Lunderman tops Ole Miss in batting
RAPID CITY — For years the Lunderman name has meant athletic excellence in Lakota country. Richard and Mark Lunderman were standout Sicangu Lakota basketball players, but at present, the best Lunderman athlete on the planet is a 19-year-old college freshman.
Hailey Lunderman hails from Philadelphia. Not the City of brotherly Love, but Philadelphia, Miss., a hamlet in southeast Mississippi, just east of Pearl River, and that’s the place the 10,000 members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians call home.
In 2016, Hailey played shortstop for the Ole Miss Rebels, and she led the team with a .372 batting average, broke the school record with 73 hits, and was named second team All-Regional by the National Fast Pitch Coaches Association.
“At first I really didn’t want to play in Mississippi,” Hailey said. It was not the humidity, although she admits when it’s bad, “I walk right out and walk right back in,” but she just wanted to go someplace different, and travel. In the end she elected to stay home and play for Ole Miss. “There was a really big fan base, and all my family could come and watch the games.”
Like lots of young people, Hailey’s parents, Vanessa Smith and Mark Lunderman, met at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Mark was from Todd County and Vanessa was a Choctaw from Mississippi. Daughter Hailey is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Tribe, but she is proud of her Sicangu heritage, and enjoys her visits to South Dakota.
“After my sophomore year in high school,” Hailey said, “I lived for a summer in Rapid City. South Dakota is more wide open spaces, and the clouds are kind of different. I noticed driving up here the clouds just look really low.”
Life down in Philadelphia isn’t completely different than South Dakota: “It’s kind of a small town. Everybody pretty much knows everybody. I’ve lived on the rez my whole life.”
Where the reservations differ dramatically is in appearance, and development: “Everything is really updated on my reservation. We have more stores.”
Hailey went to public school, and when she was younger she did not have that many Choctaw classmates, but the ones she did have, hung together. The non-Native kids weren’t sure what to make of her: “They had never really interacted with a Native American. Some asked, ‘Like, do you live in a tipi?’ No, I live in a house. When I got to high school, everybody intermingled a lot more with each other.”
“(Slow pitch) helped me with my defense,” Hailey said. “Because the majority of the people were hitting it really, really hard. I had to protect myself, or I’d get hit right in the face.”
“I have six state championships combined with both,” Hailey said. Her high school teams had a high degree of Choctaw participation: “We got a new coach, and he just recognized the talent Native Americans have in my opinion. Half of the team was Choctaw.”
That is how it is in Sicangu country, with teams like Winner and especially White River often a mixture of local ethnic groups. Hailey has been to White River, she has traveled far and wide across western South Dakota: “I think it’s very interesting. I never really grew up here. I just like listening to (people) and their stories.”
A gifted athlete, Hailey also played basketball for the Neshoba Central Rockets. She was third on the team in scoring in 2015, averaging nine points a game. But softball is where she truly excelled, and in 98 plate appearances in 2015 she batted .612, had an on base percentage of .651 and smacked 11 doubles, three triples and five home runs.
But like lots of doers, Hailey leaves the tallying of her efforts to others: “I really don’t pay that much attention (to stats); because I think I’ll get big-headed if I look at them.”
“They’re all into basketball on the rez,” Hailey said. “So it was kind of odd for me because I was really into softball. It just got to the point when I was 12 or 13 my dad said you might want to decide what you want to do. I still kept playing basketball, because it helped me with my hand eye coordination and helped me stay in shape.”
She thinks more Choctaw should play softball: “I feel like they have more talent in softball than they do in basketball.”
Hailey, however, also thinks her participation in softball has had a local impact you can tell she’s proud of: “I notice since I started playing there’s more softball girls playing softball.”
In 2016 Ole Miss went deep into the NCAA tournament, finally being knocked out by eventual champion Oklahoma, 3-0. During all last season, Hailey was pleased with the fan enthusiasm for Ole Miss softball. Her contributions to the team success were considerable and when asked what part of her game helped with that success, she said, “My glove. I feel like I had more exciting catches than I had exciting hits.”
“I had a bunch of supporters,” she said. “Even when I was on the road people were coming to watch, (like) Oklahoma Choctaws.”
Majoring in exercise science, with ideas about maybe being a physical therapist, Hailey is still not sure what she will do when school is done in three years: “I still want to be involved in softball. I’ll definitely give back somehow, not sure how, but I will.”
She doesn’t feel teaching or coaching is for her, however: “I don’t think coaching would really be good for me because you have to be patient. If I tell them something and they don’t get it, I’ll probably get really, really mad.”
When she first came to South Dakota, Hailey asked why the Black Hills were called the Black Hills: “I thought they got burned or something.” But she quickly learned the why of it, and that these hills are sacred to her father’s people, and she has a double rarified place in this world. She is one of only 60,000 Lakota, and one of maybe the same number of Choctaw, and probably the only Sicangu/Choctaw mixed blood in the public eye. That makes Hailey Lunderman genuinely special.
“I’m unique,” she said. “I’m different, I’m proud to say I am Native American.”
(Contact James Giago Davies at email@example.com)