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Cass Lake-Bena's state golfers aim to deconstruct social barriers on a statewide scale

Jun. 8—In the public eye, Cass Lake-Bena is a basketball school.

Dominic Fairbanks, Gaven Brown and Aaliyah Larose are heading to the Class A state golf tournament to change that narrative, bringing Indigenous diversity to a traditionally white-dominated sport.

"If you look at their golf bags, there's Ojibwe on the side," boys head coach Levi Brown said. "A lot of people around the state don't recognize or understand there are 11 tribal nations in Minnesota. Our kids being able to share their culture, people see it and see who they are. They're just great ambassadors for our community in a very unrepresented area."

Together, the three state-qualified CLB golfers are bringing more than just individual goals to the state tournament. They're hoping to spread their Indigenous culture beyond the confines of northern Minnesota.

"We're trying to prove to kids that you can do other sports rather than just play basketball," said Fairbanks, a four-time state qualifier. "It's getting outside your comfort zone, trying something new and showing kids that it's possible to go to state."

But more importantly, the Panthers see opportunities like this as a chance to share who they are, exposing their cultural values in the communal aspects of golf.

"When we play golf, we meet people from all over," Coach Brown said. "You have a lot of time to talk on the golf course. So when you play someone from Walker, Nevis or wherever, you spend five hours with that person, right? It's not like basketball or other sports where there isn't that social dynamic. (Golf) is an opportunity to share our culture with different people."

Fairbanks and Brown are senior teammates, and Brown will make his second state trip at Pebble Creek Golf Club in Becker on June 11-12. On the girls side, the Panthers will send a first-timer in Larose, a sophomore.

Their hoops-crazed community breeds a winning culture on the basketball court with high expectations of themselves. But that renown doesn't carry over to other sports, so the Panthers are trying to rewrite their reputation.

"We have a lot of pride in that," said Fairbanks, a Bemidji State men's basketball commit. "Obviously, I'm a basketball dude. So doing well in basketball is good. But also we're more than that. When Levi came in and started coaching when I was in seventh grade or eighth grade, he changed the culture. It's not even just the golf aspect, but also just in life. He gives us life advice and life lessons."

Fairbanks' first love is basketball. But he isn't one to skimp out on his passion for golf, a sport he started playing at a young age.

"To get really good at golf, you have to put in so much time," Fairbanks said. "It's not just two hours at the gym every day like basketball. Two hours in the gym is like six hours on the course. I'm committed to putting in that time on the course so the results will show."

Fairbanks was one of the first golfers to finish his final round at the Section 7A Tournament, leaving his state hopes in peril.

"It went down to that last hole," he recalled. "The people that were close to me (in the standings) were in one of the last groups. I just started seeing them make bogey, bogey, bogey. I saw the scores build up, then I knew I was going to state again. You don't want to miss out. You don't want to go to state three years in a row and miss your senior year."

Fairbanks has turned himself into a regular at state. This year, he finished his section-tournament showing with a two-day score of 167, good enough for eighth place as the second-to-last individual qualifier out of 7A.

The final qualifier was Brown, who totaled a score of 173.

"My first year (at state), I was really nervous with people watching and stuff," Brown said. "The first day I shot really bad. But then the second day I was more comfortable and I shot a 76. I'm more comfortable going for a second time. I'm looking forward to a better start, too."

Larose clinched her spot with a sixth-place score of 204 at sections. Larose and Brown are cousins, bringing a family feel to the tee boxes in Becker.

"I was kind of nervous (at sections) because I haven't (qualified) for state before this year," Larose said. "I wasn't really top ten last year. I put in a lot of work last summer, and it kind of made me nervous because I'm very competitive. But I'm very happy with how it finished."

CLB's three state entrants also boast impressive academic resumes, all three finishing inside the top 10 in their respective classes. It's a trend Coach Brown wants to see continue more than he wants to see his players succeed on the course.

"The responsibility is on the seniors and the older kids to be mentors," Coach Brown said. "It's how they carry themselves, how they're respectful to each other, how they're respectful to other players. Most importantly, it's how they show the youth that it's cool to be good in school and it should be a norm.

"A lot of things in golf have a lot to do with life. You catch good breaks, you catch bad breaks. You're your own referee. When nobody's looking, you get to decide how things will be. A lot of things in life can be replicated in golf."

It takes a village to break a status quo, and it won't happen overnight. In the meantime, players like Larose are eager to push through those challenges with familiar faces beside her.

"I just want to have fun," Larose said. "I'm going to try not to stress about how I finish. Not being the only one (from Cass Lake-Bena) going to state will help me get through it because I won't be alone out there."