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Skoglund displays positivity through first-year struggles

Mitchell boys' basketball head coach Erik Skoglund sits on the bench before the start of his first game in the Corn Palace as head coach. (Sean Ryan/Republic)1 / 2
Mitchell boys’ basketball head coach Erik Skoglund draws a play during a time out in the fourth quarter of a game earlier this season at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Also pictured is assistant coach Craig Mock and senior Neil Schlimgen (25). (Sean Ryan/Republic)2 / 2

The state championship banners in the Corn Palace are hard to avoid.

More than 20 banners — including boys’ and girls’ state titles, Spirit of Six awards and Mike Miller’s retired No. 13 banner — hang on the south and north sides of the basketball court. The black and gold flags are lowered before every Mitchell High School basketball game and symbolize the years of success, pride and tradition of Kernel basketball.

If anyone recognizes those banners more than anyone right now, it’s Mitchell High School’s first-year boys’ basketball coach Erik Skoglund.

“I truly realize how important Kernel basketball is to the Mitchell community,” he said. “We understand there is pressure put on us each and every night. But you can’t just go out there during the season and be good, it’s a 365-day commitment to be at your best physically.”

Skoglund took over the program in the summer following two very successful coaches: Tom Young, who held the position for one year, and longtime coach Gary Munsen. Young won a state boys’ basketball title with Mitchell Christian in 2003 and had a runner-up finish in 2007, while Munsen led the Kernel boys’ and girls’ basketball teams to 12 state championships.

The program went from being headed by established coaches to the new guy on the block. Skoglund has yet to win a state championship and planted himself in Kernel nation in hopes of building his own legacy. Prior to becoming a Kernel, he complied a 48-67 record in five years with the Spearfish boys’ basketball team.

He began building his program with an inexperienced group of varsity players after last year’s team lost six seniors to graduation. The Kernels won their home opener against Eastern South Dakota Conference and Class AA newcomer Harrisburg in December, but went winless through the remainder of the season.

Mitchell finished 1-21 and didn’t make the state tournament for the second consecutive year. The last time the Kernels failed to make the state tournament in back-to-back years was 1981 and 1982 under Munsen.

No team or coach likes to lose 21 or 22 games in a season, and there were more challenges for Skoglund than the team’s win-loss record. But throughout the season — Skoglund’s inaugural coaching under those championship banners — he remained positive and focused on building a program.

Attitude is everything

Skoglund’s positivity was seen by his players, family and outside parties.

“When we call him after the game when he’s on the road, he always picks out the positives first,” Christine, Erik’s wife, said. “I can tell he’s thinking more intensely this year about how to win more games. He thinks about what he can do with his players because every team has different strengths and weaknesses, and he’s trying to really hone in on their strengths.”

Because of the lack of size inside for Mitchell this season, Skoglund ran a fast-paced offense, and he’d periodically speak at the Quarterback Club Wednesday nights at The Depot in Mitchell about his team’s strengths. He approached the discussion with a sense of direction. No matter how well or poorly his team was playing, his belief in his players was constant.

From day one of practice, it was clear that Skoglund wanted his players to be vocal on the floor. That chatter and fast-paced play continued until the Kernels’ final game in March.

The most important part for Skoglund is planning, making sure every coach and player knows the agenda for the practice or game ahead. From the start, he had a printed schedule for each practice.

On Dec. 2 at the high school, junior Beau Brown — the team’s only returning regular starter from the 2012-13 season — and others jumped in with optimism as the boys’ basketball season began. Most Class AA teams around the state picked up where they left off with the same coach and system. The Kernels had to adjust for the second straight year.

“That’s why coach wants us to be enthusiastic and have chatter, because he wants us to build chemistry quickly,” said Brown — Mitchell’s lone player this season to average in double figures with 15 points per game.

The Kernels got a glimpse of winning early in the season as they defeated Harrisburg in their home opener. Skoglund said after that Dec. 17 victory, “You’ve got to get that first win to make the players believe.”

Through the next two months, the Kernels struggled. The Kernels came up just short of three more wins during the season, falling by three points in each game.

Although the losses continued during the course of the year, the optimism also stayed. That’s even despite a period of 19 straight losses to end the year.

After Mitchell’s 15th consecutive loss, sophomore Kanin Nelson said the goal was still the same as early on in the year.

“We’ve got to keep going through practice as if it’s a game, and keep trying to step up and working as hard we can,” he said.

For Skoglund, the losses got frustrating because his team continued to improve.

“That’s the deal. If we weren’t having good practices, this would be a drag,” Skoglund said in mid-February. “We’re upset because we have high expectations for these guys. If we didn’t have those high expectations, then it wouldn’t hurt so bad for the staff and all these players.”

Family sacrifice, support

Skoglund can’t put a number to the amount of hours he’s put into the Kernel program this season.

“It’s uncountable,” he said. “Other than my family and my job, coaches are constantly thinking about our teams and writing down notes and evaluating their team against other teams they’re watching. You can’t put a number on it.”

Christine said Erik’s planning continues through the evening most nights. With the recent addition of Hudl — an online exchange of game film between teams — Erik spent many hours outside of practice time planning and scheming against opponents.

“He is always on that watching games,” Christine said midway through the season. “It does cut into family time, but things are so much more accessible now. It’s nicer that he can do it at home rather than him having to go to school.”

The Skoglunds have three children, Lucas, 8, Jesalyn, 4, and Avery, 1, who listen to all road games on the radio and attend home games at the Corn Palace. Christine said the entire family adjusted well to Erik being away from home during most of the travel-filled basketball season.

“We do sacrifice family time, but we’re used to that and we support him that way,” Christine said, adding she takes on more of the parenting role during the season. “The kids are starting to understand as they get older.”

The time away from his family also weighs on Erik with the traveling, planning and constant pressure to do well.

“I put more pressure on myself than any outside influence could give,” he said, adding he’s appreciative of the support Christine, his family and community offers. “If it’s not for me, I hope that the players understand that the fans are coming out to support them.”

Where the future lies

The future of a program is its youth, Skoglund said. The Kernel fans got a glimpse of it during this season.

It wasn’t a surprise to see Skoglund give his younger players floortime, substituting frequently. In the 22 games this season, 11 players saw the majority of the time in 17 or 18 of those games.

“We’re taking the first step in seeing what these kids can do,” Skoglund said, adding his subvarsity teams started to click near the end of the season.

Regular starters for the Kernels were juniors Brown and Jaron Weich, sophomore Nelson and seniors Derek Miller and Neil Schlimgen.

But a rarity in South Dakota boys’ basketball is seeing a freshman on the floor, and Connor Morgan saw a lot of time on the court for Mitchell. Morgan played in 21 games, seeing valuable minutes near the end of the regular season and postseason.

Skoglund said his program is headed in a upward direction after laying the foundation for his offense and defense in his first season.

Skoglund’s returning players gained valuable experience during his first year. Now he’s ready to build from that this offseason.

“Everyone has the expectation and philosophy down,” he said.

He continued his positive mentality and added “What an exciting summer it will be.”

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.