LINCOLN, Neb. — Everyone in the state knows about the Winnebago boys basketball program. It won the 2015 Class C-1 state championship behind names like David and Mathew Wingett, Isaiah Medina and others.
The Bago boys returned to state the next three years, placing runner-up in 2018 and third in 2016 and 2017. But what about the girls’ program?
Bago’s girls have a talented but streaky crew this season. They went into their district final with 10 losses, but that turned out to mean nothing as they traveled to No. 1 seed Malcolm and upset the Clippers on their own court.
Then on Wednesday at the state tournament inside Pinnacle Bank Arena, Bago knocked off another top seed, the Grand Island Central Catholic Crusaders, 48-46, to send itself and its passionate fanbase to the C-1 semifinals on Friday at 9 a.m.
Yeah, everyone knows about the Bago boys. But now the girls are making their own story.
The last time the Winnebago girls made state was 1990 — that year they lost in the semifinals to Lawrence. The connections from that team — as well as other athletic bloodlines in the area — to the one that will be playing defending champion North Bend Central on Friday are too many to count.
Bago senior and its leading scorer who’s averaging a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, is Keisha Snyder. She is the daughter of Darwin Snyder, a great high school football player, who’s high on the all-time leading rushers list in Nebraska high school history and walked-on at Nebraska.
Keisha, a 5-foot-10 forward, scored 14 points and nailed three 3s in the win over GICC. Night in and night out, she can get hers, according to her head coach, Treivan Bear. She scored her 1,000th career point against Malcolm.
“Keisha is always getting buckets,” Bear said. “She’s not the tallest but knows how to use her body.”
Senior guard Natasha Deal is the daughter of Nate Deal, who’s from Iowa and played at West High School in Sioux City with longtime NBA player Kirk Hinrich. Natasha scored a team-high 16 points against the Crusaders and poured in nine of her team’s 17 points in the second quarter.
Natasha really stepped up on Wednesday, Bear said. Even when her shot isn’t falling, she finds ways to help the team. Bear saw that against Malcolm, where she didn’t score a point.
“She affects the game in other ways,” Bear said of Natasha. “She rebounds, plays defense and I think she’s our leading steal getter and assister. So she makes up for it.”
Senior Madeline Cleveland, the younger sister of Manape Cleveland, who was a member of those Bago boys’ teams that made state, scored nine points and made a couple second-half 3s to help Bago stay with GICC.
“Maddie can get hot really quick and knock a couple threes down in your face,” Bear said with a smile.
The connections go on and on. Auriah and Amani Means-Ghostdog are relatives of Tatanka Petite and Wicahpi Petite, who were on the 1990 team.
This team’s quest for a state championship had a fire lit under it back in junior high. When the Wingetts were leading Winnebago to the state title in 2015, Bago’s current seniors were in seventh grade. They saw the boys having all the fun and wanted a piece, too. Bear heard it all.
“They kept telling me that the boys get everything, they get this and they get that,” Bear said. “But I told them right off the bat, ‘The boys are winning. They deserve it. They earned it. If you start winning you’ll get it.’”
Keisha remembers the boys’ run at state and sharing the moment with her sister, Teisha, who’s now an assistant coach on the team.
“My sister was a senior that year and I was in the student section,” Keisha said. “I remember telling everyone that I wanted to be at the state tournament. That before I graduated high school I wanted to be at the state tournament and play in Pinnacle Bank Arena. It was a goal and one of my dreams. Now I made them come true.”
Natasha remembers, too. The whole state tournament experience stuck with her. Now she’s balling on the big stage — just like the guys did.
“Watching the boys and seeing all the crowds and the pep rallies, I always wanted that,” Natasha said. “So now that I finally got it, it’s incredible.”
Madeline said she grew up watching her big brother, Manape, play basketball and learned a lot from him, as well as her father, Haga.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Manape and my dad,” Madeline said. “It was cool. Watching the boys win it made it my dream to experience that. I’m just shook that we’re actually doing it. It’s crazy.”
Bear wasn’t lying.
After the Malcolm win, the team got a special sendoff from the community before hitting the road to Lincoln. Winnebago athletic director Adam James sees how meaningful this state tournament run is for everyone.
“The support is crazy,” James said. “I ordered 650 shirts and got them on a Tuesday morning and was going to set them outside at the school for a drive-up kind of deal. Out of those 650 shirts I had 20 left, and those were sold by 10:30. It was crazy to see the support right there.”
But the state tournament run isn’t over. The champion Tigers await. Bear and his team want to keep this ride going.
“It’s been an emotional journey so far. We’re just trying to tell the girls to stay focused and stay balanced,” Bear said. “I’m telling them that you are making history, you’ve already made history and you’re still making it. So let’s go try to get a championship and solidify it. Put it in stone.”
And when the girls take the court on Friday, they’ll have the support of Darla LaPointe, too.
LaPointe, the Wingetts’ mother, was a member of the 1990 squad and averaged 12 points and nine rebounds. She wouldn’t miss the chance to see her old team playing in Lincoln and was in the stands watching the defeat of GICC.
“I kind of felt like it was my duty to go after being on the last team at state,” she said Wednesday night. “Being there warmed my heart and gave me good feelings. I hope the girls hang in there and continue playing as a team and win.”
After a rocky start to the year where she watched Bago begin 4-7, LaPointe saw a different team late in the season. One that came together to accomplish something great.
“To see them persevere, push themselves, finish the game and not give up, all those things I saw in the girls today,” LaPointe said. “I was just proud of all of them, and they ended up winning. That’s because of hard work and teamwork.”
For the Bago girls, there might just be a few more chapters to write.