THE BACK HALLWAY, PINNACLE BANK ARENA — Most of the stories you find at an NSAA State Basketball Tournament come in the back hallway most never see when they come to watch teams compete for a state championship.
They have one at Pinnacle Bank Arena, where team selfies and post-game press conferences take place. But, where coaches also try and come for some peace and quiet before their game while the raucous is going on just steps away.
That’s where I find Pender coach Jason Dolliver on Saturday afternoon. It’s a little quieter in the arena — we are between sessions — after Elkhorn North had wrapped up their third straight Class B title; about 45 minutes before his rubber-match, 4:15 tip with conference-mate Oakland-Craig.
“43,” I ask him. In Pender’s two games with the Knights earlier this season, Oakland-Craig had scored exactly that number — a 50-43 Pender win and a 43-39 O-C win the EHC semifinals.
“If you give up 43, do you think you can win,” I added.
Calm and collected, he said, “I’ll like our chances.”
Near 6:00 we are back in the same hallway. It’s way louder now in Pinnacle Bank Arena — Millard South and Lincoln High are getting ready for a Class A classic — and coach Dolliver has a basketball in his hand.
Pender 45, Oakland-Craig 42.
“Defense is just such a big key (against them),” he said. “Our goal is 10 points a quarter, whenever you do that you have a chance to win.”
He reckons that those two teams had played each other near 100 times since they were in elementary school. Some of them play together in the summer.
“I have so much respect for them, they are good kids,” he said. “We have pushed each other a lot.”
There are few things I love more than Mike Sautter walking with the champions when he gets a minute on a busy Saturday. This one — after so much heartbreak and hard work — must have been super special for the Millard South “Big Three” of (left to right) Khloe Lemon, Cora Olsen and Mya Babbitt.
Their 72-60 win over Lincoln High in the Class A final was a fitting end to a highly-competitive season — filled with great play — in the state’s largest class.
— Mike Sautter (@MikeSautter_) March 5, 2023
I had so many great thoughts as I watched Lincoln High play this week. On Wednesday on my couch, and on Friday and Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. And, on coach Dominque Kelley-Johnson. Surely, basketball has taught her almost everything.
Her love and passion for the game. Her love for her kids. Her style on the sidelines. All of it so good and a perfect testament to how we can grow the women’s game in Nebraska.
But my thoughts usually always came back to this — imagine you got to play for Dominque Kelley-Johnson and Lincoln High girls’ basketball. Your life was made better. Her letters to her seniors — I post just one, you can see the others on her Twitter bio — tell you exactly what you need know about being a Lincoln High Link.
It’s senior night and I’m not ready! This class has been incredibly special to me! Love you so much #33! pic.twitter.com/daKZDtaKHN
— Dominique Kelley (@U_Niquely24) February 14, 2023
1.5 North and 1.5 West
The tweet got us in the evening session and gave us a good chuckle (but we kind of wanted to crash the party, too).
North Bend Eagle. 2:40 PM: Championship party tonight at the Emanuel shop at 7:30. BYOB. 1.5 miles north and 1.5 miles west of NB.
Then, I got to thinking. I wonder how many baskets have been made in the Emanuel shop (or farm, or wherever)? Too many to count is my guess.
Looks like they stopped by the school before the party.
— North Bend Eagle (@northbendeagle) March 5, 2023
Speaking of North Bend
They don’t make them much like Kaitlyn Emanuel. It was a pleasure to be in your time.
“I just hope I inspired all the little girls in North Bend.”
I am not sure it stopped there, 23.
Not 1, not 2, not 3….
— Mike Sautter (@MikeSautter_) March 4, 2023
This year, more than ever, it seemed that All-Tournament teams were a really tough ask. In many cases we could identify 6-8 deserving players in some classes.
The one that made me pull my hair out was not finding a spot Ruthie Loomis-Goltl in the Class C-1 list. Please remember, this is only for the tournament. Bridgeport’s No. 23 is one of my favorite players in the state — a sure-fire all-stater — but on those pages we honor the tournament. And, the five we picked had a huge impact on their teams getting to where they got.
It also re-enforced to us just how loaded — and balanced — this class was from top to bottom. It was a glorious season in Class C-1, with what may have been three of the 10 best teams in the state. More on that in my final Power 20 — from Washington, DC on Wednesday.
Our other difficult spot was finding a place for Centura’s Taya Christensen. She ended up sixth. But, it drove us to go get more intel on the player who may have led the state in floor burns and was the star of a fantastic Centurion defensive effort throughout the tournament.
“If you have an athlete like that to be the nucleus,” Centura coach Laethon Brown said. “She communicates so well. She is the first person on the floor for you. She does everything that is asked of her.
“She’s the glue. Taya played the most of the seniors when she was a freshman. I have been tough on her. Sometimes there was push back. But, I have been able to coach her the hardest. I love her to death.”
Christensen was part of Centura’s climb to the top in Brown’s fourth season. The coach is just 25 years old. His teams 7-17, 9-13, 11-12 until this year’s title after dropping down to Class D-1 (stay tuned for that one). Now, 26-3.
“Last year we lost 6-7 close games by one or two possessions because we didn’t have it here (pointing to his head),” Brown said. “We pushed them like hell this summer. Went team camps and played 30-some games.
“First day of June, I was on them like it was the first day of practice. But they wanted it.”
Why D-1? I got a text from a volleyball coach on Saturday.
“Weren’t they Class C-2 in volleyball,” it said.
Indeed they were. The smallest Class C-2 school. But, Osmond and Randolph — which played volleyball on their own — were a cooperative in girls basketball. This moved the Centurions down to Class D-1.
The intense Class C-2 final played on down on the court, and Class B champion Elkhorn North had retired to Section 111 for some Colby Ridge ice cream. Some vanilla. Some chocolate. A little twist.
Any flavor well-deserved.
The Wolves won their third straight Class B state title earlier in the day and with sure fire Division I players Britt Prince and McKenna Murphy — as well as Doane commit Grace Thompson — you’d think doing it would have been cinch.
That said, we all knew Omaha Skutt would be no easy task in the final. It was the Wolves only loss of the regular season.
So, how did coach Ann Prince and Elkhorn North beat the volleyball school? With a little extra help from their volleyball players, of course.
Purdue commit Grace Heaney scored six points but grabbed an all-important 12 rebounds, while Northern Iowa commit Reece Booth played 31 minutes scoring five points, grabbing five rebounds and adding three assists and a steal in the 64-51 win.
Booth was key in holding the team together when Britt Prince went out with a foot injury in the third quarter before returning. She also was assigned in slowing down Skutt super-shooter Peyton McCabe.
When EN lost Hannah Nadgwick and Emma Hanke to knee injuries before the season coach Prince knew Booth and Heaney would have to be key figures in the Wolves success.
“We absolutely could not have got where we did without those kids,” the coach said. “They both were just huge for us in their role today.”
The Final Champions
We missed the Class D-2 game and it’s not because we don’t love Falls City Sacred Heart and Wynot. In fact, we love them both. But, dad loves 14 Karat Gold Show Choir just a little bit more. They were champions last night, too.
But, it worked out pretty good if we are being honest. Most of their finals performance was during halftime of the final Class D-2 title bout, where the Irish held on against Wynot, 33-32. It was the seventh title for the Irish, who jumped to an 8-0 lead after one quarter.
Coach Luke Santo said it best.
“We know them and they know us,” he said.
What else did I learn? I should have known about Makinley Scholl a little bit more.
It came down to this for Wynot.
Falls City Sacred Heart wins 33-32.
— Mike Sautter (@MikeSautter_) March 5, 2023
On winning championships…
The closing final minute of that Class C-2 game took me back to a couple of different state tournament finals. Both with frantic final minutes, both with a special place in my heart.
In 1990, my dad’s Hampton girls team won the school’s only state championship. If you follow me on Twitter, you have probably seen me shove this down your throat a few too many times. My apologies. I was 13, keeping stats on the bench.
In their game against Lawrence, the lead changed hands three times in the final 30 seconds with no timeouts called. Hampton had won 54-53, but I am not so sure Lawrence had lost. All these years later, it’s funny the people you meet who were a part of that game.
A year earlier, Jason Dolliver was in the Devaney Center for one, too. His dad, Dennis, was coaching the Blair girls in the 1989 Class B state final against Lincoln Pius. I ask him about it in the hallway.
“It was 18-3, we were down,” he says. “I was freaking out, I went to the top of the Devaney Center. All the sudden they started chipping away, chipping away and they won it.
“We got back to Blair, they did a fire drill in the middle of Main Street, and I remember thinking what is going on here? But, man, those girls took my brothers and I under their wings and let us come along for the ride.”
Dolliver used the team as a little motivation when Pender was heading to their state final game and his team was browsing the 2023 program, looking at past champions.
“Hey, look at 1989,” he told them. “Tell me who won Class B. They tell me (Blair). My dad coached that team.”
Thirty-four years later, Dennis Dolliver’s seat was three rows behind his son’s bench. His granddaughter, Maya, made three free throws in the final minute to win another state title. Driven, just maybe, by a little history lesson.
And on getting a silver medal…
The other game was four years later. March 12, 1994. In another frantic final minute, where the lead changed hands three times as well, Humphrey St. Francis had beat my buddies and me, 68-67. I have the utmost respect for Eric Kessler, but I still don’t mind when he loses a close one. (Wink emoji)
It taught me a few things, but mostly that in 20 or 30 years the color of the medal and silver on the trophy won’t really mean much. And, it made me think of Scott Guzinski and those five Oakland-Craig seniors.
Oh, sure they lost a basketball game on Saturday. But, think of the memories and the lessons basketball gave them. Not just this year, but in the past, and, most definitely in the future. Wait until he gets to go to all of those weddings in a few years.
How do I know? Almost without fail, I’ll get a text on championship Saturday or see a teammate from Hampton in Lincoln. Yesterday, I got both.
This year, the text came at 6:57 PM on Saturday, during the raucous of the Class A title bout. It was a picture from a current Aurora News-Register flashing back to 1993.
“Water dripping from the ceiling of the Geneva gym didn’t dampen the Hampton Hawks bid for a state basketball berth Monday night. The Hawks turned away Kenesaw 66-59 to make their first return trip to Lincoln since 1990.”
“Great memories. Nothing like sports.” The quick reply.
These lessons from March win or lose, I promise you, they’ll never leave.
A Thousand Words
If a picture is worth a 1,000 words then the Nelson’s from Oakland-Craig have a book to write. And, it’s mostly a testament to grit and character.
When this website was a baby, we introduced you to Dacey Nelson. In 2017, the state’s leading scorer, but also the “star” of a photo showing the ups and downs of sports.
Saturday, the Omaha World-Herald’s Chris Machian did his job better than anyone else in the state. He captured Pender’s celebration after Oakland-Craig’s tying shot missed at the buzzer. Chaney Nelson was right in his cross hairs. When we got home after show choir, I opened my phone to that game story. It was near 1:00 am. I laid in bed and I cried.
How about an alternate ending? Oakland-Craig, see, they had never been to a state final. Like ever. So, you can imagine all the commotion on the north entry way at the Devaney Center on Friday afternoon after they beat Crofton to advance to their first title game in school history.
Standing there, I watched Chaney and Sadie Nelson take close to a hundred pictures. With mom and dad. With Dacey. With their teammates. With little dreamers from their school. Something in the orange. They are on a camera roll somewhere.
And, when they were all done, when all they probably really wanted to do was get down to their locker room with their friends, they had time for one more.
“Ella!!” Chaney said. “Can we have a picture?”
You should see that picture, too. A little girl and two of her heroes for the weekend. Maybe, for the rest of her life.
A Final Shot (but not Kadi Kimberly’s that’s here)
We ran into Jason Dolliver before the Pender, Oakland-Craig state title game only because Ella had one other picture she wanted.
And, I suppose I could go on and on about why a girl who would like to play basketball AGAINST Britt Prince next year — if she works her tail off and can make varsity (it’s a real long shot), shouldn’t look up to her. But, I am not gonna do that. You can if you want to.
Life is too short to not appreciate good people, who give our kids — and many others — a smile on their face. So, think what you want, but you weren’t sitting next to me when “britt.prince23” requested to follow “ella.chap22” on Instagram last March at the Devaney Center. You read that right, the request CAME from the hero, not the other way around.
“Ella!!” it came, one more time for the weekend after the Class B championship press conference. “Let’s have our picture. Here, you hold it.”
“Really,” she said.
Really. Even if you never get to Lincoln kids, work such that you might. You never know who you might impact.
Two hours later, our time was almost through.
I stand by Dennis Dolliver in that back hall way. The 1989 state championship coach, proud dad and grandpa was all smiles. Granddaughter Halle was soaking in her cousin and uncle’s state title. She was hours removed from a 72-point weekend where her Malcolm Clippers finished fourth in Class C-1. The freshman had scored 581 points for the season.
“Now you have to come to my track meets, grandpa,” she said. “I hate track.”
Grandpa laughed and whispered in her ear for what seemed like a couple minutes. My guess is it was more like 30 seconds. Halle laughed and listened. Really listened. Then, she gave him a hug.
“I love you, grandpa.”
I am not so sure it should be about anything else.
It was a weekend full of love. Love for the game and women’s sports. Love for teammates and heroes. For friendships and life lessons. Love and basketball.