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Sports: Theeler, Neiber two of a kind

Jill Theeler always admired Nancy Neiber for starting the Mitchell High girls' basketball program and for becoming the most successful women's basketball coach in South Dakota State history.

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Jill Theeler always admired Nancy Neiber for starting the Mitchell High girls' basketball program and for becoming the most successful women's basketball coach in South Dakota State history.

Neiber watched Theeler's career from afar while she was ripping up the track for MHS in the mid-1990s.

After leaving MHS, the two took very similar career paths.

Neiber is the associate athletic director/senior woman administrator at SDSU and Theeler is the assistant athletic director/compliance officer/senior woman administrator at the University of South Dakota.

Now, both will forever be entwined as they are inducted into the MHS hall of fame Wednesday at the school's athletic banquet. They enter the inaugural class with Ordell Braase, Wayne Stone and Scott Morgan.

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"It's a tremendous honor to be brought in with all these people, but especially Nancy," Theeler said. "I know her and I feel like I've kind of followed in her footsteps in my career. To have that common tie to Mitchell with her is very cool."

Neiber said Theeler was a special athlete who deserves the recognition of being part of the first class.

"I watched her in high school and at North Dakota State," Neiber said. "Jill is a young woman who excels in everything she does. She's made the most of the opportunities given to her and I admire her for that. I'm really looking forward to seeing her."

Neiber and Theeler are both pioneers in their own right. Neiber started the MHS girls' basketball program from scratch in the mid 1970s and Theeler won about every track award possible during her athletic career, and also had a successful basketball and gymnastics career.

Starting from scratch

Neiber worked in the MHS district from 1969-1983. She credits great athletes, along with a little help from boys' basketball coaches Gary Munsen and Gordie Fosness.

Once Title 9 was initiated in the early 1970s, Neiber had the opportunity she was waiting for to coach a varsity sport.

"It was a great time back then to see young women getting started in sports," Neiber said. "When I first came to Mitchell, there were some great junior high athletes. I was teaching physical education at the time when Title 9 came into law. We started a good intramural program at the middle school and that's how the wheels started turning. Those girls wanted something more than just physical education. They wanted to be part of a team. It was so much fun to be a part of that and see them grow. I was so young that I learned right along with them."

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Mitchell only played eight games during the 73-74 school year. In fact, one time Mitchell and Neiber traveled to play Canova in front of a packed house.

"Mitchell playing Canova? Who knew?" Neiber joked. "But it was a great game. Canova had a really great team and the whole place was packed. I think we won. I can't remember what the score was, though. We got girls' basketball started even before it was sanctioned by the Activities Association."

Neiber said her first teams ran simple two-on-two drills and ran a "shuffle offense." They also had a few out of bounds plays that she learned from Fosness and Munsen.

"The reason I survived was because I had great athletes," Neiber said. "I never had the opportunity to take coaching classes, though, because they were offered only to men. But I had two great teachers in Gordie and Gary. They would sit me down and I took notes. I watched their practices and tried to break the game down with them as much as possible."

Neiber's teams won 71 games during her tenure and made three state tournament appearances, including a runner-up finish in 1977. In 1983, Neiber moved on to SDSU where she got her masters degree. In 1984, she took over as head women's basketball coach and proceeded to compile a record of 301-140 up until 2000. That record made her the winningest coach in SDSU women's basketball history.

She left after 2000 to take on her role as associate AD/senior woman administrator. Neiber is retiring after this school year after spending 25 years at the school. However, she always remembers that she got her start in Mitchell.

"I remember each team I had, but especially that first one in 1972," she said. "I just remember Mitchell High very fondly. We had a wonderful staff, a really young staff. Everything was new and it was a great time in my life."

The track star

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Theeler is the most accomplished female track athlete in the history of South Dakota.

A 1997 graduate, Theeler holds school and state records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes and was the ESD Conference champion in those events in 1996 and 1997. She was a two-time, four-event champion at the Class AA state meet in 1996 and 1997 and was named the South Dakota Sportswriters Association high school female athlete of the year in both 1996 and 1997.

Theeler, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, went on to star at North Dakota State in track. She was named an NCAA Division II All-American 19 times.

But Theeler's greatest memories came on the basketball court. She played on the 1994 MHS team that went undefeated and won the state title, was on the 1995 state runner-up team and culminated her career in 1996 as a first team all-ESD pick.

"Most of the focus for me was always on track, but I'll never forget that 1994 state basketball tournament at the Corn Palace," said Theeler, who witnessed Erin Olson hitting a game-winning shot in the semifinals over Becky Hammon and Rapid City Stevens to get Mitchell to the title game. 'Watching Erin hit that shot was something else. I think Hammon had 29 of Stevens' 34 points or something like that. After the game, coach Munsen was more excited than we were."

In gymnastics, Theeler was a five-time letterwinner for the MHS gymnastics team. She was part of squads that finished runner-up in 1993 and 1994. She captured the Class AA individual title on bars in both 1995 and 1996.

"I stuck with gymnastics up until my senior year," Theeler said. "It was a tremendous experience. I knew track and basketball were my main focuses, but I got a lot of tremendous coaching and had great teammates. Playing three sports is something I was reluctant to give up. Each season was different. But of course, track was my favorite."

Theeler credited the coaching of Bob Sprang, Marcy Jones and Lori Krier for her domination in track.

"They all really got you into shape fast," she joked. "Finishing off that state meet my senior was something. I was so focused on repeating those state titles. I'll always remember the weather because it was so nice that day. It was a lot of hard work.

"I couldn't jump hurdles or do an individual event -- all I wanted to do was run. There was something simple about it. I loved the challenge of trying to beat the person next to you."

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