Basketball takes Nikolaevsk native to next level

Two years ago, Nianiella Dorvall left her hometown of Nikolaevsk to attend Skagit Valley College in the state of Washington, making her Nikolaevsk School’s first female to play basketball at the college level. This June, Dorvall graduated with an associate degree in biology, a 3.97 grade point average, an award as a top scholar-athlete, and a full-ride scholarship to the public Washington university of her choice.

Dorvall was raised in Nikolaevsk as a member of the Russian Orthodox community, or a Russian Old Believer, by her parents Dan and Loba. Dorvall said her parents have been supportive throughout her time at SVC, where she took her first step toward her dream of becoming a doctor.

“My mom always told us to go and get an education because she couldn’t do it herself. Back in eighth grade she dropped out; she ended up getting a GED,” Dorvall said.

Leaving Nikolaevsk, a town with a population of less than 400 people, to attend SVC, which has a student population of about 6,000, was terrifying at first, Dorvall remembers.

“I remember my first open gym at SVC, the coaches told the other players to be nice to me because I was scared just to come to the community college,” Dorvall said. “It was a great way to expand my horizons instead of jumping into a university. It was a stepping stone of sorts.”

One of the challenges Dorvall faced at SVC, outside of academics, was maintaining her faith and customs, even when it meant not blending in with the crowd.

“I am fortunate enough to have supportive parents who helped me establish my faith at an early age. But it’s weird walking into class with an Orthodox dress or explain every Wednesday or Friday why I don’t eat meat,” Dorvall said. “Everyone’s interested to hear about other religions, but it’s hard to keep it when everyone’s conforming to a norm.”

For major holidays, Dorvall attended a Russian Orthodox church in Woodburn, Oregon, which is about an 8-hour drive from SVC. Otherwise, communication with her family and her personal relationship with her faith sustained her at school.

“My mom sends me a text, ‘Remember to pray, you know he’ll watch over you if you don’t forget him,’” Dorvall said.

Her parents were not her only support system while at SVC, however. Dorvall’s coaches, including athletic director and women’s basketball coach Steve Epperson, supported Dorvall’s academic pursuits, even at the expense of her basketball game. Dorvall missed a couple practices each week because she had science labs, so she has a reserve role on the team and scored one or two points each game, Epperson said. Dorvall worked hard to excel academically, and worked both during the school year and over the summer.

“Given the choice between being a good basketball player and all the awards she garnered, no comparison. She is a tremendous young lady, she is sincere, she is honest, she is high in ethical standards,” Epperson said. “She is popular with all her teammates. … She’s one of the outstanding kids where you’re just so happy when good things happen to people who work that hard.”

When Epperson received word that Dorvall would be receiving the Sidney S. McIntyre Jr. Skagit Valley College Memorial Scholarship, in addition to the Art Feiro Award for being a successful, inspiring Northwest Athletic Conference female scholar-athlete, and the award for outstanding sophomore graduate, he got word to her parents that they would not want to miss the awards ceremony.

“I snuck her parents into town and they got to sit in the back of the theater and watch everything,” Epperson said. “I actually sat with her at the honors reception where they gave out the awards and after she sat down after getting all the awards, I said, ‘Niella, I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to look at you because if I do I’m going to start crying,’” Epperson said.

The McIntyre scholarship makes it possible for Dorvall to complete her bachelor’s degree at Washington State University without taking out student loans. She plans to major in biology and to get her CNA certificate over the summer so she can get involved with the local hospital, in addition to excelling academically and having fun, Dorvall said. She might play basketball at the intramural level, but said she will not play for the school.

Though she’s been told she is a role model to other girls at Nikolaevsk School and in her hometown’s community, she doesn’t like to think of herself in that way. However Nikolaevsk girls basketball coach Bea Klaich insists that it is true.

“I think that her success in junior college and now getting a scholarship is a great example to young ladies that basketball can be a tool, as well as being successful away from home,” Klaich said.

Anna Frost can be reached at