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“The Connector” : Always the Consummate Bengal, ISU’s Dora Goles is Ready for her Biggest Role Yet

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ISU's Dora Goles

Written by Jon Match

POCATELLO, Idaho — Dora Goles has always been a player that’s willing to take on a variety of roles: a scorer, a distributor, an emotional leader, anything for the benefit of her team. But in both basketball and life, the one that’s always remained unchanged for her is that of a connector.

After five years as a pivotal part of the Idaho State women’s basketball program, that’s how her teammates and coaches know her best — someone driven by a love of hoop and a love for others, no matter how long she’s known them.

It seems like everywhere she goes, Goles cultivates fans — from people she meets at the dog park to the young kids she teaches swim lessons to in the summer — and they all end up at her games. She’s easy to be around, and even easier to root for; a scrappy 5-7 point guard with a shooter’s touch that fought back from two ACL tears and three surgeries to become a cornerstone for some of the best Bengals teams in recent memory. Her blonde tomboy haircut and headband combo is hard to forget, as is Laura, the pitbull-heeler mix that quite literally never leaves her side.

“She has such a variety of friends… anyone who gets to know her and spends time with her, they become friends and they build a connection,” said her coach, Seton Sobolewski. “She has this amazing connection with people, and then she’s so smart and she has a great feel for basketball.”

Idaho State was the place that took a chance on her after her first injury, and since then, she admits that Pocatello feels just as much like home as her native Split, Croatia. International student-athletes don’t always feel that strongly about their college, but Goles acknowledge there’s something different about the community here that’s made it easy to stick around. There’s not many schools of ISU’s size that command the attention of their locale the way the Bengals do, and the packed stands at every home game means something more to the program.

“We have a tradition of working hard, of being committed to each other and loving our community as much as they love us,” Sobolewski said. “I think that's such a big thing; that's what makes people like Dora feel comfortable.”

Gole has matured plenty in Pocatello; she admits that the “adult stuff” like laundry and housekeeping used to be a lot harder for her when she first came here. But it never dulled her vivaciousness, and if it feels like ISU is where all of the things Goles loves — hoop, people and Pocatello — all become wrapped into one, there's a good reason why.

“People have definitely embraced me here,” she said. “I kind of have this goofy personality and people just have accepted me for who I am. I've never felt more welcome or loved in a place.”

That’s why even with her playing days over, she’s not ready to say goodbye to the city or the game she loves just yet. As the offseason begins, Goles is moving into yet another new role for the benefit of her team — that of an assistant coach on Sobolewski’s staff.

She already knows the reads and the X’s and O’s (as any diligent point guard does), but there’s something more nuanced about the prospect of moving to the bench full-time.

“It's totally a different perspective now, just seeing basketball from a completely different angle,” Goles said. “And I think I'm just honestly excited to stay in the sport. It was always kind of a worry of mine: What happens when I'm done playing? How am I going to get that basketball fix?”

Because if there’s been one constant throughout Goles’ life, it’s been the presence of a ball and a hoop. For as long as she could remember, she was begging her parents to let her quit swimming so she could play — even if the boys in her apartment didn’t let her play with them, just being able to get shots up and work on her handles was enough.

"[My parents] were like 'No, you're too little, you're too short,’” Goles said. “And I just didn't stop."

As is a common refrain through her career, her relentlessness paid off. Playing against local boys in her apartment complex turned to club ball at age 10, which turned to a national team experience that began at 13. By the time she reached college, her childhood dream of coming to America to play had become a reality, the glass ceilings she had previously imagined already blasted through.

And now, basketball’s the thing that’s given her everything: friends, a new home, stability and structure, better and bolder things to strive for — and now, a chance to enter the phase in her career where she becomes a giver rather than a receiver.

“I've taken two extra years trying to stick around here as much as I could,” she laughed. “And then people were sad about me leaving and I couldn't tell them just yet … I think I'm really excited for the news to come out and to tell everyone, ‘Hey, I'm sticking around even longer. You guys can’t get rid of me quite yet.”

That passion is the exact reason she’s pushed through so much, unwilling to let ulterior factors play her career out for her. After one year at Western Wyoming College, she was an NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American, ranked in the Top 20 amongst all JuCo freshmen nationally. Her first knee injury never dampened Sobolewski’s belief that she could be a major factor for his program, but it did lead her to shift her game into that of a pass-first facilitator. The second ACL tear, ironically, was a freeing experience — she stopped playing conservatively for fear of injury, throwing herself into the rehab process with the motto of “whatever happens, happens”.

“I realized that no matter how I decide what my role is going to be or what happens in a play, the possibility of injuries is always going to be there in a sport like basketball,” she said. “So I might as well go out there and play and not worry about that stuff because in the end it doesn't really matter … you just play basketball.”

Understanding that it was something her team needed that upcoming season, she worked on her handles and shooting in anticipation of becoming a primary scoring option. The result? She became her squad’s leading scorer the next season, averaging 12.7 points a game on 43.7% shooting. She led the team in scoring and efficiency again in 2020-21, putting up similar numbers.

“Just playing basketball,” it would seem, was a drastic understatement.

And over those last two years with Goles on the squad, the Bengals found program-defining success, bringing home a pair of regular-season Big Sky championships as well as a tournament championship in a COVID-marred 2021 season. They may have only been able to celebrate their conference tournament win in front of 50 fans, but after a season spent in isolation, it might as well have been the Super Bowl.

“Everyone was struggling,” Goles said. “They were isolated at home with the same routine of school online, and then practice, two hours of weights and then going back home and you can't even have like a different outlet.

“But then winning it in March, it was just like, everything was worth it that we worked so hard for. We didn't have one positive case throughout the season. It was just like our hard work paid off ... it was something that I'll definitely remember for the rest of my life.”

As she returns from a well-earned break following her final season, Goles has to shift her mentality again in a way she hasn’t before. And with degrees in psychology and sociology and a master’s in Sports Administration, she’s well-equipped to serve as a buffer between Sobolewski’s vision and the players whose shoes she used to fill.

“I think working on positivity and good energy encouraging players will be one of my most important roles this year,” she said. “No one can understand their perspective better than I can.”

Because even without the diplomas, that’s just the way Goles operates by default — she just gets other people, without trying.

“It's not just transactional … I could go down the list of a lot of our great alumni, who we stay in touch with and who are leaders in their community,” Sobolewski said. “I think it's just a demonstration of how we're not just like, ‘Hey, get your degree, play some basketball, get outta here.’ We want to keep those connections.”

Goles is already proud to consider herself among that group of “lifelong Bengals” — whether it’s a jersey or a team polo, there’s nothing she’s more proud to don. But maybe what’s most exceptional is that the storybook-like chapter she’s just finished has nothing on the potential of what she has coming up next.