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  • Collin Atwood

Mystic Striker: Great Lakes Christian College's Overcomer



Mystic Striker has lived a life even more unique than her name itself.

But when she settled down at Great Lakes Christian College, she inched towards something missing since she was about 9 years old - a sense of normality.

Then came the summer of 2019 and a hiking trip at Mission Canyon in Montana.

“Mystic watch out, watch out!”

Her friend Alayna Thurmond stood helpless at the bottom of the mountain.

“I see these rocks falling and all you can do is watch.”

Striker had always been fast, really fast. But plummeting boulder fast? Turns out, no. It brutally struck her arm.

Striker screamed in pain while rocks continued to tumble her way. Someone picked her up and ran her down the mountain.

Not knowing what had happened yet, Striker could only notice a dripping on her leg.

“I looked and it’s blood,” Striker says.

Half of Striker’s middle finger on her left hand – her dominant hand – barely hung on.

“I’m never going to play basketball again,” she thought.

With no phone service, Striker’s friend ripped her shirt off, covered the wound and raced to the nearest emergency room - an hour away.

“We walked right in and they took her away immediately,” Thurmond said. “We cried the minute she left the room.”

They transferred her to another hospital and she arrived accompanied by an ultimatum.

Have 10 grueling surgeries to reattach the finger or amputate it.

For Striker, the choice was simple. She needed a normal life.

“Rez kids”

Striker grew up on the 652,000-acre Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, a combination of the Assiniboine and the Gros Ventre tribes.

According to the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, the combined “enrollment” between the two is 4,000 members.

As a member of the Assiniboine tribe, Striker and the other children at the reservation – or “rez kids” as Striker calls them – used to play tag and hide-and-seek with a mile-long radius.

The boundary line seems extreme for a kid’s game, but Striker excelled at running long distances as a child.


Her physical education teacher noticed and recruited her to run the mile at the elementary track and field day before she reached the fifth grade requirement.

She set the school record with a time of 6:23.

“I was running the mile before I could even remember,” Striker says.

While Striker ran on the track during recess one day, a new fate in the form of an orange ball bounced her way.

“The ball had come rolling toward the track at the time,” Striker says. “My friends, they played basketball and they were like, ‘Come shoot with us,’ so I gave it a try.”

Striker’s friends, immediately impressed, asked her to join the fifth-grade travel basketball team.

The team she joined practiced at a fitness center on the reservation. Striker says she caught on quickly with the dribbling drills, but was too “jumpy and anxious” on defense.

Outside of the fitness center Striker would practice on a 12-foot basketball hoop across from her house. Everything seemed normal for Striker as a kid.

But that all had changed at 9 years old.

Foster tragedies

During the first nine years of Striker’s life she lived with her mother, grandmother and three siblings.

Striker’s grandmother primarily raised her because her mother constantly struggled with drugs and alcohol. Eventually, the grandmother faced some financial problems.

“It finally added up to where my grandma could barely take care of us in a home that had no running water,” Striker says.

This led to Striker moving into a foster home, ending a sense of normality in her life and beginning a quest to get it back.

But for now, Striker packed her stuff into a four-bedroom white mobile home with red trim. At its absolute maximum, the house on wheels held 15 children with only two of the bedrooms being allotted for the kids.

It took 45 minutes to get from her grandmother’s house to the foster home in the small town of Hays, Montana. Because the distance, her new foster parents would not even let her play basketball or visit her family.

Striker quickly got “creepy vibes” from her new home.

“This was a weird foster home. I didn’t like it,” Striker says. “We were just in the middle of nowhere.”

Striker’s life definitely changed. She had to follow different rules and had no access to basketball or her loved ones. But the complications escalated when an allegedly terrible situation occurred.

“Two men were doing things to my brother and cousin,” Striker claims.

Striker, among others in the home, turned to social services for help. The FBI even got involved. But the foster parents kept their licenses and continued to house the children.

“We never heard about the case again,” Striker says.

In just six short months, Striker’s responsibilities shifted from being a normal kid to protecting her younger family members.

“I really never left their side unless it was bedtime,” Striker says.

Returning home

Striker stayed at her next foster home for only four months until her grandmother earned her foster license, which allowed her to care for Striker as her mother was in and out of the house.

Returning home meant seeing her family again and continuing to explore her newfound skills in basketball. Normal life started to re-reveal itself.

In seventh grade, Striker played for the middle school basketball team at Harlem, Montana. They only won two games that season, but continued to grow and improve in eighth grade.

“All of us girls were improving,” Striker says. “The varsity basketball coach kept saying I was going to be one of her starting five.”

For the moment, everything pointed in the right direction for Striker.

Then one day Striker heard her mother hysterically screaming in a room upstairs. Striker rushed upstairs to open the door, but her mother would not allow it.

“She was pushing on the door as I tried to push it open."

Striker managed to open the door just enough to poke her head in the room and she saw…well, she’d rather not say.

The cops arrived at Striker’s house and took her mother away.

With her mom gone and grandma getting older, Striker had the responsibility of taking care of the kids once again, stripping her of the life of an average child.



High school homes


After dealing with the instability of her Fort Belknap home for a few more years, Striker knew she had to leave again if she was going to find normal.

She then met a family from Malta, Montana. They had arrived with a Texas mission group that worked at Striker’s grandfather’s camp, Montana Indian Ministries.

Maybe she could live with them. She asked for permission. And she hoped.

Permission granted.

This allowed Striker to focus on basketball, a sport she knew she loved and gave her a sense of normality.

During her sophomore season, Malta High School went on to win the state tournament.

Though Striker didn’t start, she helped the team reach the championship game.

She, however, had to share a bedroom with two other girls while two boys slept in the living room. At one point four adults and seven kids all tried to fit in a house that only had four bedrooms.

Additionally, Striker says that the family couldn’t handle her trauma from the battles she faced earlier in life.

This left Striker again in need of a new home that could embrace her and fulfill her need for a normal life.

Years earlier she got to know the Collins family from Brooklyn, Arkansas when they visited Montana to host a five-day Vacation Bible School.

She took a chance and asked them if they’d take her in. Time to hope again.

The Collins family gladly opened their arms to Striker.

“I was able to be in a position where I could succeed at a better level,” she says.

All was fine - for about 9 months.

Then Striker’s mother gave her the impression that home life would change.

“She said, ‘Please give me a chance’,” Striker says about her mother.

Mystic couldn’t say no. So she returned to her family in Forth Belknap.

And shortly thereafter she again found herself acting as an adult rather than watching movies or doing anything a normal teenager would do.

“This whole time, I’m helping my grandma take care of my six younger siblings,” Striker says. “I was taking my little brother to his open house while I went to my open house.”

Before the school year even started, social services deemed the house unfit for kids because of how many people came in and out.

“I want to be a senior,” Striker says. “I want to live.”

She really only wished for simple things that should be provided to a child, like dinner prepared after basketball practice.

Then her Aunt Davie, along with "Gramma Bede," made that wish come true for her and one of her brothers.

“With her, that’s when everything changed,” Striker says. “I got to be a kid.”

She finally had the time to watch movies including the one that remains her all-time favorite, “The Little Rascals.”

The simplicity and ease at home led to success on the basketball court. For the first time ever, Striker made the starting lineup for the varsity team at Harlem, the reservation’s high school.

In the first game of her senior season Striker dominated and put up 23 points.

“We were a run and gun team,” she says. “We would all work as a team.”

Striker had found herself in a situation that allowed her to be normal. Temporarily.


New home, new problems

In the summer of 2018 Striker had an opportunity to move in with a family that she wanted to live with ever since she was 13 years old.


She met this family, the Bushong’s, at her grandfather’s camp. Kelsey Bushong worked for a high school ministry that visited the camp. Bushong took a group there every summer.

Over the years, they grew closer. Bushong learned about her situation and wanted to adopt Striker just as much as Striker wanted to move to the Bushong household.

The only thing stopping them was her hometown tribe.

“The tribe doesn’t allow white families to adopt native kids,” Striker claims.

For this reason, the Bushong’s never ended up adopting her.

Each summer they would see each other at her grandfather’s camp and reconnect, knowing an adoption could never take place.

But when she graduated from high school, Striker took matters into her own hands.

She decided to move in with the Bushongs in Lansing, Michigan. She even refers to Bushong as her “adoptive mother.”

“They have loved and cared for me ever since,” she says.

Once she got comfortable with the reality that she actually lived with the Bushongs, it was clear that her new home seemingly bested all prior living situations.

“It took her a long time to trust that we were going to be around and not give up on her,” Bushong says.

Now that Striker had graduated high school and found a stable home, basketball was the only piece missing to reach normality.

That opportunity came to fruition when Bushong made her aware of a private Christian school in the same town.


“My [adoptive] mom just mentioned it to me, but I didn’t take it seriously until the summer of 2018 when I took a visit.”


After her visit, Striker decided to enroll and play basketball at Great Lakes Christian College. With that decision, normality seemed inevitable.


“My first coach at Great Lakes, she quit the day school started,” Striker says.


Good-bye normal, again


Great Lakes Athletic Director, Richard Westerlund, had to scramble to find a head coach for the women’s season.


In the meantime, the players had to create their own normalcy.


“For the first month we would have to go in and practice by ourselves,” Striker says.


The team eventually found a coach, but that did not help them earn a win that year. The Crusaders went 0-23. Striker played in every game and averaged 12.4 points and 10.4 rebounds a game.


“I signed a piece of paper so I’m going to stick it out,” Striker says about the team’s struggles that season. “I’m never going to give up.”


During summer 2019 not giving up became much harder when that boulder tumbled on and over her, leaving her with a very important decision: reattach the finger or amputate.

Reattaching would entail a metal rod sticking out of the top of her finger. Clearly better than amputation.


Except the rod would restrict her form bending her finger and end her basketball days. Still, better than amputation.


So for a young woman who spent a life time seeking normal, the choice had to be easy. Yes, without hesitation, Striker knew what she had to do.


Cut it off.


Once Striker heard the words “no basketball,” surgery no longer remained an option.


As anyone could imagine, losing a finger on your dominant hand comes with many struggles.


Can someone please help me open this jar?


Can someone please help me braid my hair?


And can someone please help me re-learn how to shoot a basketball?


Mystic dove right into physical therapy with the main goal of somehow, someway getting that shot back.


“There were definitely hard days,” Bushong says. “She had to overcome a lot and she just keeps going."


She got massages. She worked with putty. She even dug in sand to find objects. And she did this for 3 straight exhausting months. That’s about all she had till basketball season.



Overcomer


To say Striker had initial doubts about how she would handle the loss of her finger on the court would be an understatement.


She wondered if she could even make layups.


After practicing her release with only four fingers on her left hand, she came to a realization. A wholly unexpected one for someone who put in so much effort.


She actually felt more comfortable shooting the ball than she did prior to the accident.


“She just took it by force,” Bushong says. “She just kept saying, ‘I’m going to play ball this year’.”


She averaged more points (17.1) in her sophomore season, the one without her finger, than her freshman year (12.4).


“That’s what made me look up to her because I know many people who would give up,” teammate Randi Fitzgerald says.


She also earned a spot on the all-region second team and was one of five players in all of the National Christian College Athletic Association to average a double-double.


“She seems to have relentless energy,” says head coach CB Long, who was hired for the 2021-22 season, says. “She’s a competitor and she just battles.”


The resilience Striker showed after losing her finger led to her cousin drawing a picture that represents her strength.


It depicts a left hand missing half of a middle finger with the word “Overcomer” written above it. Striker has the picture as a sticker on her phone and the word “Overcomer” in her social media biographies.


The word “overcomer” does not just describe how Striker battled the loss of her finger. She has been overcoming obstacles in an attempt to live normally her entire life.


Unfortunately, that has not stopped. Her most recent tribulation came from her family back in Montana.


In October, a few weeks before the 2022-23 season started, Striker had to return to her hometown in Montana.


Her mother died.


Although Striker had very little time to process this tragedy before her fourth season started, she still has “big expectations” for the Crusaders. Long also expects Striker and the team to improve.


“If she stays healthy she’ll be the first player to reach 1,000 points and potentially the first player to get 500 rebounds in a career at Great Lakes,” Long said.


On Saturday, Nov. 5, Striker needed three points to accomplish that feat against Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.


Could Striker score a simple three points?


Nope.


She scored 12 and finished the night at 1,009 career points.


“I enjoyed the moment, we celebrated after and my [adoptive] mom was there with a big poster that said ‘1,000 points’,” Striker says.


A few weeks later on Nov. 22, Striker scored a career-high 31 points in a 69-48 win against Kirtland Community College.


Now that Striker has found a home, school and basketball team where distractions come few and far between, living a normal life comes easily.


“It feels amazing,” Striker says. “It just helps me form who I want to be as a person.”


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