To be sure, the two National JC Athletic Association Division l two-year schools in Montana – Dawson and Miles – get little if any national attention.
But all of that is changing, slowly but surely, since seven years ago Coach Joe Peterson came back to Glendive, where he played (1994-96) in the rural eastern part of the state with a population of about 8,000. The town is most noted in the paleontology world for the many dinosaur bones discovered there. And the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is the largest dinosaur museum in the U.S. That may give local residents something to hang their collective hat on, but Coach Peterson is most concerned about putting a good hoops product on the floor. And he’s done that quite well considering Dawson has won at least 20 games in each of the last five seasons.
When the Bucs qualified for the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kans. in April of 2021, it was the school’s first trip there since it fielded a team 63 years ago. Dawson is a small school – it has a student body of about 350 – with 10 sports available, including rodeo and esports (video games) and so naturally that was a big deal to them and to the community. And, to be sure, Peterson’s task in the just completed season (27-6) was easier thanks in part to a pair of Dallas, Texas products, Jalen and JaJuan Tot, who are pretty much in the same boat as Dawson: they have gotten little attention on the national front. But at Dawson they have made a big difference.
Tot and Tot are a pair of sophomores who are a part of a set of triplets with sister Nevaeh (heaven spelled backwards), who played at Oklahoma last season. Their mother, Helen Darling, played in the WNBA. A second-round pick who played for four teams 2000-2010, she was the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year (2000) while at Penn St. Jalen and JaJuan, she said, started playing basketball when they were in first grade.
Said Darling: “I think they started playing when they saw me play, but eventually the goal when they kept playing was for them to get a scholarship out of high school.” Darling was in a unique position because she knew how to play the game quite well and was a mother, too. How did she keep the roles on track? Said Darling: “In the third grade I told them that we would spend 5-to-10 minutes after a game talking basketball, and then I would be their Mom.”
Jalen and JaJuan – both considered Low Major prospects, according to Peterson – are making their own unique paths. Jalen is a 6-0 guard, a feisty, quick and competitive player, and JaJuan, a 6-0 guard, who has the knowledge to run a team and to get other players involved in the game. They aren’t the type of players who could make big changes in a NCAA Division l program, but they are players who could steady a program. Since Peterson employs the platoon system – he plays five players then subs with a second five, etc. – both saw ample playing time. “Jalen has an attacking mindset,” said Peterson. “He is exciting to watch because he has a great feel for the game. He has a knack for scoring and is a really good athlete. JaJuan is a pass-first point guard who does a great job of getting others involved. He can shoot it and score when he needs to but prefers to set up others. He also really gets down and guards people.”
Jalen, the team’s top scorer, averaged 10.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists. 2.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals while shooting 45 percent in the just-completed season. He was consistent – scoring over 8 points in 25 of the 31 games played; he reached double digits in 18 games and played an average of just over 20 minutes. JaJuan started every game all season – going an average 24 minutes – and came up with an average 9.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds.
Jalen said he and JaJuan came to Dawson sight unseen, not that really unusual considering Dawson’s location. Coaches at the NCAA Division l level were not breaking down doors to get to either one of them to play for them out of high school. No matter. Coach Peterson showed an interest and they went from Dallas to Glendive.
Said Jalen: “It was pretty far away from Dallas and I found out it was a lot different. It was hot or nice in Dallas, and there were tall buildings. But it wasn’t that way in Glendive. I had to adapt. It was a different culture. It took some time to get used to, but the people were good to me. I met a lot of ranchers and other people in town. Being at Dawson has helped my game. It gave me time to develop in a lot of ways.”
“It’s a different atmosphere,” said JaJuan of Glendive. “There was a lot of land, mountains and stuff. Nothing like Dallas. At first I got a little homesick, but I grew to like it. The people there treat you like family. They try to get you what you need. And I feel like I am a lot smarter on the floor than when I got here. It’s a good place to come if you want to concentrate on basketball. It’s you and the gym.”
For his part, Peterson likes it at Dawson, no matter the attention or the setting. “This place just sticks with you,” he said. “The people are great. They are so friendly and welcoming. On the court we work hard to help our players develop and to get pride in themselves. We help players move on to the four-year level after Dawson. We have a culture centered around Effort, Attitude and Teamwork.”
Peterson’s efforts have not gone unnoticed on the four-year school front. Says Coach Mark Slessinger of the University of New Orleans: “Simply put, Joe is one of the best. I can say with full confidence that he is a person of integrity and high moral character.”
Dawson’s location has made it easy to overlook, but it is getting second looks after winning the Region 13 championship three seasons in a row. And the Tots have proven that they are a good couple of players to have on a four-year school roster. Said Peterson: “I've had several calls this year from coaches who coached against some of our former players. They were impressed with how good the players were and how hard they played.” And it mattered not if the players got national attention or where the school was located.
JOE PETERSON FILE
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