It’s been a season of glory for the Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball team, and for Northern’s Shaun Tatarka.
The deadly shooting guard from Great Falls has wowed fans for the last two years with his long-range 3-point shooting, with his superb ball handling, with his tenacious defense and with the passion he plays the game with, as well as the love he has for Northern basketball.
Tatarka has helped Northern win back-to-back Frontier Conference championships, he’s helped the Lights go to consecutive NAIA national tournaments, he’s a two-time all-conference performer and earlier this season, he became just the 17th Light to reach the 1,000 point plateau.
And while he and the Lights are shining bright right now, on a personal level, Tatarka had to get through some dark times in order to reach all the dreams he’s achieved in his Northern career.
Yet he says it was those difficult times, a time in which a mistake cost him a being part of a Lights’ team which went to the national tournament four years ago, as well as his next season of basketball, that helped him become the player, and the man he is today.
“I think it’s the hardships you have to overcome, it’s dealing with adversity that makes you a stronger person,” Tatarka, who will play in his second NAIA national tournament when the Lights take on Columbia College Wednesday night in Kansas City said. “And I think going through what I did, not being with the team for that national tournament, not playing that next season, taking a semester off from school, all of that has helped me become who I am today. I was lucky to, I had such a great support system. During that time, I had so many people supporting me, coach Huse, coach (Mark) Samson, my mom and dad, Bill Lanier, Deb and Marlon Latray, the Boles’ family, my teammates, they all stood behind me and helped me get through those tough times.”
The mistake Tatarka made, one of youth isn’t anything worth rehashing. It wasn’t anything so severe that it made headlines or was even needed to be discussed outside of the Northern basketball family. However, it came at a time when the Lights were about to embark on their first trip to the national tournament in over a decade. And it was painful on that March afternoon back in 2009 because Tatarka, who had a brilliant second season with the Lights had to watch his teammates lose a heartbreaker to Robert Morris in overtime without him. That was the beginning of what would be a tough next year for the former Great Falls High sharpshooter, who would redshirt the following season with the intent of rejoining the Lights at the start of the 2010-11 campaign.
“I just remember sitting there on my couch, watching my team play in the national tournament, watching that game, I was crying and very upset that I wasn’t there,” he said. “It killed me to not be there helping those guys. It hurt really bad.”
But that moment was perhaps the start of Tatarka’s road back, which became one of redemption, personal growth and which also led to him becoming one of the great guards in Northern history.
Tatarka spent a semester in Great Falls, working, working out and working on an already magnificent game. The former three-sport star spent hours upon hours in the gym and in the weight room, determined to come back to the Lights and be a better basketball player than he was before.
“That semester off was really good for me,” he said. “I had a job in Great Falls, and luckily I was able to go to the gym three times a day. I would get up early, go shoot and lift, then go play noon ball on my lunch break, then go back to the gym at night and shoot and work on my game more. I stuck to a pretty strict routine and it paid off for me.
“My dad instilled in me at a young age that success in everything you do comes through hard work, in life, in sports, in school, in relationships, whatever the case may be. Nothing is supposed to come easy. So that’s what I did, I spent my time away from basketball, working on basketball. I used that same attitude my dad instilled in me during that time and it really helped me get through it.”
And though he got to really work on his game and hone his skills, his year off from the Lights wasn’t easy. But he made the most of it. With a strong support system in place, he got through it, and he eventually did return to Northern and has hit the ground running ever since.
“Shaun has always been a tremendous kid, a great athlete and a great player,” Huse said. “I think during the first part of his time here, he had some growing up still to do. Admittedly, he made a mistake, and eventually, he looked himself in the mirror, he owned up to it and corrected some things. I’m very proud of him for doing that because not every kid does that.
“And he didn’t run from anything, he faced some adversity head on and I’m most proud of him for that,” he added. “He’s done things the right way ever since and he’s gone on to do some very special things as a Light and I’m very proud of him for that.
“Shaun is a kid who came to Northern and right away, really took in the Northern tradition,” MSU-N assistant and former Lights’ teammate Travis Noble continued. “He’s always embraced the family-oriented program we have here and he’s taken it to another level. Tark’s attitude about this program and everything it stands for infects the rest of the team. The other guys have seen how he is and they too bought into it. I’ve always admired that about him.
“And I’m really proud of him for sticking with this program, even through the tough times,” Noble continued. “He took the time off and worked hard on his game, he remained dedicated to this program and his teammates. He just stuck with it and I’m most proud of him for that. When things got tough for him, he didn’t take the easy way out, and a lot of kids do. A lot of them would have ran from this situation, but he stayed with it and I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished.”
And Tatarka will say, despite the difficult road, sticking with the journey he’s been on since he first arrived at Northern out of GFH was the best decision he’s ever made, and he’s never thought otherwise.
Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 14 points per game and been one of the top 3-point shooters in all of NAIA basketball. He reached the 1,000-point club during Northern’s win over UGF back on Jan. 4, a game in which he scored a season-high 27 points and hit seven three’s. He’s been a team captain for two years and helped the Lights take an already successful program to even new heights. He’s on track to receive his degree in education next year and he’s one of the most beloved Northern athletes on campus.
“Shaun has always been a fearless competitior,” Huse said. “From the day I met him I realized that. As a freshman, he played like a veteran and helped us share a conference championship. And his game as an all-around guard has just continued to grow through the years. He’s hit a ton of big shots during his time here, he plays great defense, he’s an emotional leader on this team and he’s been a huge part of the success this team has had over the years. He’s worked tirelessly on his game and he has been a great teammate and leader on and off the court. I just couldn’t be more proud of everything he’s done since he came back, on and off the court. And he’s a guy we will truly miss when this is all over.”
And Tatarka’s days in a Light uniform are indeed winding down. It’s been a long, and sometimes tough journey to get to where he and his Lights’ team is right now. And while it wasn’t always easy, he says he wouldn’t change a thing, and he’s certainly appreciative and thankful for where he’s been, where he is and where he’s going.
His story is one of triumph, one of perserveance, one of dedication and of heart and determination. He’s proven that good people can make mistakes, overcome them and go on and be successful, whether it’s in life or in basketball or both. And his journey, his triumphs, his ability to shine bright as a Northern Light is one people have embraced and one that won’t be forgotten.
“I’m so lucky, so thankful and blessed to have been able to do what I’ve done in my career, and I couldn’t have done it without all the great support from people around me. I have had the greatest teammates during my time here, I’ve gotten to learn basketball from a great coach in Coach Huse, who none of this would have been possible without. I’ve never had a basketball coach like him in my life, somebody who is such a great leader and who knows so much about the game. I just feel so fortunate to have gotten to play for him and for this school. I got to learn from guys like coach Noble and others and it’s been a blessing to have that in my life. I never would have got through what I went through without that support from them, and I wouldn’t have been able to have this success without all of those people in my life,” Tatarka said.
“I’m just very blessed that the entire Northern family had faith in me, and gave me the opportunity to come back and prove myself,” he added. “I screwed up and that could have been it. This whole thing could have been over. But they (Northern) had the faith in me, everybody supported me and stood behind me and that made me want to be dedicated, made me want to go forward and succeed. And that’s what I did. So I wouldn’t change anything about my time here at Northern. It’s been an amazing ride and one I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to be on.”
Shaun Tatarka. An amazing person, an amazing basketball player and a great representative at Northern. His ride isn’t over yet, but win or lose this week in Kansas City, Tatarka will always shine bright. He has perservered. He has succeeded and in the end, that’s what sports, and life are all about.