Posted On: 01/16/17 5:41 PM

You could make a serious case for Hmong College Prep Academy (HCPA), the team whose game I visited on Friday, being the worst team in the entire state during the last few seasons.

Last season resulted in an 0-25 record, and there were just a few wins in the years before that (the estimate is maybe three wins in five years). Possibly worse, the HCPA Warriors have had a different coach every year for the prior four seasons. What’s potentially worse than feeling unsuccessful? Feeling unwanted.

Make no mistake, the HCPA has been growing in enrollment and has been seeing successful classroom achievements since its inception. Starting with just 200 students on the Academy’s first day in September 2004, the HCPA has now grown to over 1,200 students in grades K–12. This is a charter school that helps preserve the Hmong culture while also nurturing students who may have “fallen through the cracks” at traditional public schools.

The student population, although it is considered multi-cultural and draws from across the Twin Cities metro, consists mostly of kids from St. Paul Hmong families. Those are generally families that have grown after refugee relocation due to the “Secret War” of the 1960s and 1970s.

 


 

Long (long, long) story short, roughly 53,000 Hmong and Laotian refugees relocated to the United States via Thailand from 1975–1982. This was because after the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1975, Hmong who were encouraged to fight against the North Vietnamese by the CIA were targeted and, as one Communist newspaper put it, ordered to be exterminated “to the last root.”

This story of evacuation — most notably the one night where 2,500 Hmong escaped their dangerous homeland with the help of three American pilots — is depicted on murals surrounding the HCPA gym. Some of the kids who go to this school have parents and grandparents who fought in the Vietnam War, who shot rifles and who took enemy lives.

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Fong Vang, HCPA athletic director

The athletic director at HCPA, Fong Vang, has direct family experience with the conflict.

“My dad was a child soldier,” Vang told me. “He told me a story about trying to cross the river back to Laos to get my grandfather (during the evacuation), but my grandfather told my dad and his sister to just go and that hopefully they will live. I don’t know how my father had the courage to leave his father, knowing he would never see him again. He was a teenager when he was a soldier with a gun, riding and fighting for his life against the Vietnamese.

“We helped protect some lines, and we helped some American pilots get back to their base camps. After the U.S. pulled out, some of the Hmong people were able to leave, and a large number settled in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota. Because we helped the U.S., we were considered enemies and it was considered complete genocide. We still have people hiding and running in the mountains.”

 


 

If you’ll allow this writer to break narrative for a moment, I’d like to tell you my own connection. My grandmother worked with Hmong high school students at the Oshkosh (Wisc.) North High School media center for decades after the Vietnam War. She worked with the students and their parents on becoming citizens. She was an advocate and tutor and helped them learn our culture and language.

In return, the Hmong community gave my grandparents beautiful gifts of tapestries, blankets and artwork. I grew up visiting their home and staying in a bedroom that was covered with Hmong history. I would wake up on weekend mornings and play the small bells that they gifted her, and it now makes sense that the story of the Hmong evacuation was depicted on the gifts they gave — they were giving her thanks for helping them transition from a hellish circumstance to American citizenship.

 


 

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HCPA fans cheer underneath a mural of Hmong refugees escaping their homeland in the mid-1970s.

Looking up at the murals around the HCPA that Vang pointed at gave me a burst of “deja vu.” They were the same style and imagery that I saw on her blankets and tapestries. Vang said he knew of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and that he knew there was a large group of Hmong folks who settled there.

I reflected for a bit until the tipoff. I sipped a traditional boba tea (honeydew flavor) and readied my camera settings.

One of my goals heading into Friday night was to get a good look at senior point guard Chinou Vang. Standing just 5-foot-7, Chinou caught my eye after scoring 28 points over Groves Academy earlier this year.

The HCPA starting lineup was introduced with music, lights and a break-dancing mascot. “Chi You” is the warrior’s name, and whoever was inside that suit delivered some serious moves. I have to say, that was definitely the first time I’ve seen a high school mascot bust out some moves fit for a hip-hop competition. Bravo.

The halftime score was 20-17… not exactly a high-scoring affair. Chinou was visibly farther along in terms of basketball IQ than his teammates, as many of his passes turned out sour when the recipient couldn’t finish at the rim.

During the game, my camera often drifted from the game action towards the crowd’s celebrations. The passion erupted in the second half, when HCPA began to take control. Fellow students, faculty, neighbors and others cheered loudly as the Warriors edged farther away from North Lakes.

The final tally was 46-41, and the HCPA Warriors moved onto a 3-1 record. That’s more wins than they’re have for many years combined.

“We kept chipping away,” said coach Zach Cave. “We passed it to the right people, and the ball was in the right person’s hands when it needed to be.”

Coach Zach Cave talks to his team during a timeout.
Coach Zach Cave talks to his team during a timeout.

Zach’s dad, James (who is also his assistant coach), told him about the job when it opened up. James teaches social studies at HCPA and is also on the board of directors. Zach is 21 years old and was an assistant at Mankato Loyola last year while studying at Mankato State.

“I didn’t hesitate at all,” Zach said of pursuing the HCPA job. “I took the job right away, regardless of their 0-25 record the year before. Regardless of not winning very many games in years prior. I just wanted to start the job and work with the kids.”

He also spoke of how he utilizes a player like Chinou, someone who has been called the best player to ever come through HCPA.

“I know his strengths and weaknesses,” Zach said. “He’s a natural scorer, and I don’t think there are many people in the conference who know how to score the ball like him. If he can get his shots, it’s usually going to turn out well.”

Our interview was interrupted when the HCPA players’ parents, elated from the night’s win, requested a group photo of the entire squad. The team was all smiles.

 


 

My grandmother is now 90 and stays in a lakeside memory care unit in Oshkosh. Her mind is decaying gradually and she often forgets my name when I visit, but it will do her good to tell her next time that I visited such a vibrant and generous Hmong community in St. Paul, one that has such a special and vibrant school tucked away off Snelling Avenue.

 

Click here to view 50 high-res photos of Friday night’s game at HCPA