When Todd Neuendorf compiled his coaching staff at Mitchell High School, he wanted people that were going to offer honest opinions.

As the Kernels attempted to maintain a second-half lead against Brandon Valley on Jan. 19, Neuendorf turned to his assistants and asked a question about personnel as they looked to stop Lynx standout Jackson Hilton. They responded, and moments later, a substitution was made.

The coaching staff has been reshaped during the last two seasons and it now features a former head coach that has seen every scenario imaginable and a young assistant that aspires to be a head coach in the future.

Longtime Mitchell girls coach Wes Morgan stepped down from his post following the season in 2019 — essentially trading places with current girls coach Cole Knippling — citing a desire to coach his son Steele, who is now a sophomore. Meanwhile, Ryker Kreutzfeldt was hired days before Neuendorf’s first season. He was a former Kernel, but unknown, unproven and still a student at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Morgan, the 1987 South Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year, has mentored standout post players Caden Hinker and Zane Alm, who total more than half of the points this season. Kreutzfeldt has also found a niche as the scouting guru for the Kernels, helping devise game plans and providing tendencies for each opposing player.

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With the input from his two top assistants, Neuendorf is able to call offensive sets and adjust his defense accordingly, which has been a key to Mitchell’s 10-1 start.

“I don’t have all the answers and I don’t pretend to,” Neuendorf said. “I like to have my assistants be part of where we’re going and give their advice. I might not always take it, but more often than not, if they have something I’ll take it and use it. … I want them to have a voice, I don’t want them to just sit there.”

A natural fit. … Eventually

Morgan has been blunt about his desire to shift from girls coach to help his son and was easier when Steele requested the move.

For Neuendorf, the move seemed logical. Morgan had plenty of success in 11 seasons with the girls team, which included six state tournament appearances, three trips to the finals and a state championship in 2012. He was also a standout player for DWU, scoring 1,429 points and was named all-conference twice.

But Morgan knew his new charges did not seem as enthralled with his presence. It took some time for them to get used to his style, but eventually the Kernel post players began to believe in his guidance.

Alm and Hinker have connected on 57.8% of shots in the paint during the last two seasons. While both players have put significant effort into improving during time with Mitchell and in AAU basketball, Morgan has helped Alm develop a jump hook that has become his signature shot. Alm went from scoring 15 points in 15 games the year prior to Morgan’s arrival, to averaging 16.2 points per game this year.

“If you put the time in with the kids, they start trusting you, knowing who you are and knowing that you’re not just a flash in the pan,” said Morgan, who was roomates with Alm’s father Corey at DWU. “When you go from a girls coach to a boys coach, the stigma is that you’re a girls coach. In the end, you know basketball. When you know basketball, they start seeing where you’re at and what you know. After a while, the stuff you tell them starts to stick.”

Mitchell assistant coaches Wes Morgan, right, and Ryker Kreutzfeldt watch as head coach Todd Neuendorf calls a defense during a game against Brandon Valley on Jan. 19 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell assistant coaches Wes Morgan, right, and Ryker Kreutzfeldt watch as head coach Todd Neuendorf calls a defense during a game against Brandon Valley on Jan. 19 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Morgan often views the game similar to Neuendorf, but frequently offers tips or suggestions when warranted. After more than a decade of running every aspect of his program, Morgan sometimes misses developing game and practice plans, but he also enjoys not worrying about the administrative work, parental complaints and responsibilities that come with being a head coach.

“When I came on, (Neuendorf) said, ‘I want to know what you think. If there’s a problem, deal with it,’” Morgan said. “I’m not here just to be a fixture on the bench and be the JV coach. He wants me to help get this team better. He gives me a lot of input.”

Rising up the coaching ranks

Adding a former head coach to the staff may have been a no-brainer, but the addition of a college senior was a gamble.

Kreutzfeldt had never met Neuendorf when he wandered into his classroom a week before the start of the 2017-2018 season. He wanted to learn how to be a coach and figured he would essentially be a cheerleader, handling odd jobs for freshman coach Pat Larson.

But the encounter was familiar for Neuendorf. As a junior at Northern State University, Neuendorf went to then-Aberdeen Central coach Terry Small and made a similar request to learn how to coach.

“I didn’t learn basketball in a college classroom, I learned it by working with Coach Small,” Neuendorf said. “I did some background checking on him. He’s a guy I thought we wanted to be part of our program. I didn’t know how much basketball he knew, but he was a good person and a person we wanted to work with the kids.”

Kreutzfeldt eventually acquired a teaching position at Mitchell and remained on the coaching staff, attending every practice, scouting trip or fundraiser for the team. However, it took some time to realize his opinion was valued by the rest of the coaches.

Mitchell assistant coaches Wes Morgan, right, and Ryker Kreutzfeldt watch the action along with head coach Todd Neuendorf during a game against Brandon Valley on Jan. 19 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell assistant coaches Wes Morgan, right, and Ryker Kreutzfeldt watch the action along with head coach Todd Neuendorf during a game against Brandon Valley on Jan. 19 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

One of the first realizations came when he learned to create scouting reports on Hudl, an online scouting site. He presented his idea to Neuendorf and the two have collaborated on the game plan for each game.

After three seasons coaching freshmen, Kreutzfeldt was elevated to coach the sophomores this season, and because of his proficiency with the scouting report, he now makes most of the substitution decisions for the varsity team.

“If you want to learn, you have to just get in and do it,” Kreutzfeldt said. “Coaching isn’t easy and you just have to do it. You figure out what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully seeing it work helps me down the line.”

As Kreutzfeldt’s voice continues to grow within the Kernel program, the idea of being a head coach in the future becomes more attainable. Neuendorf understands he may eventually lose his protege, but Kreutzfeldt is content in his current role.

Having spent the duration of his life in Mitchell, moving away would be a life-changing decision. Plus, after being a part of Neuendorf’s initial rebuilding phase that saw the Kernels go 10-52 in the first three seasons, Kreutzfeldt has enjoyed experiencing Mitchell’s revival this season.

“Those first couple years we had some long bus rides and long nights in the back room at the Corn Palace trying to figure it out,” Kreutzfeldt said. “Now that we’ve got it rolling a little bit, hopefully we can keep it going. It’s a lot of fun and the hard part is enjoying it. You’re always thinking about the next game, but you have to enjoy the wins because they’re hard to get.”