Testing day has arrived for Mitchell High School.
All year, head coach Todd Neuendorf referred to the regular season as quizzes, preparation for the postseason. The seventh-seeded Kernels host No. 10 Watertown at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Corn Palace, with a chance to clinch a berth in the Class AA state tournament that would end an eight-year drought dating back to 2012.
Since Class AA abandoned region tournaments following the 2017 season, Mitchell has gone 0-2 in SoDak 16 games, losing nine to top-seeded Sioux Falls Lincoln in 2019 and falling to No. 3 Sioux Falls Roosevelt in a 68-50 contest last year. Now, the Kernels are the higher seed and Neuendorf desperately wants his players to experience the atmosphere of a state tournament.
“We show them the prize that’s out there,” said Neuendorf, who appeared in seven state tournaments and won the Class A state title with Aberdeen Roncalli in 2015. “We can take advantage of this and it’s on us. We don’t need help from anybody — this is something we have to do and if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to go to the state tournament.”
Many of Mitchell’s seniors have experienced state tournaments as spectators, but have never taken the court as a player. When the current crop of seniors were freshmen, the Kernels went 1-19. In fact, their 14 wins this season is more than the combined 10 in their first three years in the program.
Mitchell played a daunting schedule to end the season, with none of its final seven games coming against an opponent with a losing record and five were played on the road. Regardless of the outcome, this will be the last game played by this year’s group seniors at the Corn Palace, but they have no interest in this being the final game of their prep careers.
“It’s a big incentive,” MHS senior Lucas Moller said. “I don’t want it to be my last game. I want to go out to Rapid (City) and keep playing for a couple more weeks.”
The tallest player listed on the Watertown roster is 6-foot-4 and the Kernels took advantage in a 68-58 win on Jan. 22. Mitchell did not commit a turnover in the first half and shot 68.4% from the field in the second half — with Dylan Soulek getting eight of his 13 points in the final 16 minutes — against the Arrows.
Although Mitchell has a size advantage, Watertown’s smaller lineup posed some issues in the game. The Arrows made four of their seven 3-pointers in the first half, so Neuendorf opted to change the defensive strategy and Watertown drove to the hoop, going 11 of 13 from the free-throw line in the second half.
“They’ve got one way of scoring. They have to score on the perimeter,” Neuendorf said. “We have to contain their perimeters. We have to turn the water off and we can win the basketball game and we should win the basketball game if we do those things.”