EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is the first in a series examining the status of the Mitchell High School boys basketball program.
Todd Neuendorf expects to win.
As the head coach of Aberdeen Roncalli, he won a lot. When he was hired to take the reins of the Mitchell High School boys basketball program in 2017, it was expected to be a perfect fit since the Kernels had a history of winning a lot.
But it didn't take long for Neuendorf to find the program he inherited was a far departure of the powerhouse that won nine state championships and made 29 trips to the Class AA state tournament in 30 years under the direction of Gary Munsen from 1983 through 2012.
"There wasn't a lot that was going in the right direction," Neuendorf said. "The kids wanted to learn. Those seniors we had that year wanted to learn and they wanted to win and they wanted to compete and they stuck with it through the whole year. ... But, it was a complete overhaul."
Leading into the final game of the season against Pierre, Neuendorf and the Kernels had lost all 19 games, running the program's losing streak to 42. Of course, Mitchell was able to end the streak, thanks to Carter Cavanaugh's buzzer-beater in the 2017-18 season finale. The Kernels improved this past season, but went 2-19, giving the program a 3-61 record in the last three years.
As many among the Kernel faithful wonder when Mitchell basketball will return to its glory days, perhaps a bigger question is where it went wrong. That's a question Neuendorf has pondered on several occasions since taking the job.
"Part of it, I think, was we graduated a lot of talent and didn't have as much talent for a while," Mitchell Activities Director Cory Aadland said. "But I don't know that we did a great job developing it. I think that's probably where it really kind of went on us, when we really weren't developing it when we needed to."
Since Munsen's retirement, Mitchell has gone 23-128, including a 20-90 stretch in five seasons-one under current Ethan girls coach Tom Young and four with Erik Skoglund-prior to Neuendorf's arrival. At some point during that span, Kernel players had become accustomed to losing and accepted it as a fact.
"When we played those first few games, our guys knew they were going to lose-they accepted it," Neuendorf said, "and I wasn't ready for that. The last I knew of Mitchell was you don't lose. You don't lose at Mitchell. There was a standard that was set and it was a high bar. I didn't know how far that bar had fallen."
Ryker Kreutzfeldt, a former Mitchell player that returned as a volunteer assistant coach during Neuendorf's first season, was surprised to see how much fundamental skills and player development had dipped since graduating in 2014.
Kreutzfeldt has seen the program through every side, playing for the Kernels during Munsen's final season, while also suiting up for Young's one-year stint and Skoglund's first year. His biggest takeaway from that first season was the limited skill sets some players possessed.
"I felt like some of those guys didn't get as many opportunities as they did back during the Munsen days or now," Kreutzfeldt said. "I feel like if they had gotten more opportunities to play in the summer or skill development stuff could have helped them. They were just way behind in all the kind of stuff."
A low bar did not quell Neuendorf's high expectations during his first two seasons, including a goal to make the state tournament this past season, despite warnings from Aadland and others that it was going to take some time to rebuild the program to reflect Neuendorf's desired vision.
The first season was also such a struggle that Aadland pondered whether his new coach had second thoughts about moving to Mitchell.
"When you haven't won a game and you win your last game, a lot of people would be glad to be done," Aadland said. "That wasn't the case. Even in a year where they struggled. I asked him if he regretted coming and he said, 'Not at all.' "
Mitchell made strides throughout this past season, with the aid of some young talent and increasing commitment through summer camps and shooting sessions.
The Kernels took top Class AA teams Sioux Falls Lincoln, Sioux Falls O'Gorman and Yankton to the brink, with six losses of three points or less and three more of 10 points or fewer.
Still, the season ended without reaching the state tournament for the seventh consecutive season and it left him yearning for more.
"We don't put in all this time to not have that as a goal," Neuendorf said. "When we accomplish that goal, we have higher goals. The kids know the higher goals, but you've got to be in it to win it."