‘Something I’ll never forget’: Welcome home celebration provides moment of closure for Mitchell basketball
"It’s not just a welcome home. It’s a celebration of what they accomplished," said Mitchell coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt. "It’s a special team, and I’m glad we could send them out in a special way."
MITCHELL — Saturday’s end to the Class AA state tournament didn’t provide much closure for the Mitchell High School boys basketball team, according to head coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt.
With much of the team dispersing to travel home from Rapid City with their families, it left a quiet, mostly-empty bus that had otherwise been filled with activity for more than three months.
No more memorable rides. No more eating pizza, getting McDonald’s or stopping at the Flying J truck stop.
But as the state runner-up Kernels reconvened for their welcome home gathering at the Corn Palace on Monday night, Kreutzfeldt and company found the closure they were denied 48 hours earlier.
“You’re never prepared for the end of the year, and when you’re playing in that championship game, you’re definitely not ready for it to end,” Kreutzfeldt said. “You blink and the guys are gone. That hurt a little bit because you want to be with your guys, but we didn’t get to do that.
“That’s why I’m so thankful that we could all get together one more time with all the family and the fans and celebrate this team,” he continued. “It’s not just a welcome home. It’s a celebration of what they accomplished. It’s a special team, and I’m glad we could send them out in a special way.”
While Monday’s celebration was about the 2022-23 Mitchell Kernels, it also provided the opportunity to reflect on accomplishments several years in the making.
But the administration, coaches, players and supporters are in agreement. With this season’s results — a 19-5 record, a second-straight Eastern South Dakota Conference championship and the best state tournament finish in 11 years — Mitchell basketball is back.
“Six years ago, we set out on a mission to get Mitchell basketball back where it needed to be,” said Mitchell activities director Cory Aadland. “You can now say we’ve achieved that.”
So, too, is the energy within the community, as fan appreciation was high on everyone’s list of acknowledgments.
“It’s really hard to put into words how unbelievable the support is that we have from the community,” said senior guard Dylan Soulek. “Being able to restore that life and support around Mitchell basketball has been a complete honor, and I’m very proud of it.”
“Besides playing for the love of basketball, we play for all these people who love Mitchell Kernel basketball,” added fellow senior guard Aiden Myers.
With a couple hundred family and friends on hand, Soulek and Myers were among the several Kernels who took turns telling stories — most happy, a couple sad — making jokes and sharing some of what made them special.
When it was Kreutzfeldt’s turn at the microphone, he started by admitting that he was nervous all day leading into the celebration because he had much to say and didn’t want to leave anything out.
Among more than a half-hour's worth of thank yous, reflections and anecdotes were two points during the year that Kreutzfeldt highlighted as moments when he came to realize the unique nature of this collection of Kernels.
The first came when making the difficult decision to swap sophomore Markus Talley into the starting lineup for junior Gavin Soukup, who embraced the move for the betterment of the group.
The second such instance came when Mitchell lost to Sioux Falls Lincoln in late January. According to Kreutzfeldt, it’s easier to accept roles when the team is winning, but he learned how buttoned up his team was when a tough loss came and no one complained about their spot in the rotation.
“There are a lot of things you could say about these guys and what they did on the floor, but it’s actions like that, that made them different,” Kreutzfeldt said.
Near the end of Kreutzfeldt’s remarks, he expressed feelings of disappointment for not being able to win one for the class of seven seniors he’s had a hand in coaching since they were eighth-graders.
But then he offered a thought that drew the loudest reaction of the night.
“Someday, we’re going to hang a banner, and it’s going to be because of what this team did and the spirit this team gave Mitchell,” Kreutzfeldt said, pointing toward the black and gold tapestries lining the north and south walls of the Corn Palace. “And (this team) will know in their hearts that that banner is their banner, too.
“It’s been said a lot, but the truth is it’s been one hell of a ride,” he closed. “It’ll be something I never forget.”