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Coaching connections fuel tight-knit Mitchell High School basketball programs

Girls coach Cole Knippling spent his first year in Mitchell as an assistant for boys coach Todd Neuendorf. Last season former girls coach Wes Morgan and Knippling flipped places, while Neuendorf’s wife, Jaime, is an assistant for the girls.

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Mitchell coaches Cole Knippling (left) and Jaime Neuendorf (right) celebrate with players during a Class AA SoDak 16 win over Watertown on Friday at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell basketball has been revitalized from top to bottom.

The Kernel boys and girls basketball teams are headed to the Class AA state tournament in the same season for the first time since 2012 , a year both teams reached the state finals and the girls won the championship. Excitement surrounding both programs continues to rise, but not long ago, expectations were grim.

Mitchell’s boys program is making its first appearance in the state tournament since 2012, enduring 140 losses under three head coaches since Gary Munsen’s retirement. The girls, meanwhile, have been to the state tournament twice since a three-year run to the finals from 2012 to 2014.

But signs of improvement were evident last season, particularly in the eyes of activities director Cory Aadland, who saw two coaching staffs intertwined.

Girls coach Cole Knippling spent his first year in Mitchell as an assistant for boys coach Todd Neuendorf. Last season former girls coach Wes Morgan and Knippling flipped places, while Neuendorf’s wife, Jaime, is an assistant for the girls.

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A year after both programs posted losing records and losses in the SoDak 16, they are headed to the state tournament with identical 15-6 records.

“They’ve known each other for a long time," Aadland said, referring to Neuendorf and Knippling, "going back to their time in boys A basketball. They continue to bounce ideas off each other. They’ll see what the other is doing, steal it and reinvent it a little bit. They have two different programs, but there’s definitely a lot of connections between our boys and girls programs. It’s almost one combined program.”

Similar paths to the state tournament

Knippling has seen it from both Mitchell benches.

In Knippling’s lone season on Neuendorf's staff with the boys in 2018-19, the team finished 2-19. But he still saw the potential that has now flourished. He compared it to his first season as the Mitchell girls head coach, when the Kernels finished 8-13 but suffered four single-digit losses.

It was a talented roster, though one that still needed to develop before taking the next step.

“It’s crazy to think like that because you always think of Mitchell basketball,” Knippling said of Mitchell’s state tournament drought. “The tradition that the town has with the game it’s hard to fathom that, but it’s changing times. It’s a lot harder to make that happen in these sweet 16 days. It’s not just you have to be better than your district, you got to build a resume throughout the entire year.”

Two years removed from his time as an assistant, he coached a dominating 50-33 win over Watertown in the SoDak 16 , only to see Todd Neuendorf’s Kernels dismantle the Arrows, 66-40, the next day.

“I thought it was really neat how we got two home games in back-to-back nights at the Palace and had resounding wins,” Knippling said. “That was the coolest part to me. We both played great and we didn’t sneak in. We dominated our way in.”

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Relationships beyond basketball

The Knippling and Neuendorf relationship extends beyond one season as colleagues. They squared off as opponents and used each other as resources.

In his first state tournament appearance in 2010, Knippling’s Elk Point-Jefferson boys squad faced Neuendorf and Aberdeen Roncalli, with Roncalli earning a three-point win. That year, both teams stayed on the same floor at the hotel and their relationship grew. They would frequently congregate at the Class A state tournament if their teams were not playing and bounce ideas off each other.

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Mitchell head coach Todd Neuendorf paces the sidelines as his players celebrate a 3-pointer during a game against Aberdeen Central on Feb. 25 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

When Morgan decided it was time to step down from his post as head coach to coach his son, Steele, Knippling was a natural fit for the girls job. Morgan also happened to be a critical addition to the boys staff, aiding in the development of standouts Zane Alm and Caden Hinker.

“We basically swapped head coaches and nobody missed a beat,” said Neuendorf, who has coached the Mitchell boys since 2017. “Really, who it was good for was the girls and the boys, because there wasn’t a downfall. You swapped a head coach for a head coach and everything keeps on clicking along.”

For both coaches, the similarities extend beyond the court. Knippling and his wife, Amy, both played basketball at Mount Marty, while Todd and Jaime Neuendorf met while they were coaching girls freshman basketball at Aberdeen Central.

In the Neuendorf household, basketballs are bouncing year-round and they are constantly tossing ideas around to help each other. Todd has taken some plays from the girls team, while Jaime has used some of Todd’s principles within Knippling’s scheme.

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When Todd is at practice or scouting, it is common for him to receive a video from Jaime, who is at home watching a college or pro basketball game and thought an offensive play or defensive adjustment would be helpful to add to Mitchell’s playbook.

“Jaime’s that one you can text anytime of the day and go, ‘Hey, what are you thinking about this?’ And she’s thinking the same thing,” Knippling said. “She just loves the game, always thinking about the next step to win. It’s been really fun, and then we can both make fun of Todd, which is really nice.”

The personal relationships between coaching staffs has also extended to the players, and when the girls compete in the state tournament Thursday, the boys will adjust their practice schedule to ensure they can be in attendance.

“If you don’t have a wife who understands, it’s hard to be a coach,” Todd said. “... We don’t always agree on everything, but we make each other think. Cole will probably say the same thing. What it’s done is made our teams closer. They’re the closest they’ve been since I’ve been here. Our teams are pretty tight-knit. Our school is not big enough not to support one another. We’ve all got to be in the same camp.”

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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