I had my fingers crossed Wednesday night at DeVries Activity Center that the Runnin’ Vikes would run well against the defending NWAC champion North Idaho Cardinals.
I’d been out to practice a little bit, but this was the first chance to see the guys in action. Runnin’ Vikes coach Mingo Scott had tipped me off to a pretty cool story earlier in the year about 23-year-old Moses Lake native Denis Ulyanchuk. Folks around here remember Denis (with one N) from his days at Moses Lake High School back in 2012.
Ulyanchuk has an associate’s degree and is taking high-end mathematics classes to prepare for a degree in mechanical engineering. Guy’s got smarts. Yep, he can spell SAT, probably even pass one.
But the thing that makes Big Denis’ story kind of cool is that he’s 23 years old, running the floor with the young lions. As the story goes, he wandered into DeVries Activity Center looking for some hoops, got to shooting around with the guys when someone says, “I like this new recruit coach.”
Mingo’s socks are twirling up and down, “I didn’t recruit him.”
You can’t have too many 6-foot-6 power forwards wander into camp, playing like the second-coming of Kevin McHale. Old guy or not, this guy has hops.
To cut to the chase a little bit, Big Denis tweaked a knee in the very first game of the season and has been wearing a brace, hobbling around through shoot-arounds and practice. He didn’t play the entire first half of the non-league schedule. So, I was hoping Wednesday would be the breakout night.
I was truly happy for him when he returned to the floor in Moses Lake for the first time in five years. He’s got game and I was looking forward to see what he could do against the NIC Bigs that go 6-7, 6-7, 6-10 across the blocks.
The Runnin’ Vikes were down 15 at the half, so they were trying to throw down some 3-balls to get back into it in a hurry. Koby Huerta’s trey caught the front end and popped straight up. Big Denis swooped in from the wing for the offensive board and the putback. I’m thinking, something good is gonna happen.
But then they go down to the defensive end, where a sudden move was too much for the bum wheel and Big Denis went to the floor where he sat for a moment or two. As you would expect with two high-flying offenses in the same gym, the ball came back down the floor in a rush. But my gaze stayed with Big Denis, who hobbled from the floor straight to the end of the bench waving to Scott he was done for the night.
I’ve had my share of gimpy knees and a six-inch railroad track scare to prove it, so I knew exactly what had happened. You can’t play scared and when you react with an unfit joint that gives way, all you can do is dust yourself off.
“This happened the very first game, the very first game, man,” he said, still able to produce that big ol’ crooked smile.
Always being one to console, I said, “The good news is you shot 100 percent (1-1) from the floor.”
“Don’t forget that offensive rebound,” Big Denis said.
I truly hope it’s not the last time we see Ulyanchuk on the floor, because he is such a force to be reckoned with. I’d hate to see a guy miss out on running the floor one more time. But he’s got plans, a degree and a career waiting.
Besides, maybe he can go join the old guys on the Big Bend baseball team.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org