Photo by Nathan Addis/HutchCC Sports Information: Former HutchCC women’s basketball player Tiana Mangakahia walks out with Sandy Woodson from the Reno County Cancer Council during the halftime of the women’s basketball game Saturday at the Sports Arena.
By Tabitha Barr / Editor in Chief
Syracuse, New York and Hutchinson are vastly different places, with two different environments. However, there is an important connection between the two cities that tells a tale of perseverance.
Hutchinson Community College and Syracuse University have stuck by the side of a young woman fighting cancer and are now helping her achieve some of her life’s passions.
She’s been through more than the average college student but has a strong drive to keep going.
Tiana Mangakahia has loved basketball since she was 5-years-old. Being the only girl out of five children in the family, one sport was chosen for all. But it was perfect for Mangakahia, and she looked forward to it 24/7.
“I would wait all week for Saturdays, which is the day we played back home,” Mangakahia said.
Mangakahia is from Brisbane, Australia. She played through her childhood, and her passion for basketball kept growing. Around her sophomore year of high school, basketball became more than just a hobby.
“I knew I wanted it to be my career, and I felt like it could be possible,” Mangakahia said. She kept practicing and working on her game, and it paid off. The Australian Institute of Sport gave her a scholarship to attend their institution and work on her skills with others with a similar interest. After receiving the invitation, Mangakahia realized that basketball would be in her future.
After being at the institute for one year, she joined the Townsville Fire, a professional basketball team that competes in the Women’s National Basketball League. With her talent and devotion, the opportunity to play in the United States presented itself.
HutchCC coaches noticed Mangakahia and recruited her to join the Blue Dragons. It was an easy decision and one she said she will never regret.
“It was exciting for me to start something different,” she said.
Mangakahia was ready to push herself further and knew college basketball could help her hone her skills.
Although she wasn’t able to play for HutchCC because of eligibility reasons, she didn’t let that stop her from learning and growing. Mangakahia built many relationships with her teammates and coaches.
She even said that the coaches at HutchCC helped her improve the most.
“I wasn’t always the best,” Mangakahia said. “So when I got here, I felt like the coaches really believed in me. They told me they’d help me get to a Division I school. I just felt like I improved a lot being here.”
John Ontjes, HutchCC women’s basketball coach, could see the potential Mangakahia had.
“You could see what a talented basketball player she was,” he said.
After seeing her play, Ontjes knew Mangakahia was extraordinary and her skills were going to take her far.
As part of the team, even though she was ineligible to play in games, Mangakahia still had to attend practices – even the 6 a.m. ones – scrimmages, and participated in everything else expected of an athlete.
“It got me prepared for a Division I,” Mangakahia said. “It helped me succeed at the next level. It really sucked not being able to play, but it really shaped me into the player I am now.”
Playing in preseason scrimmages was the key to Mangakahia’s next step. She received offers from several colleges at the NCAA Division 1 level. She chose Syracuse because “it was a good fit for my game.”
Finally, she was able to play in games. For two years she played for Syracuse, becoming one of the best point guards in the NCAA.
But life wanted to steal the ball from her and make its own basket.
“Summer of June 2019, I found out I had breast cancer,” Mangakahia said.
It’s an obstacle most college athletes don’t have to overcome, but she took it head-on. Her parents and coaches were supportive every step of her journey.
Ontjes kept up with Mangakahia and received updates on her condition. Ontjes and his wife, Celeste, were close to her, and it was important to them to stay close.
“We were saddened, but we also knew what type of person she was, in what a fighter she was,” Ontjes said. “She had a great chance to beat it.”
Mangakahia always knew in her heart she was going to beat cancer and go back to doing what she loved. She had surgery to remove the cancer and is now cancer-free.
Whenever possible, Mangakahia was on the court practicing. The NCAA even allowed her an additional year of eligibility
“I’ll be playing next season,” Mangakahia said with a smile and determination in her voice.
Every day, Mangakahia has pushed through with positivity and hard work to pursue the opportunities in front of her.
Mangakahia has said she’s felt blessed to be a part of both HutchCC and Syracuse, and the two programs have been lucky enough to have Mangakahia.
“She’s been a blessing, not only to our program but my family,” Ontjes said.