. That if I didn’t do this, I’d regret it for the rest of my life,” Nielsen said. “So here I am.”
Funny thing about life, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
The thing about Ulyanchuk and Nielsen, the fact that they both stumbled into a chance to play community college ball isn’t even the weird part.
Their footprints go all the way back to Chief Moses Middle School where a couple of children from Moses Lake first crossed paths. They’re not particularly good friends, but they did go to school together and eventually graduated from Moses Lake High School together in 2013.
Yep, in 2013, now a couple of 23-year-olds from Moses Lake, a half a generation older than people they are playing with, are going to see if they can’t make some noise in the Northwest Athletic Conference in 2018-19.
“They call me the ‘Team Mom’ or ‘Auntie Sadie,’” said Nielsen, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at BYU and an associate’s degree at Big Bend through Running Start, while she was still at Moses Lake High School.
“I will say, I have to warm up a little longer than they do, but it’s been fun. I’ve always loved volleyball so much and I thought the dream was over when I went to BYU. Now I’m back and it seems like I haven’t missed a beat.”
As long as she’s enrolled in 12 credit units, Nielsen has a couple of years of eligibility and the 5-foot-11 middle blocker is part of something special at Big Bend. The Lady Vikings (5-17, 2-4 East) have already won more matches in the first half of the season than they did the previoys two years combined. She’s part of the team changing the culture of the program and that means something in her book.
“I wanted to play volleyball at BYU and tried to get a walk-on tryout, but it never worked out,” Nielsen said. “After I graduated, I stayed in Provo (Utah) just to work, but I always wanted to coach out here at the college level. Then I found out I was eligible, and I thought, why not?”
Ulyanchuk is a 6-3, power forward and should give the Runnin’ Vikes, who last won the East Region in 2016, some added power down low where they will go 6-4, 6-8, 6-7 on the blocks this season. Like Nielsen, the 23-year-old is a half a generation older than the guys he’s running with. He’s not exactly gramps, but he does have to show the kids just out of high school the old guy has hops.
“I haven’t played organized ball for five years, so coming back to play ball is a lot of fun,” said Ulyanchuk, who went to Eastern Washington University to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. “It requires more effort to guard the guys and I really have to hustle down the floor.
“But I’m a little older and I have a bit more court knowledge. It’s funny, I used to watch Big Bend a lot growing up and now I’m here.”
Ulyanchuk has an associate’s degree and is taking high-end mathematics classes to prepare for a degree in mechanical engineering.
“I have to focus with my time management,” Ulyanchuk said. “There’s times when the guys are doing something and I have to say no. It’s pretty much, class, study, workout and basketball.
“But to get back out on the floor is great.”
They’ve gone from Chief Moses Middle School to university campuses in Provo, Utah and Cheney and now they’re back — living the volleyball dream and playing basketball at the next level.
It’s all good.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org