MONDAY PRACTICE, CENTRAL CITY – In this brand new, state-of-the-art “Bison Dome” the Central City boys basketball team is trying stay in the present, while playing in a facility that is well ahead of its time.
And, if they are being honest, head coach BJ Blase and his players are also thinking about 1947. That’s the last time that Central City has been to the state tournament.
“We have talked a little bit about,” Blase said of the drought. “I think you have to a little bit. That’s our No. 1 goal, no doubt, but you have other goals that lead up to that and we are focused on those first.”
In their 14-1 start, they won their 8-team holiday tournament for the first time ever with title game win over Class D-1, No. 4 Mead. In this week’s coaches’ poll, the Bison check in at No. 6 in Class C-1.
The next goals are still to come. And, the big games start this week with games tonight against Boone Central (11-4) and David City (8-6) ahead of their LouPlatte Conference title defense next week. Another big game with Class C-2, No. 3 Freeman looms in the Heartland Hoops Classic.
The Bison – which will host the league championship games – were buoyed by the tournament victory last year and used it to advance to a second straight district final where they lost to three-time defending champion and eventual state runner-up Auburn, 41-37. They finished the season 21-6.
That’s two district finals in a row – one game short of Lincoln – for Blase’s seniors and their junior wingman Ayden Zikmund, who is already the school’s all-time leading scorer.
The buildup has been happening since all of them were in elementary school.
“The seniors were in seventh grade, the first year I was back,” said the coach, who starred on the 1999 team that advanced to a district final, the closest the Bison had been to Lincoln since 1947 until the last two years. “You could see a group who might have a chance. They went and played in a bunch of tournaments and had all the parts – a point guard and some size.
“But really, they are just a group that has bought into the process and gotten better. They don’t miss open gyms. We kept them together as freshmen, they didn’t lose a game in 8th or 9th grade and we wanted to build a winning culture. They expect to win.”
And, Zikmund got to play up with his buddies.
“We started really playing with each other when I was in fourth or fifth grade,” he said. “It’s been sweet growing up with them and playing with them. I think we kind of flipped the culture when they were sophomores and set the school record for wins (19) and then did it again last year.
“We are just trying to keep climbing.”
What you hear most from Blase when he discusses these seniors is how each has embraced a role to make others better. While sometimes that is a lost art in the world we live, the great teams embrace it.
Kenai Kearney – who missed the first seven games – averages 14 points and eight rebounds in the post. His inside mate, Nathaniel Heins, who now comes off the bench, brings five points and five rebounds per game.
“Kenai getting into our lineup has been key. Just the way he can get his hands on a ball, he gets us about 7-10 extra possessions a game,” coach said. “He’s really hard to guard.”
Blase smiles when he is asked about Heins. “The best teammate you could ever have. He will do anything for his team.”
They surround Zikmund with athletes and shooters in the back court. Ashton Gragg brings 7.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists an outing. Twins Derek and Dylan Pfeifer are key defenders, while first year varsity player Carter Brown and junior Blake Jensen each bring 6-7 points off the bench.
“Derek and Dylan are really good defensively for us and good floor leaders,” Blase said. “Ashton is just a super athlete, good defender. If we can get 8-10 points from him, we are really hard to beat.
“Clark didn’t play at all last year, played JV as a junior. But he has turned into a great spot up shooter for us. People have to pick their poison and he’s always ready to shoot it.”
In that new Dome, current Central City basketball players can be reminded of the history of the athletes in their school at a moment’s notice.
On the wall above the floor, you can see the school’s athletic hall-of-fame which includes former Creighton basketball coach Rick Johnson and legendary Nebraska prep coach Larry Ribble. In a trophy case as you enter are NSAA state trophies and on the other side statuettes of Central City all-staters.
In both places, Ayden Zikmund can see his father, Brett, an all-state football player for the Bison in the late 1980s and member of the school’s hall-of-fame.
“He has always just wanted me to be the best that I can be,” he said. “I wrestled for a little bit in elementary school, but that didn’t last long. So, he’d always bring me up here and we’d shoot it together. We have always had a great bond with each other.”
Now at 1,142 career points, the 6-foot, 3-inch Zikmund has a game that appears college ready. Last spring and summer he traveled nationally with Omaha-based ETG, an experience that he said helped his game overall.
“It’s definitely made me better,” he said. “My role with that team is different, but it has helped me grow as a player and learn new leadership roles. But I want to bring that back to my team as well. I need to be the best leader here and let even the little kids know now what we expect and what our culture is for Central City basketball.”
The coach knew long before he laced them up.
“My mom taught him as a first grader,” Blase says, “and I met him at Mike Trader basketball camp when he was in third grade. Then, he was a sixth grader when I started coaching here. He’s a gym rat, but he’s a really special kid. I mean, my son looks up to him — all of our guys really — and you can’t want much more than that.
“The open gym is an expectation now and it wasn’t before. This group of seniors and Ayden set that expectation.”
The new Dome in Central City is a sign of a community that supports their school and all students – the opportunities it provides surely aren’t limited to athletes. You can also see it at Bison home games, but their coach says you can see it all around the school, too.
“We have great programs here at our school,” Blasé said. “In the winter, we have a great wrestling program, and we don’t ever butt heads. I am best friends with the coach, his daughter is in my second-grade classroom. We have a group that wants what is best for everyone.”
It comes out most when that new Dome is rocking. Zikmund sees and he loves it.
“We have a great community that supports us,” he said. “Our student section is always into the game, and it’d be fun to really pack it before the season over.”
BJ Blase sees it, too.
“It’s been a blast,” the coach said. “Yes, there are expectations. But the fun part is we get great crowds. This place is a different acoustic for people to play in. The music is loud, the smoke is coming out from everywhere. The lights are turned off. It gets pretty fun in close games.
“It’s only going to get better.”
And, if the last time Central City made the state basketball wasn’t 1947 anymore? Well, Ayden Zikmund knows exactly what that would feel like for him and his basketball buddies.
“Like Christmas morning when you are five.”