Todd Neuendorf had tears in his eyes as he stood in front of his players Friday.

He did not want to leave and they did not want him to go.

But after visiting his childhood home in Watertown two weeks ago, Neuendorf realized basketball needed to be put on the backburner.

In conjunction with Mitchell High School, Neuendorf announced his resignation as the school’s boys basketball coach Friday in order to move closer to home, where he has accepted an offer to take the same post at Hamlin.

Neuendorf came to Mitchell in 2017, having won more than 200 games in 11 seasons at Aberdeen Roncalli. He took over a program that won 15 games the previous four seasons and compiled a 25-62 record in four seasons, capped by taking the Kernels to their first Class AA state tournament appearance in nine years.

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His wife, Jaime, also resigned as an assistant for the Mitchell girls program and has accepted a similar position with Hamlin. Both Neuendorf hires are pending board approval on June 10.

“It would be really easy for me to say, ‘I’m a Kernel and I’m staying here,’” Neuendorf said, “but I have a mom and dad and a brother in Watertown that need help. They need assistance doing things, have a lot on their plate and I need to be more in-tuned to helping them. … My parents have taken care of me for 49 years, but now it’s time for me to help out.”

Shortly after taking over for a Mitchell program that was gutted and devoid of recent success, Neuendorf told his wife they would either retire as a Kernel or get fired. Four years later, he intended to retire once his three children graduated from Mitchell or potentially move to the girls side to coach his daughters, the youngest of whom is in fifth grade.

After hours spent in the bowels of the Corn Palace attempting to turn Mitchell back into a Class AA power during his first three years and countless sleepless nights, Neuendorf finally reversed the fortunes and culture to take the Kernels to a 15-9 record this season.

He wanted to prove he could turn a Class AA school into a winner and achieved that goal, but a state championship eluded Neuendorf and it will forever linger in his mind. Yet he believes the program is more stable than it was prior to his arrival.

“There are pieces in the cupboard — it’s not bare,” Neuendorf said. “We have arguably the best player in the state (Caden Hinker) on our roster and he’s coming back. Somebody’s going to get an opportunity to coach the best player in the state. That’s hard to leave, but we’ve gotten this place back to where it’s supposed to be.”

The move came as a shock to Mitchell activities director Cory Aadland, who hired Neuendorf and had no plans to begin another coaching search so soon. Aadland saw the strides made within the program during his tenure, which he felt affirmed Neuendorf’s hiring.

“If you watch the games closely and pay attention and you have an insight to all the things he does, that’s what’s really impressive,” Aadland said. “He was good for 10 points himself every game, just based on play calls and adjustments. You don’t win unless you have good players, but he was able to get the most out of his kids as a motivator and a leader of a program. Then he put them in the best situations to be successful. I hope that people in this community see that and understand it.”

Breaking the news

Most know Neuendorf for an intensity that saw him fling his mask onto the court after disagreeing with a foul call that resulted in his first career technical foul this season or his quick wit that always led to an enjoyable one-liner.

But Neuendorf also developed relationships with Mitchell players and coaches that superseded basketball. Without a prior meeting and no prior coaching experience, Neuendorf gave Ryker Kreutzfeldt a job.

Mitchell Head Coach Todd Neuendorf talks to an official during the Kernels game against Pierre on Tuesday, Feb. 2 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell Head Coach Todd Neuendorf talks to an official during the Kernels game against Pierre on Tuesday, Feb. 2 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Kreutzfeldt quickly rose up the ranks on the coaching staff through a shared passion for the sport and a desire to win. Those similarities also led the two to become close friends away from basketball.

“He’s meant a lot to me, not only as a mentor, but he’s one of my best friends,” Kreutzfeldt said. “That family has done so much for me and given me so many opportunities. I’m just thankful for their friendship most of all. That’s the best thing I walk away with — I have five best friends for life.”

No Mitchell player had a stronger bond with Neuendorf than Hinker, who was the first player Neuendorf informed of his resignation and it was no surprise both were teary-eyed when they embraced.

Hinker was elevated to the varsity team near the end of his eighth-grade season, and because he could not drive, he often hitched a ride with Neuendorf. Their bond grew when Hinker would frequently call for access to the gymnasium to put up extra shots, oftentimes with Neuendorf’s son Easton, who played for the freshman team as an eighth-grader this year.

The senior-to-be spent hours with the Neuendorf family and even trained with Easton, who idolized Hinker. He often pretended to throw alley-oop passes to Hinker while playing in the driveway and dreamed the pair would lead Mitchell to a state championship.

“He’s like a second father to me,” Hinker said. “He had the confidence to move me up as an eighth-grader and I was really fortunate he did that for me. He’s played a big role in my development as a player. Even off the court, he’s been a guy I could talk to. He’s like a second father to me, he’s meant a lot to me and it’s sad to see him go, but I hope everything is well with his family.”

Leaving Hinker — Mitchell’s fifth all-time leading scorer with 1,113 points — before his senior season was difficult, but not any more difficult than announcing he would be leaving the 11 other Kernels on the roster. But the reasoning behind the move seems accepted by the players, but it did not make delivering the message any easier for Neuendorf.

“I always say I have 13 sons and they were all in that room. I care about them like my sons and I treat them like sons,” Neuendorf said. “I’ll get after them when it’s bad, I’m going to praise them when it’s good, but we’re all in this together. They know I’m not leaving them to pursue another interest, they know I’m leaving because it’s best for my family.”