by Merrie Sue Holtan
Photography by Justin Eiler
When Siman Sem says, “play ball,” the Fargo North Spartans get moving. And why wouldn’t they? The senior Spartan hoopster is a two-time captain and was an All-Eastern Dakota Conference and All-State pick last season.
Fargo North head coach Ted Critchley says last season the 6-foot-4 Sem led the Spartans in all categories. His name was splashed throughout last season’s EDC leaderboards, finishing first in scoring at 21.4 points per game, second in three-pointers (60), third in steals and seventh in rebounding. His school records include 41 points in a game and eight three-pointers in one game.
“Siman may be a once-in-a-lifetime type of player to work with,” says Critchley. “His athleticism speaks for itself, but his passion to play and excitement for others’ success is what truly allows Siman to stand out as a quality player and quality person.”
Siman’s introduction to organized sports happened at his Madison Elementary School gym, where he played YMCA youth basketball. He moved on to play middle school ball at Ben Franklin and played in the summer for SYBA, Spartan Youth Basketball.
In seventh grade, Siman realized he was tall. His best sports moment, he remembers, was at a seventh grade basketball tournament when he made the game-winning shot.
“I grew up playing center,” says Sem, who notes he has been bouncing a ball ever since he can remember. “I was always the tallest kid. But by eighth grade, I learned to move and handle the ball better. They moved me to point guard. We had a pretty good team at Ben. Didn’t lose much.”
Siman dabbled in cross country until fifth grade, but says basketball was the first team sport he played and he “just wanted to do it.”
He has developed a philosophy over the years about what makes a good team.
“It’s five guys who sacrifice for the better of the team, scoring, rebounding, and diving for the ball,” says Sem, adding, “But they have fun, too.”
His Spartan teammates agree that Siman is an unselfish player who is willing to pass the ball around for the good of the team and the game.
Thoughts on Coaching
There have been a string of influential coaches in Siman’s life as well. In formative years at Ben Franklin, he cites Mr. Hoeg and Mrs. Pollard as playing an important role. At North, he began playing under coach Dan Shultis, who transitioned to an administrator role at Discovery in South Fargo before Sem’s junior season.
The vacancy left room for Critchley, a native of Hawley, Minn., to migrate back to the Red River Valley after coaching stops in Blaine, Waseca, and Roseville, Minnesota.
An accomplished basketball mind in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Critchley is one of only three coaches in the state’s history to lead three different teams to a state tournament appearance. The laurels were left behind when Critchley crossed into Fargo, but he quickly earned the respect of Sem and his teammates.
“You know it’s hard to switch coaches,” Siman says. “And I’m sure it’s hard for a new coach to come in who doesn’t know us; we don’t know him, and he’s not from Fargo. But we got used to him pretty fast and he has helped us win.”
“A good coach leads by example,” Siman says. “He/she is someone who can help you improve and help the team give off good energy for the rest of the team to feed off of.”
As a freshman, Siman played both junior varsity and varsity. By his sophomore year, he started all but one game. Last year Siman remembers the loss to Fargo South that kept them from the state tournament. He has learned to stay mentally tough in the ups and downs on the court.
“Sometimes we win,” Siman says, “and sometimes we lose. I try to keep my mind in check and stay mentally tough. I do this by going through practice drills, keeping my head on straight, and by picking up and helping the other guys.”
Siman has added summer enrichment, speed, strength and endurance to his play by playing traveling ball with Every Child is Important / ECI. The program provides athletes with the opportunity to play AAU basketball in the spring and summer. The North Dakota players, 13-17 year-old boys, participate in tournaments in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.
“ECI has helped me play faster against better players,” Siman says. “It’s fun playing on the same side with our usual competitors.”
Lucas Moormann, an NDSU hoops standout from 2005-2009, now leads the ECI program, as well as serving as an assistant coach at Bismarck Century. He notes Sem’s evolution as a player over the course of three years.
“He was always an aggressive player and would always try to dunk the ball as a freshman,” Moormann recalls. “At first Siman was very quiet, but he became a great leader on the floor. He even told the players to pick up empty water bottles around the bench after the games.”
Moormann holds an unquestionable level of regard for Sem, lauding his commitment to the game and drive to excel on the hardwood.
“Siman was injured during the summer of his sophomore year, had surgery, and did the rehab to get back to where he was. I can’t remember one trip he missed over the three years, except for the injury. I know he will do great things.”
The Sem Family
When Siman was three months old, his family moved from South Sudan to Fargo. His parents Yala and Nahum have four boys and three girls. All the kids (except for the baby) enjoy games of pick-up basketball at the YMCA gym or simply shooting around together. Siman says they get along pretty well except for occasional “sibling brawls.”
Siman believes his competitive nature comes from his older brother, Waha, who ran track for North and was a state champion in the 800 meters.
“I always wanted to play ball with my brother and his friends,” says Siman, “but they wouldn’t let me. I got a chip on my shoulder because I wanted to be as good as them. So, I said ‘I’ll practice hard and show them.’”
Nahum is a soccer fan who also debriefs Siman after basketball games on what he can do better. Siman trusts his dad’s judgment and says he pushes him to practice.
“My siblings look up to me,” Siman says, “because I have become a good player. Now I’m trying to help them.”
Academics, Athletics and the Future
In the offseason, Siman attends open gym and lifts weights three to four times a week and watches what he eats. However, his game day ritual includes a bag of Skittles, Gatorade, and on occasion some creative socks.
In school, Siman is a science guy leaning towards chemistry. He likes a teacher who comes in the classroom, says “hi” and tries to get the class interacting rather than lecturing. He hopes to do something in the automotive or construction field.
“Siman has always been a positive part of our high school community,” says Travis Christensen, assistant principal and activities coordinator at Fargo North. “He is a good student and very polite. While his personality is reserved, it’s been positive to see him grow into a leadership role in basketball and in class.”
Siman would like to tell young athletes to keep working hard and putting in the hours because hard work will come back to you in the future.
“Sports teaches you hard lessons,” he says. “For a team, there’s always another game to look forward to. Keep your head in the game, and keep moving forward.”
Siman looks up to NBA stars LeBron James and James Harden as role models, because they have a positive energy toward teammates and make others better. Siman also believes his future holds college basketball.
When he’s just being a ‘kid’ and relaxing, Siman enjoys hanging out with his friends, watching Kentucky’s college basketball games and traveling with his family to visit relatives in Texas and Utah.
This year could be North’s year as they have seven seniors on the team.
“We have a lot of experience and we are a big, strong team and motivated from last year,” Siman says. “Plus I love the fan support from our home school and town.”
Sem looks to continue building upon improvements he’s made each year to again stand out as one of the most versatile players in the EDC in 2016-17 campaign.
“Every year, Siman has done something to make himself a better player,” says Coach Critchley. “People questioned his three-point shooting as a sophomore, so he went out to make himself one of the top shooters in the conference. This is what he does to make himself better and better.” FMSV