Kernel girls go for historic repeatTeam playing for first back-to-back state titles.
By: Luke Hagen, The Daily Republic
Erin Olson says she was fortunate in her high school basketball career. As a member of the Mitchell girls’ team in the early 1990s, Olson was part of an extraordinary run in which the Kernels made six consecutive state title game appearances. She played from 1991 to 1994 and helped the school claim two titles and a pair of runner-up finishes while she was on the varsity squad.
Mitchell also made championship game showings in 1990 and 1995. As a sophomore, Olson played a role in helping the Kernels to a 23-0 record and a state championship.
The following season, Mitchell waltzed into the title game with an undefeated record, having won 45 straight games dating back to the previous year. But Mitchell was unable to claim a second straight title, losing to Watertown in the final game of the year.
“It’s the difference of being the hunter or being the hunted,” Olson said. “When you win a state title, everyone is gunning for you the next year. It’s just an added pressure.”
After high school, Olson played Division I basketball at the University of Wyoming and then transferred to play for Minnesota. She’s now an assistant coach for the Mitchell girls’ team.
This weekend, the Kernels (20-3) have another opportunity to win back-to-back titles, something the school has never accomplished in girls’ basketball. Last year, led by head coach Wes Morgan, Mitchell won its fifth overall state girls’ basketball championship.
The Kernels open the Class AA state tournament at 8:45 p.m. Central time today against Rapid City Central at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, in a game that will be televised on South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
The tournament concludes Saturday, with the championship game starting at 9 p.m. Central time.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge to get that done, but it would mean a great deal,” Morgan said. “This group has the ability and all the pieces of the puzzle to do it again this year. It’s just a matter of if we can get those pieces in the right spots and if the kids are ready to play three nights in a row.”
Mitchell won its first state girls’ basketball championship in 1990, when Olson was an eighth-grader. The Corn Palace hosted the Class AA state tournament the next year, and Mitchell lost on its home court in the championship game.
After Olson’s sophomore and junior years, she got to finish her high school career a champion, winning the championship in 1994 on the Corn Palace floor.
“The thing that was neat about playing back then was we played in the fall, so we were the only show in town,” Olson said. “You didn’t have the split of the girls’ basketball tournament versus the boys’ basketball tournament. It was the girls’ basketball season and it was the only thing going on.”
The girls’ basketball season was later switched to the winter, and volleyball was switched from winter to fall.
The Mitchell girls were coached by longtime boys’ coach Gary Munsen from 1989 to 2001. They qualified for seven championship games and won three titles (1990, 1992 and 1994) in that span. When the season switch occurred, Munsen gave up coaching the girls. Mitchell won a state title in 2003 under Deb Thill, the school’s current varsity volleyball coach.
Mitchell had a six-year state tournament hiatus from 2005 to 2010, and Morgan returned the school to the top last year with a two-point victory over Sioux Falls Washington in the title game, held at Frost Arena in Brookings.
Olson joined Morgan as an assistant in 2011, when the Kernel girls took seventh place at state.
She took last year off but returned to the bench this year, hoping to help the team capture back-to-back titles.
“You have a fantastic group of seniors who have committed a lot of time in the gym,” Olson said. “They’ve worked so hard and you always want your seniors to go out on top. It’s blood, sweat and tears for Kernel basketball. For them, there’s that motivator.
“They’re athletic, they’re fun to watch, they get up and down the floor, they can shoot the ball. From a coaching standpoint, you couldn’t ask for a better group.”
The Kernels head into the tournament as the third seed, behind the two teams that have beaten them this year. Aberdeen Central (20-1) is the top seed and Sioux Falls Washington (20-2) is the second seed. If all three teams win their first-round games, Mitchell would play Washington in the semifinals, with a potential match-up against Aberdeen in the championship game.