After seven losing seasons, Kernels look to return to the top of Class AA
Mitchell eyes first state tournament berth since 2012.
It has been a while since the Corn Palace has been a miserable place for opposing teams to play.
A raucous crowd driven by consistently formidable Mitchell High School boys basketball teams made opponents understand it was going to be difficult to leave with a win. In the last seven seasons, however, the Corn Palace has been more of a safe haven than a haunted house.
After seven seasons without a trip to the state tournament, Mitchell’s once-dominant aura has faded and new Class AA basketball powers have emerged and the current batch of Kernels are looking to stop that before it is too late.
Mitchell posted seven wins last season, nearly eclipsing its eight-win total in the previous four years combined. But a 68-50 thumping from Sioux Falls Roosevelt in the SoDak 16 left players yearning for a taste of the state tournament, beginning with the season opener against Huron at 7 p.m. today at the Corn Palace.
“We need to have the mentality that we are the best team out there and every team has to bring their best against us,” MHS forward Caden Hinker said. “We have to go into every game thinking we’re the favorite, no matter what anyone says. This team can do anything, we just need to show it.”
A state tournament drought that brought 125 losses in seven seasons-- including the first seven to start last year -- made moral victories commonplace within the program. But as Mitchell accumulated wins last year, moral victories were no longer acceptable.
Seventeen of 33 losses the last two seasons have come by single-digits, but the Kernels slowly began to despise being on the cusp of winning, particularly after losing on buzzer-beating heaves against Brandon Valley and Watertown last season.
When Todd Neuendorf first became head coach four years ago, it was positive to be in the game at halftime. The second year, the goal was to be within striking distance in the second half and last season Mitchell hoped to win. The Kernels now believe they are going to win, regardless of the opponent.
“These kids have put in a lot of time in the weight room and the basketball court and now the time is right,” Neuendorf said. “Everybody knows about our upper group, but we have some younger kids that are going to help us out. I think for the first time, teams are going to have to gameplan for us.”
Mitchell has reason for optimism with four of five starters returning from last season, led by Hinker. The 6-foot-6 junior has led the team in scoring the last two seasons, including posting 17.1 points per game a year ago.
Second-leading scorer Carter Jacobsen was lost to graduation, but Zane Alm is hoping to add more of a scoring punch after emerging as one of the top rim protectors in the state last year.
Ben Helleloid also returns at point guard, while Lucas Moller and Gavyn Degen return at guard. Sophomore Dylan Soulek moves into the starting lineup and can bring some of the athleticism lost from Jacobsen. Meanwhile, forward Jonah Schmidt became a valuable asset off the bench with an ability to guard and rebound in the paint.
For seniors like Alm, Helleloid and Moller, putting an end to losing expectations is the top priority this winter.
“I really want to go to the state tournament,” Alm said. “That’s my No. 1 goal right now, is getting to the state tournament. Hopefully we win it, but we need to get to the state tournament this year. It’s a big thing for me and the rest of the seniors, too.”