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‘Dang, we really need to buy in on defense’: Kernel boys rounding into form after shifting focus midseason

Kernels have evolved into one of Class AA's best defenses while remaining the top scoring offense in the class.

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Mitchell's Caden Hinker (20) blocks the shot attempt of Sioux Falls Jefferson's Kaden Year during a game on Tuesday, February 1, 2022 at the Corn Palace.
Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — While wins have steadily piled up throughout the season, the Mitchell High School boys basketball team has shifted its focus to defense to better prepare for what it hopes is a lengthy postseason run.

If you set the fourth-ranked Kernels’ results next to one another, identifying the turning point isn’t difficult.

“Talk about you lose and you learn, we have definitely done that from our Harrisburg game,” said Mitchell coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt. “From that game on, our guys have really stepped up defensively.”

After a 68-59 home loss to the Tigers on Jan. 4, in which the Kernels surrendered 26 fourth-quarter points, it became evident something had to change for Mitchell to find sustained success against other top teams in Class AA.

To that point in the season, Mitchell had leaned on its offense — which was and remains the highest-scoring in boys Class AA, averaging 64.8 points per contest — to win games. It had been successful, too, as two of the Kernels’ four early wins came in contests where the opposition scored at least 62 points, including an 84-79 shootout against Campbell County (Wyo.) in the Hoop City Classic.

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But since Jan. 4, the Kernels have committed to getting stops and winning games with defense rather than offense.

“At first our mentality was just to score, but after that loss to Harrisburg we were like, ‘Dang, we really need to buy in on defense,’” said senior Gavyn Degen. “Now our main focus going into every game is defense and offense is kind of an afterthought.”

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Mitchell's Charlie McCardle (35) deflects a pass by Sioux Falls Jefferson's Griffin Wilde out of bounds during a game on Tuesday, February 1, 2022 at the Corn Palace.
Matt Gade/Mitchell Republic

Over the past five weeks, Mitchell’s defense has allowed more than 56 points in regulation just once (the Kernels still defeated Aberdeen Central 69-62 on Feb. 8) and recorded the most dominant defensive effort by a Kernel team in more than a decade, limiting Sturgis to 20.5% shooting and 29 points — the fewest allowed since Jan. 28, 2011.

“Defense is about effort,” said junior Dylan Soulek. “We dissected that Harrisburg loss and realized our defensive intensity needed to be picked up. Ultimately, we’ve done that. … We’ve figured it out to a point where we can go into a matchup each night and work out what we need to do.”

Mitchell’s 52.9 points per game allowed since Jan. 4 ranks seventh in Class AA, a far cry from the 61.2 points per game allowed that placed the Kernels near the bottom of the class in that category early on.

According to senior Caden Hinker, the Kernels (11-4) have tweaked their defensive philosophy slightly to be less aggressive on the ball but more aggressive in the gaps, and they’ve also mixed in a zone defense with more frequency. However, there’s little doubt within the program that the biggest difference has little to do with schematic tweaks, and it starts with two of the team’s leaders.

“Dylan [Soulek] and [Caden] Hinker are a big reason why (we’ve improved) because they’re guarding the best guys almost every night,” Kreutzfeldt explained. “It starts with them and then spreads throughout the team. If they bring the energy in practice or in games, guys follow.”

The benefits of becoming more balanced on both ends of the floor are clear, as the Kernels have aims of returning to the state tournament and improving on a seventh-place finish from a season ago. Kreutzfeldt added that in SoDak 16 and state tournament games, every team is going to be able to score at a high level, underscoring the importance of getting stops.

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“It’s a cliche saying, but offense wins games, defense wins championships,” Hinker said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, so really we have to buy in on both ends of the floor if we hope to go compete.”

Dierks covers prep and collegiate athletics across the Mitchell Republic's coverage region area, focusing on Mitchell High School football and boys basketball and area high school football, volleyball and basketball, as well as Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Gridiron Spotlight, producing video and providing live play-by-play for the traveling weekly prep football broadcast during its first season in the fall of 2021. Dierks is a Mitchell native who graduated from South Dakota State University with his bachelor's degree in journalism in May 2020. He joined the Mitchell Republic sports staff in August 2021. He can be reached at ldierks@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @LDierksy.
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