Dierks: In steady climb up the Class AA ladder, Mitchell basketball ‘loves being doubted’
“This group of seniors, for sure, has kind of been doubted their entire careers, but they've always proved everybody wrong; they've always risen to the call,” said MHS head coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt.
MITCHELL — Rekindling the passion for Mitchell Kernels basketball didn’t happen overnight.
But following a rebuild of the program that started six years ago with Todd Neuendorf and has been carried on by Ryker Kreutzfeldt and company, Mitchell boys basketball has forced its way back into the Class AA conversation.
Though the improvement has been steady, the journey hasn’t been without its trials. This season, the theme has been proving naysayers wrong.
Escaping the doubt and negative energy from outside entities has been next to impossible for Mitchell boys basketball this year.
After two consecutive state tournament appearances and with seven returning seniors, the Kernels received one vote in the preseason South Dakota Prep Media basketball poll. Even as the season rolled along and the Kernels churned out win after win to enter this weekend’s state tournament with the No. 3 seed and a 17-4 record, the doubt persisted.
But quite frankly, the Kernels didn’t care about the outside noise then, and they certainly don’t now. In fact, they welcome skeptics and critics, who add fuel to a competitive fire that wasn’t lacking in the first place.
“Our guys love being doubted,” Kreutzfeldt said. “This group of seniors, for sure, has kind of been doubted their entire careers, but they've always proved everybody wrong; they've always risen to the call.”
The Kernels have ridden the wave all the way into Friday night’s state semifinals — a stage Mitchell hadn’t reached in 11 years — dispatching of Eastern South Dakota Conference rival Pierre in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Even when asked about it, those seniors, a tight-knit crew with some having played together since they were in elementary school, barely acknowledge the sources of doubt. Instead, all refer to “the guys in the locker room,” expressing that it has never mattered what others think because only the Kernels know everything they’re capable of accomplishing.
“We all just knew that we're gonna have this opportunity to prove ourselves,” said senior guard Aiden Myers.
“I mean, no one really thought we were going to win, besides us,” added senior forward Steele Morgan. “We get to kind of play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Playing for each other
When it comes to the 2022-23 Kernels, the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. That only makes sense, as the phrase “We > (is greater than) Me” is one of the program’s pillar values.
Before the season had even started, Kreutzfeldt felt the depth of talent on his roster could carry them back to the state tournament. Though it extends to both ends of the court, the Kernels’ offensive production perhaps best illustrates what makes this team special.
Among the scoring leaders entering the state tournament, Mitchell’s leader (Dylan Soulek at 13.2 points per game) ranks 12th. Four teams have multiple players in the top 11 — Sioux Falls Lincoln and Pierre each have three, and Sioux Falls Jefferson and Harrisburg each have a pair.
However, no team has more regular contributors than the Kernels, who have seven players chip in at least five points per night in Soulek, Morgan (11.7), Colton Smith (10.4), Markus Talley (7.6), Charlie McCardle (6.9), Gavin Soukup (6.1) and Myers (5.0).
“Our guys have really bought into the ‘we is greater than me’ concept, playing as a team and playing for each other,” Kreutzfeldt said. “I don't think there has been a night where we weren't the team that worked the hardest, I feel like we always outwork who we're playing.”
‘Out with a bang’
In Kreutzfeldt’s eyes, Mitchell is back where it should be — playing in the Friday and Saturday night sessions at the state tournament.
In guaranteeing a top-four placement with Thursday night’s quarterfinal win, this group of Kernels reached the latest in a series of checkpoints in building back toward the top, becoming the first Mitchell team since 2012 to play in a state semifinal.
“I think for most coaches in high school basketball, the goal is to make a state tournament and then the next goal is getting get to Friday night,” Kreutzfeldt said. “Once you get to Friday night, anything can happen.”
As recently as Friday afternoon, Kreutzfeldt has heard about the 2005 Mitchell team that came in under the radar and navigated its way to a state title. He also remembers the 2012 state runner-up team that, while one of the favorites that year, was laden with seniors much like this year’s Kernels.
No matter how Friday and Saturday night shake out, Mitchell’s season almost certainly has to be viewed as a resounding success. But, of course, having already broken through one glass ceiling, the Kernels want to shatter a couple more. Continuing to prove doubters wrong is just an added bonus.
“It's gonna be tough, a lot of emotions that last game, especially in the locker room,” Morgan said. “Hopefully we can go out with a bang.”