Sports

Niko Nunogawa: A scoring machine at Saint Martin's

By CASEY OLSON

The Mirror

At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, Niko Nunogawa kind of sticks out at the intimate 1,100-student campus at Saint Martin’s College in Lacey. The 2001 Decatur High School graduate is also doing a pretty good job of sticking out on the basketball court for the Saints.

Nunogawa has developed into one of the best offensive talents in the Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference. The junior forward is currently third in the GNAC in scoring at 19.8 points a game and is also averaging seven rebounds thanks to a complete inside-outside offensive game.

“He’s been a great addition to our program,” said Saint Martin’s head coach Keith Cooper, who also coached Decatur in Nunogawa’s junior season. “He’s our go-to guy. And the thing that’s amazing is every defense is designed to stop him.”

Nunogawa is also averaging 32 minutes and shooting 55 percent from the field for the 8-11 Saints. The extended minutes is due to the lack of depth on the Saint Martin roster. The Saints are currently taking the court with just nine players, due to injuries, homesickness and academic problems. One of the casualties was another former Decatur graduate. Point guard Nick Moxley, who transferred to Saint Martin’s from Green River Community College, was ruled academically ineligible following his first semester at the school.

“That makes what Niko is doing all the more impressive,” said Cooper, who coached Decatur for five seasons to a 75-54 overall record. “It’s no secret that another team has to stop him.”

Nunogawa and Cooper are huge components in turning around the basketball program at the small Catholic college near Olympia. Cooper is in his second season at the helm of the Saints after taking over a team that finished the 2002-03 season with a 2-24 record. In his first season, the Saints compiled an 8-19 record and were 4-14 in the GNAC. This year, Saint Martin’s is already 5-5 in league play.

“It’s going a lot better than last year,” Nunogawa said. “And we still have a lot of games to win.”

Last year, Nunogawa averaged 19.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in earning honorable mention all-league honors. Even with the impressive numbers he put up as a sophomore a season ago, Cooper says Nunogawa has improved a ton since.

“He has assumed a much bigger leadership role for a junior,” he said. “He has done a great job of speaking up.”

While at Decatur, Nunogawa led the Gators to the West Central District Tournament in his senior season, averaging 25 points and earning first-team All-South Puget Sound League honors. But the college scholarship offers didn’t materialize.

“I talked to several (Division II) schools about Niko, but they were afraid that he was too short to be a post and too slow to be a wing at that level,” said current Decatur coach Kevin Olson, who coached Nunogawa his senior year. “I told them that he was so smart offensively and so automatic with his shot that he could play and he is definitely proving that to them now.”

Nunogawa ended up on the Tacoma Community College basketball team out of Dectur and was a part of the Titans NWAACC championship in 2002. But after a run-in with Tacoma coach Carl Howell, Nunogawa sat out his second year at TCC, before transferring to Saint Martin’s with three years of eligibility remaining.

“He called me and said he wanted to come here and play for me,” Cooper said. “He really didn’t have any other options. So I told him that if he came here he would have to pay his own way and that he already had two strikes on him. The first time he screwed up, he was done.”

Nunogawa agreed and the rest is history.

“He has been an absolute pleasure to coach,” Cooper said. “He has been the most hard-working and dedicated kid in the offseason. He’s worked his butt off.”

Where Are They Now? chronicles what Federal Way athletes have been doing after high school. Contact sports@fedwaymirror.com with possible story ideas.

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