Opinion: The long wait for tip-off is over

Tonight -- opening night for the Mitchell boys' basketball team -- will officially mark my baptism by fire into Kernel basketball tradition. It's the day I've waited for since I started my career in Mitchell more than four months ago, and it coul...

Tonight -- opening night for the Mitchell boys' basketball team -- will officially mark my baptism by fire into Kernel basketball tradition.

It's the day I've waited for since I started my career in Mitchell more than four months ago, and it couldn't come soon enough. Since the day I accepted this job, Kernel basketball is what I looked forward to the most, and when we picked our Kernels' beats prior to the start of the football season, boys' basketball was an easy choice.

That's not to say it wasn't disappointing missing every minute of every Mitchell football game this year, especially given the excitement the team created, but I've always been more of a high school basketball guy anyway. Maybe that's because my high school in Wisconsin was a perennial basketball powerhouse, while the football team basically gave people something to do until basketball season.

And of course, Mitchell's reputation as being a basketball-crazy town certainly didn't hurt either. Pretty much the first thing I was told during my job interview is that this city loves its high school basketball, and that Mitchell is the hometown of the Grizzlies' Mike Miller. But strangely enough, none of that was news to me.

I can probably count the number of NBA players' hometowns I know on my two hands, and for most of them, it's probably because they're from Milwaukee. But for some reason, I knew Mike Miller played his high school basketball at Mitchell. In fact, when I told my dad I had an interview here, one of the first things he asked me was, "Isn't that where Mike Miller is from?'


Like many families, mine ventured to South Dakota one summer when I was younger, a trip that naturally included a stop at the Corn Palace. After learning that's where the high school basketball team played, often in front of large crowds, I remember thinking that would be a fun place to watch a game. At that time, I never would have imagined I would one day be spending my Friday nights covering games there.

I guess my initial impression of the Corn Palace as a cool basketball venue stuck with me, because years later, when Mike Miller hit his last-second shot to beat Butler in the NCAA tournament, (a shot that put me in a bad mood after spoiling my first-round upset pick), I was able to picture exactly what the announcers were talking about when they told of Miller's background in Mitchell, S.D., and of his playing at the Corn Palace.

That must be why Miller's hometown stuck with me -- even as I grew up 500 miles away -- to this day. In short, even growing up in Wisconsin, I at least got the hint that high school basketball was pretty big out here.

But as I found out earlier this week -- and as I'm sure I'll continue to find out as I'm thrown into the fire, trying to learn more about the Mitchell basketball team and program on the fly -- I wasn't even close to comprehending just how successful the Mitchell program has been over the years.

It wasn't difficult to get the sense that state tournament berths are at least a fairly regular occurrence in Mitchell, and that it usually isn't too many years between state championships. I was able to go back through newspapers from the last four years, and realize Mitchell had been to the state tournament in each season, which to me, was fairly impressive, although not that surprising.

But it wasn't until my first phone conversation with Coach Gary Munsen earlier this week that I realized state tournament berths were pretty much an annual event. In fact, they happen so often that even Munsen lost track. I was told it was 23 out of the last 24 years, but have since found out its actually 24 out of 25 years.

Granted, nearly half of the Class AA teams qualify for state each year, a fact that, for only a brief moment, lessened the magnitude of the achievement in my mind. But still, managing to avoid an upset -- or perhaps pulling off its own upsets -- for 19 straight seasons between 1983 and 2001 is incredible. Furthermore, the 24 trips in the last 25 years are still five more than the next closest team over that same time period. Aberdeen has gone 19 times since 1983.

Now that I've been given at least a brief look into the history of Mitchell basketball, I know a bit more about what I'm getting myself into. Since I've been in Mitchell, the one thing I keep hearing is, "Just wait until basketball season." Tonight, as I finally get my first taste of Kernel basketball at the Corn Palace, hopefully I won't be disappointed.


Somehow, I don't think I will.

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