EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the third and final installment in a series examining the status of the Mitchell High School boys basketball program.
Most of the first two years of the Todd Neuendorf era have been spent attempting to wash away a recent losing culture.
Mitchell High School has been absent from the Class AA state basketball tournament since 2012 and wins have come at a premium. Neuendorf has gone 3-38 during his first two seasons and his disdain for losing is palpable.
Aside from a few young players with exciting upside, perhaps the difference heading into the 2019-2020 season could be that those players now also share Neuendorf’s desire for winning to become an expectation rather than a pipedream.
“Before, we would go into games thinking we’re going to lose or just try to stay close,” said Mitchell senior-to-be Carter Jacobsen. “But now we have the mentality to win and bury some teams.”
Whether Mitchell’s desire to win translates to the scoreboard remains the biggest question when practice officially begins in November. The Kernels have posted a strong turnout for summer workouts and also participated in a team camp at the University of Wisconsin from June 14-16.
Reaching the state tournament was a well-known goal last season and Mitchell nearly upset top-seeded Sioux Falls Lincoln in the SoDak 16. It remains a goal this season, but Neuendorf said those aspirations hinge on improvement through the remainder of the summer.
“We want kids to play baseball and we want kids to do other sports and we’re saying, ‘Hey, can you give us an hour a day to do some basketball?’ ” Neuendorf said. “The guys who have (practiced this summer), when it comes to December, that’s going to show. Right now, this time of the year, you’re working on skills. You don’t work on your skills in December. In December, you’ve got what you got.
“... We’ve got kids that have passed other kids,” Neuendorf continued. “They were playing behind them last year, now they’ve gone by them. That’s just part of it. If you do stuff and you commit to it, you’re going to get better. We have kids that are doing that.”
Neuendorf stated the coaching staff is simply trying to present opportunities for players to improve, but Chris Gubbrud spent one year with former head coach Erik Skoglund and the last two years with Neuendorf as an assistant coach, before stepping down due to his new post as Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary principal.
Gubbrud also spent close to 20 years working Kernel summer camps and he believes the need the commitment to churning out a winning basketball team is different with the current crop of players.
“Right now, there just appears to be a group of kids -- who have been playing a long time already -- who are very invested,” said Chris Gubbrud, a former Mitchell assistant coach. “When I came here three years ago and I coached with Skoglund for a year, I didn’t see that in the summertime. And there were opportunities in the summer to get better, there always are.”
For Neuendorf, this season could be the most important during his tenure. The Kernels lost three seniors and return two -- Jacobsen and Hunter Stahle -- and a variety of underclassmen who saw key minutes, many of which Neuendorf admits, came sooner than hoped due to need.
Most of the players in the program have known Neuendorf, his coaching style and system. Meanwhile, a coach’s third year is typically the target for marked improvement during rebuilds.
“In my opinion, we’re right on track of where I wanted to be and where I expected to be,” Mitchell Activities Director Cory Aadland said. “I would have liked to win a few more games last year, but we competed in a lot more of those games, too. When you bring a coach in, three years is kind of that timeframe when you seemed to be able to get things turned around. I expect us to make a big jump this year.”
Any jump in the win column means the core group that saw early playing time have evolved into legitimate varsity players. Caden Hinker led the team in scoring as a freshman with 16.2 points per game, while Jacobsen had a breakout campaign with 13.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game.
The Kernels must replace three starters lost to graduation, although Ben Helleloid saw starts at times at point guard last year as a sophomore. Forwards Zane Alm (6-foot-7) and Ryley Johansen (6-foot-6) saw spot minutes as sophomores as well, but all three players must consistent options during their junior seasons.
“I think people in Mitchell should have an expectation,” Neuendorf said. “They should be excited, not just for Caden Hinker, but for the Mitchell Kernels, because we’ve got some good players. They should get out to games and they should be expecting us to be competitive and be right there to win these games.”
While players and fans may be more focused on winning games in the near future, Neuendorf also has an eye on the future and he is more concerned with building a program that produces wins consistently, year-after-year.
“We’re building a program and it’s going to be fluid and we’re going to be good for a while,” Neuendorf said. “That’s what takes time. You can have a really good class and then you’re not good. I don’t buy that. … You can’t say, ‘Well, our junior class is really good, but our next good class are sixth-graders.’ That’s not a program, then you’re just waiting for talent. That’s on us to make sure there are a handful of kids in every class that are ready to roll.”