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Transformative trio: Kernels' seniors took different paths, but shared role in shaping current MHS program

Macon Larson, Gavyn Degen and Caden Hinker concluded their prep basketball careers on Saturday in the Class AA state tournament.

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Mitchell's Macon Larson (11) makes a move towards the basket as Sioux Falls Jefferson's Beau Giblin defends during a game on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, at the Corn Palace.
Mitchell Republic file photo

MITCHELL — Over the past four seasons, the Mitchell High School boys basketball program has experienced just about everything there is in South Dakota prep basketball.

From enduring a 2-19 season as freshmen to a litany of close games as sophomores, a breakthrough junior season to a return trip to the Class AA state tournament this year, it’s been a roller coaster ride of a high school career for the Class of 2022 seniors — Macon Larson, Gavyn Degen and Caden Hinker.

“They’re going to leave high school with some stories, that’s for sure,” said Mitchell coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt of his senior class. “Whether it’s buzzer-beaters, tough wins or tough losses, these guys have absolutely seen it all. They’ve powered through and continued to put in the work from their eighth-grade summer to now. They deserve everything they’re getting this season.”

But while the trio has shared many experiences and memories spanning the past four years, their individual journeys to the final day of their high school basketball careers are markedly different.

“I love those guys and they mean a lot to me,” Kreutzfeldt said. “They were eighth-graders when I got my start, and now here we are. They’ve done everything I could ask of them and I’m a lucky guy to get to coach them.”

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‘He did everything right’

When it comes to athletics, Macon Larson is, first and foremost, a golfer — it’s what he’s committed to doing competitively at Dakota Wesleyan University starting in fall 2022 — but that didn’t stop him from returning to the hardwood for his senior season.

After freshman and sophomore campaigns where Larson admitted to losing an affinity for basketball due in part to being undersized at around 5-foot-5. He did not play organized basketball as a junior, opting to focus on his other endeavors.

But prior to the 2021-22 campaign, a pair of familiar faces began lobbying for Larson to give basketball another go. Prodding from Kreutzfeldt, who also coached Larson on the MHS golf team, as well as fellow senior and friend Caden Hinker, gave Larson the push he needed to return to the court.

“From the moment he decided to play again, he did everything right,” Kreutzfeldt said. “... That’s a really hard decision for a high schooler to make. I’ll tell you what, the day you have to walk back in the gym after everyone knows you didn’t play last year, that’s a really tough thing to do. I was just really proud of him because that was a mature decision.”

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Mitchell's Macon Larson (11) drives to the basket as Yankton's Mac Ryken defends during a game on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, at the Corn Palace.
Mitchell Republic file photo

Despite a year’s absence and limited prior varsity experience, Larson got out to a fast start, starting at point guard from opening night and scoring at least seven points in four of the Kernels’ first five games, including a season-high 14 points at Brookings on Dec. 17 and 13 points against Campbell County (Wyo.) in the Hoop City Classic on Dec. 29.

“I did my best to get in the gym every day when I decided to come back,” said Larson, who’s grown to be listed at 5-foot-11 on the Kernels’ roster. “I knew I was going to be a little bit better than before simply because I grew, so I was going to be able to do some things I wasn’t able to before.”

But after playing 59 minutes across two contests in the first week of January, Larson missed Mitchell’s next two contests due to illness. He returned to help the Kernels to three-straight victories late in the month, but a contest at Roosevelt on Feb. 4 held yet another unexpected turn. Early in the second quarter against the Rough Riders, Larson went down with a knee injury that would keep him out the remainder of the contest.

“I jumped up to grab a rebound, and that was probably the highest I’ve ever jumped in my life,” Larson explained. “[Charlie McCardle] boxed a kid out and [McCardle]’s a big, strong dude, so he knocked him back. I came down and he kind of came back into my knee and hyperextended it. … It wasn’t a pretty sight.”

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After several weeks of no game action, both Larson and Kreutzfeldt were hopeful the senior would be able to return for the state tournament, but that did not come to pass. Not only did the injury end Larson’s basketball season, but the recovery is likely to cut into his spring tennis season, as well.

Though his return to Kernel basketball didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, Larson provided a boost and much-needed depth to the Kernels’ backcourt, scoring 5.4 points and dishing out nearly three assists per game in 12 contests.

“He’s talking to the guys and keeping them loose and contributing in any way he can, but unfortunately, that’s not on the floor for us,” Kreutzfeldt said. “… We definitely miss him. He does a lot of really good things for us on both ends of the floor and he’s a good leader.”

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Mitchell's Gavyn Degen (24) rises to take a jump shot during the Kernels' season-opener against Huron on Saturday, Dec. 11 at the Corn Palace.
Mitchell Republic file photo

‘You see the flashes’

During his time as a Kernel, Gavyn Degen has fulfilled several different roles.

Early on in his prep career, the four-year varsity basketball letterwinner made the roster for what he could offer as a perimeter shooter. Since then, Degen has steadily rounded out his game by honing in on defending and driving to the hoop.

“It’s just been really fun to see everyone grow over these four years and see how much we’ve improved,” Degen said following a Feb. 19 victory over Brandon Valley that clinched Mitchell’s first Eastern South Dakota Conference title in a decade. “… It’s crazy and feels so good to make all of it pay off. We were in the gym all four summers with open gyms and summer league stuff. We’ve seen it all, been through the bad, but the good, it’s felt so good.”

Kreutzfeldt says Degen has shown up and been involved in everything there’s been to do over the past four years. From open gyms to team camps, Degen was always in attendance working to better himself.

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That dedication is a major factor in why Degen has been able to play a variety of roles and function in any way he’s been asked, and, in turn, why Degen and the Kernels have posted 15-plus wins in back-to-back seasons.

“It’s a winning culture now,” Degen said. “As a freshman and sophomore we weren’t winning too much, but we all believed and now we’re at a place we want to be.”

In Kreutzfeldt’s words, “you see the flashes” when Degen is on the court. In the Kernels’ first away game of the season at Brookings, he drew the defensive assignment on Jack Even, the Bobcats’ top scorer. Degen pitched in a modest seven points that night, but that was seven more than Even, who was held scoreless for the game.

“Once he makes a shot, he guards out of his mind,” Kreutzfeldt said. “Anybody who’s watched knows if he hits back-to-back threes, you won’t see better full-court defense than Gavyn Degen’s.”

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Mitchell's Gavyn Degen (24) goes in for a basket as Rapid City Central's Keishawn Beasley defends during a game on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at the Corn Palace.
Mitchell Republic file photo

In Sturgis on Jan. 21, Degen erupted for a season-high 18 points and seven steals, again flashing his ability to contribute on both ends of the floor.

“Everyone wants to score, but a team has to have that guy who’s going to guard the other team’s best player and play good defense, so that’s what I’ve tried to do,” Degen said. “Some kids might be pretty mad about that, but I took it well. I just have to do what’s best for the team and embrace my role.”

Kreutzfeldt noted the importance of Degen’s willingness to adapt, especially given the Kernels usually deploy a seven-man rotation that features heavy minutes for the two reserves that see the court.

“He knows we need that guy off the bench to give us a little energy,” Kreutzfeldt said. “That’s a really important spot, so he has an important role and he knows that.

“He’s a great teammate, a great kid to coach and the kid who kind of relaxes everybody,” Kreutzfeldt continued. “You can be yelling at him and he’ll just start laughing. It’s hard to explain, but he’s hard to take too seriously and is good at cracking jokes, so he’s good to have around, for sure.”

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Mitchell's Caden Hinker drives toward the hoop past a Harrisburg defender during a Class AA boys basketball quarterfinal game on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at the Premier Center in Sioux Falls.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

‘I didn’t want to see it end’

Four years ago, then-Mitchell coach Todd Neuendorf had a conversation with a rising freshman, who, by his own recollection, only appeared in a handful of varsity games as an eighth-grader, telling him that the Kernels' offense was going to start running primarily through him.

More than 1,600 points and 280 assists later — second and first in MHS boys history in those respective categories — it’s clear that the decision to make Caden Hinker the centerpiece of the program helped correct the trajectory of Mitchell basketball.

“The culture wasn’t there, and you could tell it wasn’t there,” Hinker said, recalling his earliest memories of the program shortly after a 42-game losing streak was broken on the last night of the 2017-18 season. Growing pains were far for over at that point, but it was just the start of a buildup to back-to-back state tournaments.

Hinker identifies a game at O’Gorman during his sophomore season as the turning point. As he recalls, Mitchell was battling for the final spots in the SoDak 16, while the Knights were near the top of the standings. The Kernels left Sioux Falls as 80-74 winners that night, and though they’d finish the season 7-14, it set the stage for a breakout 2020-21 season.

“We’re losing close games over and over and over again. It was like, ‘Man, we’re playing with all these teams that are good, but we can’t seem to knock any of them off,’” Hinker remembered. “Then, at the end of the year, we beat O’Gorman right before our play-in game. At that point, we were kind of like, ‘OK, we’re getting somewhere now.’ It was like that tipped us over the edge and led us into the next season.”

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Mitchell's Caden Hinker attacks the basket during a Class AA boys basketball quarterfinal against Harrisburg on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at the Premier Center, in Sioux Falls.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

During Hinker and Degen’s junior season, Mitchell went 16-8 and finished in seventh place at the program’s first state tournament since 2012. This season, with Larson back in the fold, Mitchell entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed at 13-7, led by the trio of seniors in their final go-around as Kernels.

In the SoDak 16 state qualifying contest, Mitchell avenged an earlier defeat to Rapid City Stevens, earning its seniors the opportunity to play their final games inside the Premier Center in Sioux Falls.

“To be honest, the nerves leading up to that SoDak 16 game were because — I wanted it bad for all our guys but — it’s Hinker, Degen and Macon’s senior year,” Kreutzfeldt said. “Those guys deserve to go out playing a state tournament and I didn’t want to see it end that night.”

Hinker, too, feels like it's a fitting end to all their careers, as the trio has been integral in re-establishing Mitchell boys basketball as a competitor in Class AA.

“We’ve both (Hinker and Degen) been around through it all. It’s funny because we can laugh and joke about some of the older things and also reap the benefits of now,” Hinker said. “You throw Macon in the bunch and we have a little trio that’s been going through the ups and downs of it.

“Through those beginning years, I can think about the times when it was rough,” Hinker continued. “To see where we are now, I just have to appreciate it and take it all in. … It’s been a blast and through it all, just seeing the program grow has to be my favorite.”

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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