Following Nikolaevsk School’s end-of-the-year awards assembly on May 19, the students, faculty, staff and a scattering of parents were asked to stay seated. There was one more recognition in store.
“We are making history today,” said Bea Klaich, head coach of Nikolaevsk’s girls varsity basketball team.
To her left sat a smiling Nianiella Dorvall, a high school senior, surrounded by her family — parents, Dan and Luba Dorvall, and younger sister, Anastacia.
Monday, Nianiella became Nikolaevsk’s first female athlete to sign a letter of intent to play college basketball. She will be attending and playing for Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington.
Nianiella has been a rising Nikolaevsk basketball star since she began playing in the third grade. As an eighth-grader, she began playing on the high school basketball team, something allowed by the Alaska Student Activities Association for schools with less than 30 students. This year, the 6-foot-1 center wrapped up her high school basketball career by being named the Class 1A Player of the Year.
It isn’t just her athleticism that was noticed by colleges, however, a fact Klaich made clear to Nikolaevsk students.
“The first thing (recruiters) look at isn’t how you play sports, it’s your academics,” Klaich said.
Nianiella has a 4.0 grade-point average. Factor in the college-level courses she’s taken, enough to equal at least one college semester, and her GPA rises to 4.042. During Monday’s awards assembly, she received outstanding achievement awards for Russian, mathematics, social studies and science, as well as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent’s Award of Excellence. She has served on the student council since her sophomore year and was recognized for her contributions as editor of the school’s yearbook.
As good as she is at basketball, Nianiella views her ability as a steppingstone to where she wants education to take her — a career in radiology. That goal helped her choose Skagit Valley’s offer of academic and sports scholarships instead of offers she received from other colleges.
“I sat down and talked it over with the coach and my parents and academics came first,” said Nianiella. “Skagit was a better fit.”
After being named the 1A player of the year, Nianiella was invited to play at the Girls All-Star game in Anchorage in April. Klaich was invited coach one of the all-star teams and took Nianiella along to participate.
“In conjunction with the All-Star Game, there was an ‘Exposure Camp’ for female high school basketball athletes put on by Jim Young, the Dimond High School varsity coach,” said Klaich. “He had invited college coaches from Washington and Oregon to come up to scout Alaska’s best basketball players.”
Six coaches accepted Young’s invitation, putting on a two-day workout for players wanting to show their talents and possibly be recruited. Three Nikolaevsk players — Kayla Stafford, Sophia Kalugin and Nianiella — took part in the Exposure Camp.
“I told Nianiella not to participate and get scouting coaches’ hopes up thinking that she night potentially play for them unless she was serious about playing college ball,” said Klaich. “She chose to participate, with my blessing of course.”
Having watched Nianiella develop as a basketball player over the years, Klaich knew she was an athlete that had her priorities in order.
“She has always been an ‘academics first’ young lady and excels at anything she does,” Klaich said. “She began playing at a young age and put a lot of time and work into her game. She never was overconfident in her skills, but little by little gained confidence as she attended a variety of summer camps and played varsity level ball beginning at eighth grade.”
Nianiella’s hometown, Nikolaevsk, was founded east of Anchor Point in the 1960s as a Russian Old Believer community. The village has approximately 350 residents, approximately 75 percent of them, including the Dorvall family, are Russian Old Believers. The school has about 66 K-12 students, 16 of them in high school.
Dan Dorvall is the school’s custodian; Luba Dorvall is a tutor and works in student nutrition. Their eldest daughter, Priscilla, 22, works for International Data Systems in Anchorage. Nianiella is their middle daughter. Their youngest, Anastacia, is in the eighth grade and also interested in playing basketball.
On June 15, Dorvall will participate for the second summer in the Della Keats Health Sciences Summer Program, a University of Alaska Anchorage School of Medicine program that encourages students’ interest in the medical professions. Classes for the fall quarter at Skagit Valley begin Sept. 22.
“To Nianiella, basketball is a great tool to help her achieve her goal of ultimately becoming a radiologist,” said Klaich. “If her basketball skill can help her achieve her career goals, she is all for it.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.