Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Dina Keahna as the lone female varsity boys’ basketball coach currently active in Iowa.
TAMA, Ia. — A woman in Iowa currently serving as a varsity head coach for boys’ basketball does not want to use her rare position as a soapbox.
When Dina Keahna is asked about herself, the replies are soft and deliberate. She prefers to speak about her situation alone, not for a larger cause.
What the 53-year-old really wants to talk about are sports and her Meskwaki Settlement School boys’ basketball team.
Keahna, one of The Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2017, is a Native American woman coaching in a state where nearly all of the 356 boys’ basketball programs are coached by men. But her success on the court speaks for itself.
Meskwaki Settlement is one of eight boys’ basketball teams in Class 1A — a level with more than 150 small schools — to win at least 18 games over each of the past three seasons. That run coincides with Keahna’s head coaching hire in 2013.
“Men are seen as more knowledgeable in the sport,” Keahna said. “That’s just the nature of society. … I just feel that if I can do the job, the same as a guy, give the (players) the respect they need, it’s really no different.
“My mom and dad always told me, ‘Make sure you know exactly what you’re doing.’ Therefore, what can anyone say?”
Keahna returned to “The Sett” in 2010 after spending 13 years in the U.S. Navy and more time working as a counselor and attending college in Hawaii.
Her fourth season in charge is shaping up to be her toughest with the Warriors, who went 3-5 before winter break. Even if the record drops in 2017, she’s focused on remaining a role model through basketball.
“I just try to do my best,” Keahna said. “If you’re in a leadership role, you can’t waver from it. A lot people see an opportunity and say, ‘Oh, I want to do that, but…’ And they don’t want to put themselves out there or do the work.
“You have to have some inner courage to go for it.”
‘It takes a strong personality to do it’
Keahna became an elementary school counselor at Meskwaki because she wanted to share with her tribe what her life and education had offered. Those lessons include the discipline she learned from the Navy and explaining the educational opportunities available for Native American children.
Back in the community her family proudly calls home, she can remember her first basketball idol. Keahna was a fourth-grader when she first saw South Tama’s varsity girls’ team, which had one Native American starter. Keahna says she decided then to follow in those six-on-six footsteps.
“I wanted to do what she was doing,” Keahna said. “So, I dedicated myself. We played sports at school, but at home we had weights to lift and I would run sprints in the yard.”
After playing basketball and volleyball in high school and college, Keahna carried on playing a variety of sports as an adult. A torn ACL she suffered in the Navy finally sidelined her and steered her toward coaching. She also coaches volleyball at Meskwaki.
Iowa High School Athletic Association information director Bud Legg says women frequently hold boys’ coaching positions in short-season sports — soccer, bowling and cross country, for example — but “not many” have handled basketball. Opposing boys’ basketball coaches in the Iowa Star Conference, such as Colo-Nesco’s Patrick Wynja, have taken notice.
“I’m not sure if there is a gender stereotype at the heart of this, or if there just aren’t a lot of women who want to coach high school boys,” Wynja said. “What I have learned is that if you know basketball and show kids that you care about them, they will play for anyone, regardless of sex.
“There’s no doubt to me though, that (Keahna) is the main reason for their success the past few years.”
Meskwaki’s players don’t have to deal with gender on the court. When they get back to the huddle, it’s not a man or a woman. It’s just, “Coach.”
“For everybody on this year’s team, she’s the only high school coach we’ve had,” junior forward Jarius Bear said. “My junior high coach was a girl, too. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a girl or guy. It’s not a thing.”
Keahna is the most successful woman to bridge Iowa’s boys’ basketball gender gap in this century. Michelle Grant was head coach at Paton-Churdan from 2007-10.
“My dad always told me when I was growing up that there are no boys and girls on the court, there’s just athletes,” Grant said. “When I was doing it, I didn’t think I was doing anything all that special. I enjoy the game and I enjoy teaching the game and I’ll teach the game to anyone who will listen to me.”
Grant now teaches music at Colfax-Mingo and coaches volleyball. Like Keahna, she was an active former athlete who felt ready for a challenge in a small community she knew well. Playing pick-up at Paton-Churdan helped Grant build a rapport with the varsity boys, but there were still tough lessons along the way.
“The more I look back on it and talk to former players who bought into the philosophies I tried to instill as a coach, it unfortunately did come down to the gender lines,” Grant said. “They didn’t want to buy in because I was a girl. It’s entirely possible they wouldn’t have bought into anybody, but that was their excuse.
“It takes a strong personality to do it.”
Setting a solid foundation for girls playing sports in the future, especially Native American girls, also is important to Keahna, a mother of two. Keahna adopted a relative’s young daughters about two years ago, raising children for the first time with the help of her mother and collection of local family members.
“They come to the games with little suitcases,” Keahna said with a laugh. “When they get tired of watching the game, they can play with toys. It’s a huge change having someone yell, ‘Hey, Mom!’ when I’m on the sideline.”
Creating a legacy
The team’s cohesiveness will be tested in 2017. A slew of talented guards graduated, and a young, thin roster is charged with carrying on their high-scoring, up-tempo legacy.
According to the IHSAA, Meskwaki Settlement’s ninth-11th grade enrollment for the last school year was 45. That leaves Keahna filling out a roster from one of the five smallest schools in the state that still fields a boys’ basketball team.
“After the last couple seasons, people just thought we’d be that good again,” Bear said. “It has been tough so far. But (Keahna) is sticking with the plan. She’s always talking about defense, hustling, transition, controlling what we can.”
Cousins Jarius and Tate Bear are the only two players averaging better than six points per game.
Keahna leaves no doubt about her decision-making on the bench, leaning on statistics and charts to analyze her lineup and player priorities. Those numbers can justify her player rotations, too, as she’s coaching her fourth nephew in four seasons at a tight-knit and tribal school.
Basketball coaching giants such as the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee and the NBA’s Phil Jackson have shaped Keahna’s philosophies, and trailblazers such as Becky Hammon — the NBA’s first female assistant coach, with the San Antonio Spurs — help reinforce the progress she can make in Iowa.
“I’ve always told them that we’re not playing against the other team, because we’re playing against ourselves,” Keahna said. “Our goal is to do the little things well and let the score handle itself.”
Coaching capability is not a concern to the women who have already done it. But Keahna and Grant both agree that if girls had leadership traits pushed and prioritized at an early age like many boys do, the path to coaching at any level may become more obvious.
“I don’t see it as a situation where more girls need to do this,” Grant said. “The right girls need to do this.
“You have to have the personality and the rapport to get to do the job. I didn’t think it was a personality I had, but when I looked back and thought about how much I loved the game and how I was always ready to play, I recognized that was different from some other girls.”
Keahna is proud of what her community and school have already accomplished. If bridging Iowa’s prep sports gender gap can add to her contribution, well, then she’ll talk about it.
“I know just as much as a guy, in my opinion,” Keahna said. “If that’s still the measuring point in 2016, then why are there a lot of female head coaches in college or the pros, if women couldn’t do it? This is just high school sports.”
LIVES: Meskwaki Settlement, Tama
EDUCATION: Associate degree, Haskell Indian Junior College; Bachelor’s degree, Hawaii Pacific University; Master’s degree, Chaminade University.
CAREER: Boys’ basketball and volleyball coach, elementary school counselor, Meskwaki Settlement, 2010-Present; YMCA service counselor; United States Navy.
FAMILY: Two daughters, ages 6 and 5
15 People to Watch in 2017: About the Series
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and unelected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2017. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles daily through early January.
With this story at DesMoinesRegister.com/PeopletoWatch, see profiles of:
, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival
Tia Rodemeyer and Means Chan
, co-founders of the Des Moines Girl Gang
, Iowa tech entrepreneur
, attorney at Nyemaster Goode
, associate executive director at Urban Dreams, manager of Wellmark’s Beacon internship program
, Finance director and deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s 2016 re-election campaign; account executive focusing on issues advocacy for DCI Group
, cardiologist and president of the Tri-State Islamic Center