Taking her game to national heights

NCTC Pioneer Women’s Basketball player and former Gator Carly Mekash goes up for the layup during a game versus Central Lakes College. (photos by Mike Korczak)

Greenbush native Carly Mekash smiles as she plays in a game as a NCTC Pioneer. Mekash was recently named a NJCAA First Team All-American for her play during the 2019-20 season, one seeing the Pioneers finish as the national runner-up.

The Northland Community and Technical College (NCTC) Pioneers Women’s Basketball Team, including Greenbush native and former Gator Girls Basketball player, Carly Mekash, received an announcement while riding the bus on its way to its opening round game of the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III National Tournament at Rockford Valley College in Rockford, Ill., on March 12. The team would have no fans cheering them on in the bleachers thanks COVID-19.

“We were upset about it, but we knew we could handle it,” Mekash said. “It wasn’t going to be a setback for us.”

They handled it by securing two wins to advance to the National Championship game versus sixth-seeded Western Technical College. The Pioneers fell 69-60 to finish as the national runner-up on March 13.

Mekash talked about her team’s run to the national title game, her career as a Pioneer in Thief River Falls, her passion for the game, and her future plans. Pioneer Head Women’s Basketball Coach Shannon Nelson discussed Mekash as both a player and person, and this season’s team.

As a 2018 Greenbush-Middle River graduate, Mekash played volleyball, basketball, and softball, and enjoyed them all, but none more than basketball, having a special place in her heart. She has played the game since fourth grade.

“I’ve been in the gym since I was born basically because (my older sister) Ashley would have been a seventh grader at that time. So I was raised in a gym basically,” Mekash said. “… My love of basketball really came from my family too. It was almost like tradition.”

After her Gator athletic days, she had to decide where she wanted to continue her athletic career. After seeing the success her older sister Tori experienced at NCTC, she decided to become a Pioneer too.

“I wanted to go on and make it to a national tournament like all these other teams have done. And I never got to that top level (section title/state tournament berth) in high school,” Mekash said. “So it just made me hungry and makes me want to go somewhere where I know the coach is good, I know the assistants are good and I know the team is good and we’d be successful.”

As a freshman at NCTC, she played as a guard/forward, playing inside and outside. At that time, the Pioneers had a big inside presence. That season, Mekash averaged 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. During her sophomore season, Mekash would get pushed inside as a post player, scoring 19.6 points and recording 11.3 rebounds per game. Nationally, she finished third in field goal percentage (59.6) and tenth in total rebounds (316) during her sophomore season. Recognized for her efforts this season, she was named a NJCAA First-Team All-American.

Her ability to embrace this role helped the team advance to a national championship game. Mekash was comfortable with the change and confident in her ability to score and rebound in the paint regardless of being undersized for the position. The team listed her as 5’9, a height Coach Nelson said was a “little generous.” She made up for this height with her work ethic, relentlessness, and ability to score in numerous ways.

“She was unwilling to give up, to give up a ball, to give up a rebound,” Coach Nelson said. “So she battled and wasn’t afraid to battle players who had 50 pounds on her at times… five inches on her at times because that’s just the type of player that she is. And she was going to do everything she could in that role to help us win.”

Besides just her play on the court, Coach Nelson thought highly of Mekash off it too, including socially and academically. As a student, she worked hard, and Coach Nelson never had to worry about her.

“She cares about academics and she understands the value of doing well in school,” Coach Nelson said, “and it kind of setting her up for moving on and for the rest of her life. And then, as a person, she’s always been a leader.”

She led both through her words and actions.

“Her teammates have made comments in the past that she’s someone that works so hard that you feel like you have to work hard just so that you can kind of keep up with her,” Coach Nelson said. “… She doesn’t expect anything of other people that she’s not already doing.”

During Coach Nelson and Mekash’s time together, the Pioneers went 23-5 in the 2018-19 season, falling to Hibbing Community College in the region tournament, and went 22-6 in the 2019-20 season, defeating Hibbing 76-52 in the region championship game at home to earn its berth to the national tournament.

At the national tournament, the fourth-seeded Pioneers defeated fifth-seeded North Country Community College 70-61 in the opening round, and then defeated eighth-seeded Cedar Valley College 50-49 in the semifinals to advance to the championship game. At the national tournament, Mekash averaged 10 rebounds and just over 14.5 points per game.

Asked to reflect on her time as a two-sport Pioneer athlete, she pointed right away to the new relationships she developed and the coaching philosophies she experienced.

“For me, who wants to go be a coach, I can be like, ‘Okay, I really like what this person did. I really liked what this person did,’” Mekash said. “It helps me grow as a person too. And I really liked that experience and Northland’s a great stepping stone, especially since I want to go on and play (more) too.”

Now, Mekash is looking to her next court. She’s not sure where she will head to next, having her eyes on a few colleges, but does know she wants to pursue degrees in elementary education and coaching.

Mekash’s national tournament may have included some unexpected turns, but gave her the opportunity to reach new personal heights— a national runner-up finish— with a program she has was proud to join. During her time there, she also made others proud for the way she conducted herself in the many courts of her life.

“She’s really an all-around kid in so many different aspects of her life… She just does things the right way,” Coach Nelson said. “And I think that made her such a good representative of our program, and our college and also a good representative for our communities, obviously Greenbush, and then also Thief River Falls and this region. I think people would be proud to say that she kind of represented our region.”

To see the full story, read the April 8 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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