Wilkins travels his own path on and off the court

Sion Wilkins might be the first American Indian to play a match in Division I tennis.

Bob Wothe

Every time Sion Wilkins steps onto a tennis court for Minnesota’s men’s tennis team, he’s making history.

Though there’s no official statistic saying so, the sophomore said he believes he is the first American Indian to ever grace a Division I court in match play. He came to that conclusion after talking to coaches around the country as well as fellow American Indian players.

Wilkins, who is of Navajo and Lumbee heritage, was born on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northern Arizona but bounced around between the reservation, North Carolina and Minnesota in his youth.

As such, his road to being a trailblazer has been anything but typical.

Because tennis is not a popular sport on the reservation, Wilkins said, he didn’t even get into it until the age of 14 – a far cry from most players, who had rackets in their hands from the moment they could grasp them.

But Wilkins said his late entry is not necessarily a bad thing.

“There are positives and negatives to it,” Wilkins said. “On the negative side, I might not have the match experience as some of the other guys. But I think I’m a little more fresh to the game and hungry. I didn’t get burnt out when I was young.”

And once he started playing tennis, he couldn’t be stopped.

He got involved in tournaments and eventually helped lead Minneapolis South High School to the 2000 state championship with the help of fellow Gophers D.J. Geatz and Mikey Kantar.

Then, in 2001, Wilkins and Kantar won the state doubles title.

But Wilkins wasn’t immediately sure of his future after high school and took a year off, trying to decide whether to try his hand at a Division I or II institution.

Eventually, he got in touch with his friend Geatz’s dad, Minnesota coach David Geatz, who had shown some interest in Wilkins in high school. Wilkins was given an academic scholarship and suited up for the Gophers in 2003.

Since then, the 20-year-old sport studies and American Indian studies student – his father, David Wilkins, is chairman in the department – has been very successful in tennis.

“Sion’s a great role model for our younger kids,” said Craig Pasqua, president of the North American Indian Tennis Association. “And he’s beaten me the last couple of years, so he can be tough.”

That might be an understatement. In the crown jewel of Pasqua’s organization, the 2004 National Indian Tennis Championships, held in Oklahoma City, Wilkins cleaned up.

He won the men’s open national title, the men’s doubles title and the mixed doubles open title with his sister, 15-year-old Niltooli Wilkins.

But Sion Wilkins wasn’t the only Wilkins who had a field day at the championships. His sister also won the mixed 7.0 doubles title with their 11-year-old brother, Nazhone Wilkins, who, incidentally, won the under-14 title.

“It’s just a great tennis family,” Kantar said. “His little brother comes out here sometimes and plays in bare feet, and even then he’s crazy good.”

Most of Sion Wilkins’ family is a fixture at Baseline Tennis Center during matches, regardless of whether he is playing.

But he said he’d like to get on the court more often. He’s been in and out of the lineup because of injuries and suspensions to other players, and he’s currently 4-6 in singles and 1-10 in doubles through 16 duals this spring.

Judging from interim coach David Wheaton’s reaction, such an opportunity might be forthcoming.

“He could be very important for us in doubles down the stretch,” Wheaton said. “He’s got good baseline fundamentals, and he’s very close to starting in the top six.”

Getting that permanent spot in the lineup would be just one more barrier Sion Wilkins has blown past.

From there, he can focus on making other types of history and setting an even better example than he already has.

“I keep in touch with family on the reservation, and a lot of the kids look up to me,” Sion Wilkins said. “Going to college and playing sports is something that’s kind of rare on the reservation, and my family is proud of me for it.”