As the drama of the Class AA basketball tournament unfolded in Rapid City, Mitchell head coach Todd Neuendorf was in attendance to take it all in.
Of course Neuendorf preferred to be in there in a much different capacity. Rather than watching from the bleachers of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Neuendorf wanted to be in the thick of it, coaching the Kernels toward a state championship.
In recent years, there have not been many schools further from such a goal, but Mitchell made significant gains in Neuendorf's second year at the helm and his desire to deliver a state tournament berth-and eventual state championship-is still at the forefront.
"Anybody who doesn't get a chill going up their spine playing in the night session (of the state tournament) is in this thing for the wrong reasons," Neuendorf said. "To get into the semifinal games, that's our ultimate goal. ... You've got to be in it to win it, so we've got to get there."
Mitchell made strides this season despite a 2-19 record. The Kernels lost six games by three points or less, another in overtime and dropped games to Class AA top-five teams Sioux Falls Lincoln, Sioux Falls O'Gorman and Yankton by a combined total of 13 points.
The team loses senior starters Kiel Nelson, Derek Factor and Kaden Soukup, but returns its top two scorers in freshman Caden Hinker (16.1 points per game) and junior Carter Jacobsen (13.9), along with four sophomores and two freshmen that comprised the varsity roster.
Neuendorf has high expectations for his players and is going to ask a daily commitment from his players this summer, albeit not at the expense of other sports or interests.
"We're not going to ask them to give up their summer because we want them to play baseball and do other things, but we're going to ask them for an hour a day," Neuendorf said. "We're going to ask them to do stuff in the gym for an hour a day and then we'll go to some team camps. You just can't flip a switch come November. You have to have a ball in your hand."
The Kernels received steady scoring from Jacobsen and Hinker, who recorded seven 20-point games, including 27 against eventual state champion Brandon Valley. Still, the offense was without a consistent third scoring option this season.
Sophomore Ben Helleloid displayed flashes after spending most of the year as the sixth man, while earning a few starts at point guard. Sophomore big men Zane Alm and Ryley Johansen also saw playing time and freshman guard Gavyn Degen saw his minutes increase toward the end of the year.
Mitchell will be looking for one of them to take on more of a scoring load next season to give the Kernels some balance when opponents focus on stopping Hinker, while also giving the offense more punch to keep pace in high-scoring affairs.
"I think you saw the games that we were close in, we had a third guy in the mix scoring," Neuendorf said. "You need to have five guys on the floor to help score and contribute some points. ... You need to have the other guys chip in six or eight points per night and that has to be a constant."