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The Starting Five: “Comparison is Thief of Joy”

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NOT QUITE THE METRO CONFERENCE — Elkhorn boys basketball coach Benji Hoegh knows exactly what you think about his unranked, 17-7 basketball team that played four Class A teams prior to district play.

That they don’t belong with this all-time Class A field. Heck look who else is coming:  Hunter Sallis and Millard North; Chucky Hepburn and Bellevue West; Latrell Wrightsell and Omaha Central; Jadin Booth and Omaha Westside; Jay Saunders and defending champion Omaha South.

You know the drill.

The Antlers are a Class B team, really. The schedule shows it. They didn’t leave the Eastern Midlands Conference for the Metro this year because they are going back to Class B next year when newly-formed Elkhorn North opens.

And, to be honest, Coach Hoegh doesn’t seem to let it bother him. Nor does his team.

“We are just trying to share our story,” he said, Monday morning after dropping off his fourth graders for music class. “We’ve played pretty well this year. We feel like we have deserved to be where we are at right now and we are enjoying that ride and making memories.

“Each game, we talk about how someone is watching us play for the first time. How do we want them to remember us? That we played hard and we played for each other.”

So, they’ll do just that Thursday afternoon at 2:00 inside Pinnacle Bank Arena in a game where the only folks who give them a shot are the kids putting on the uniforms, the coaches on the bench and maybe — maybe — mom and dad.

Just how did these Antlers do it?

In the A-6, they earned the 2-seed (some question that, even, because of the schedule) and hosted Millard West. They held on 40-39. The Antlers pride themselves on defense — using a long 1-3-1 and great rebounding — and patience. (It says here Bellevue West beat Millard West 75-72 the game prior.)

“We don’t stall, but we like to look for the best possible shot we can get,” Hoegh said. “You know against Millard West, it was 10-8 and then 22-21 and then 32-28 to the fourth quarter and they are used to scoring 65 a game. It was a probably a game that was played at our pace.”

Then, Coach Hoegh went to Subway.

“And someone texted me that Lincoln Northeast upset Papillion-LaVista South. Here we go.”

The Antlers would host the district final. When Bryson Hochstein went around a Drew Christo screen for the winning layup, Hoegh got to watch his team cut down the nets in their own gym. Surreal to say the least. The Antlers have never won a state championship, not been to state since 2008.

So it’s been an enjoyable week in Elkhorn.

Elkhorn’s Caden Schutte goes up for a shot in the district final against Lincoln Northeast (photo credit: Scott Avery)

The Antlers stats won’t overwhelm you, but they’ll make you work.

Caden Schutte’s 11.4 points per game leads the team. Hochstein and Colton Uhing and Christo aren’t far behind at 8.3, 7.5 and 7.4 points per game.

And, they aren’t about to compare themselves to the rest of the Class A field. Hoegh chuckles a little bit when he notes that he has 28 career wins and that doesn’t much stack up to Doug Woodard’s 600-plus.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Hoegh said. “We have a bunch of kids who are competitive, who are winners. A bunch of Class A three-sport athletes and that’s not easy. So, we aren’t comparing ourselves to Bellevue West or anyone else.

“Thankfully, the state tournament is not the NBA playoffs — we don’t have to beat anyone four times. Just once. We feel good about who we are, about our style. We are excited to go play.”

On to the rankings, and the picks. If we pick you, sorry. We were 1-5 on the girls side. Thanks, Crete! 

The most watched man in the state. Millard North’s Hunter Sallis (nebpreps photo / Marcus Scheer)

Class A

  1. Omaha Central (21-3): Eagles fell out of our Starting Five and have roared back to the top spot with an unbeaten February where they beat Omaha South, Millard North and Westside. But they will be in the 4-5 game Thursday night against Omaha South. Tough draw. 
  2. Millard North (22-3): Maybe the sharpest district play of any of the top teams. You really should read this great feature on Hunter Sallis. Key to the Mustangs cutting down nets? High level play from everyone else. 
  3. Bellevue West (21-3): The draw favorable for the Birds. Can they punch a ticket to Saturday? 
  4. Omaha Westside (18-6): First round match up against Creighton Prep is very compelling.
  5. Omaha South (19-5): Anyone betting against Bruce Chubick and that tricky press in Lincoln? The Pack are a tough match up for anyone. 

Picks: BW over Elkhorn. Westside over Prep. Millard North over Papio South. Omaha Central over Omaha South. Semis: BW over Westside. Millard North over Central. Champ: Millard North. Sleeper: Omaha South.

Hastings Tiger do-everything guard Connor Creech drives for a basket against York. (nebpreps photo / Ben Mohorn)

Class B

  1. Omaha Skutt Catholic (23-0): Probably a disappointment for Skutt if they don’t cut down the nets. Last time Tyson Gordon lost was to Hastings in last year’s state baseball tournament.
  2. Omaha Roncalli Catholic (21-4): Pride lost to Pius in last year’s final. Jack Dotzler and his buddies may be dead set on a return trip. Have not lost since Skutt beat them 45-44 in River Cities final on January 25. Finals rematch anyone?
  3. Elkhorn Mt. Michael (21-5): Balanced Knights get a sub-district final rematch with Wahoo in the first round.
  4. Hastings (21-3): Losses are to Mt. Michael, C-1 Adams Central and C-2 BRLD. Brutal draw here for the Tigers, who get Dotzler and Roncalli in round one. Will be an awesome night cap at Devaney. Can Conner Creech carry the Tigers. One of five teams that we think could cut the nets down.
  5. Scottsbluff (24-3): Move sure to go wrong here, but health could be a concern as the Cats head to Lincoln. Needed overtime to beat Waverly in the district final.

Picks: Skutt over Norris. Mt. Michael over Wahoo. Scottsbluff over Alliance. Roncalli over Hastings. Semis: Skutt over Mt. Michael. Roncalli over Scottsbluff. Champ: Skutt. Sleeper: Hastings.  

A feeling of relief for Cam Binder after Auburn qualified for state. (nebpreps photo / Marcus Scheer)

Class C-1

  1. Auburn (26-0): Have allowed 50 points just three times this year. Built on defense and ready to grind you out and in Cam Binder may have one of the best ball handlers in Nebraska.
  2. Adams Central (24-1): Just have a hunch on the Patriots who seem to enjoy playing with each other. Top-seed gets St. Paul for third time this season on Thursday. 
  3. Lincoln Christian (21-4): Four losses. Three to teams in the tournament field and the Crusaders have not lost since February 1st to Grand Island Central Catholic.
  4. Kearney Catholic (18-7): Five class C losses (all to tournament teams) and two others to Class B non-qualifiers. The Stars here based on a holiday tournament win over Ogallala. It’s a rematch in the first round.
  5. Ogallala (21-4): Top-seed last year and lost in semifinals. The Indians seem to be peaking at the right time. Avenged a loss to Mitchell in the sub-district final and controlled Battle Creek in the district final.

Picks: Adams Central over St. Paul. Ogallala over Kearney Catholic. Auburn over Ashland-Greenwood. Lincoln Christian over Wayne. Semis: AC over Ogallala. Auburn over Lincoln Christian. Champ: Auburn. Sleeper: Kearney Catholic.

Class C-2

  1. BRLD (26-0): A win over Doniphan-Trumbull on Thursday would make the Wolverines just the ninth team in state history to win 50 consecutive games. A state title would move them to sixth all time. 
  2. Grand Island Central Catholic (23-3): Tino Martinez’s young squad — the ‘Saders don’t start a senior — has a tough road to the final. After Palmrya, it’s the Yutan / Ponca winner. 
  3. Yutan (22-3): See above. Except dunk man Justin Petersen’s squad has to get past Ponca in the quarterfinals. They met in the semifinals last year and have ended each other’s season the past four years. 
  4. Sutton (23-2): Solid all year Jon Ladehoff’s bunch, get conference mate Centennial in the first round. Beat them twice already. Can they do it again on Thursday?
  5. Ponca (23-4): Four losses to two teams (BRLD and Laurel-Concord-Coleridge) the Indians will take their shot at Yutan on Thursday.

Picks: GICC over Palmyra. Yutan over Ponca. BRLD over Doniphan-Trumbull. Sutton over Centennial. Semis: GICC over Yutan. BRLD over Sutton. Champ: BRLD. Sleeper: Ponca.

Class D-1

  1. Humphrey/LHF (24-3): Undefeated in Class D, can coach Joe Hesse’s Bulldogs keep it that way and repeat?
  2. North Platte St. Patrick’s (22-2): Also undefeated in Class D and with a win over Ogallala, can the Iriish slow down the champs? 
  3. Laurel-Concord/Coleridge (23-5): Only Class D loss is to Osmond. Do the Bears have the best player in the D-1 field in 2,000 point, 1,000 rebound man Noah Schutte?
  4. Osmond (24-1): Beat LCC. Could only get another chance in the finals, but would have to possibly get past HLHF in the semis. 
  5. Paxton (21-3): Tough matchup with LCC in the opening round. 

Picks: NPSP over Pleasanton. LCC over Paxton. HLHF over Fullerton. Osmond over Southern Valley. Semis: LCC over NPSP. HLHF over Osmond. Champ: HLHF. Sleeper: Southern Valley.

Johnson-Brock standout Ty Hahn (nebpreps photo / Marcus Scheer)

Class D-2

  1. Humphrey St. Francis (25-0): What stops the Flyers from a perfect football/basketball double title? Not sure. 
  2. Falls City Sacred Heart (26-1): Only loss this year to Auburn, so basically the same undefeated team as HSF. You know who else beat the Irish this year? Yeah. St. Francis. In the football semifinals. 
  3. Loomis (23-2): Intriguing first round matchup with Parkview Christian.
  4. Parkview Christian (19-7): Intriguing first round matchup with Loomis.
  5. Mullen (21-5): The Broncos scorched the nets in district final win over Exeter-Milligan. Can Clayton Moore and Brandon Walker keep the mojo in Lincoln? 

Picks: HSF over Randolph. Mullen over St. Mary’s. FCSH over Johnson-Brock. Loomis over Parkview Christian. Semis: HSF over Mullen. FCSH over Loomis. Champ: Humphrey St. Francis. Sleeper: Johnson-Brock.

Post Script

In 1994, Benji Hoegh, myself and our 10 best friends lived a dream of playing for a state championship in Hampton. Just little guys. We had a late lead and blew it. The team that beat us, I just picked to win again — Humphrey St. Francis. Their shining guard that night? Eric Kessler. He’s coaching kids, just like my friend.

The night before that final game, in the semis, Benji went for 25 points and 22 rebounds as we beat Adams — the defending champions. I played 90 seconds. I was the towel waiver who cheered on my buddies.

We lost touch for a long time. Couldn’t text. No cell phones. No Twitter DMs. He won a national title at Nebraska Wesleyan, turned into a towel waiver and a role player. I didn’t go to his wedding and he didn’t go to mine. I fell in love with writing about high school sports. But somewhere along the line these last few years we re-connected. Now, he’s a text away.

I moved to Hampton in fourth grade. Benji was in third, but just a month younger than me. We were always in the same division for punt, pass and kick and the Elks Hoop Shoot. We did just about everything together. Our dream started in the little hoop in my garage that dad nailed to some 2×4’s. We’d play for hours.

And, if I stayed at his house, his mom would drive us over to the church in Kronberg where they had a little half court gym, we’d shoot on a big hoop and blare “Saved By the Bell” on the television. Just a couple lefties 30-plus years ago who had not a care in the world.

I hope his players that he’s leading now never lose touch. That they enjoy every second of Thursday and if they are lucky enough Friday and Saturday, too.  That his son remembers this time, too, just like we did when we were that age.

They say the media shouldn’t root for anyone. Forgive me for standing up for the Antlers on Thursday. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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