TOP OF THE HILL, HOOKER COUNTY — There is a certain peace and tranquility about the Sandhills of Nebraska.
The openness. The movement of the land. The wind blowing across whichever two-lane highway you might be traveling on. That nearly everything can be described by hard work and community.
At Mullen High School, the only school in the county, it has meant loads of success in football and wrestling. Success built on throwing hay bales and wrestling calves in the summer — in working on the ranch. The state championship sign at the corner of Highway 2 and 97 greets visitors with that success.
When Rusty Moore came to coach basketball in 2006, Mullen hadn’t been to Lincoln for the state tournament since 1952. Current Bronco coach Brad Wright was in the 8th grade then.
“When he first came here, our motto was ‘1952’, that is all he would talk about,” Wright said. “We never (got there), but the year after I graduated they did. Then, there was a dry spell.”
Then came 2017.
Clayton Moore, youngest son of Rusty and Jen, sits in Hilltop Gym last Thursday afternoon. It’s 90 minutes before his final basketball game in Mullen.
At 6-5, Moore looks like someone who should be playing in the city. His game is as good on the block as it is on the wing. He can drive and shoot. If you foul him, he’s likely not to miss a free throw.
There is something about this quiet gym where he sits. Clayton is known to open it many mornings before even school administrators get there.
“Work hard for what you want,” Clayton said of advice from his dad. “Nothing is going to be given to you, that’s why I love being up in the gym.”
For the Nebraska-Kearney commit, basketball has opened up a new world. It’s made him a better person. An all-stater last year, he is Mullen’s all-time leading scorer at over 1,500 points.
But from the get-go on Thursday, Paxton has other plans for Clayton and the Broncos. They get to an 11-4 lead and their matchup zone is causing problems. By halftime they lead 28-11.
Despite a quick flurry after halftime — Mullen scored the first nine points — the Broncos can’t crack the Tigers. Moore’s final shot swishes through as time runs out, but it’s inconsequential.
Paxton 48, Mullen 38.
Lincoln. March 2017.
Mullen has made it back to Lincoln. They are the fifth-seed in Class D-2 and just a win would probably be above expectations. Their last state tournament win was in 1923.
Clayton’s brother Lance is a senior, as is current Bronco assistant Dan Young. At 24-2, Mullen draws defending champion Humphrey St. Francis. Somehow, the Broncos survive 45-44.
On Friday, the Broncos get hit in the face by tournament favorite Riverside. Down 11-0 early, Mullen — just like their coach — fights back. They score with 15 seconds left and survive a late 3-point shot. Mullen 54, Riverside 52.
Clayton Moore was in sixth grade. All those guys were his heroes.
“I had such a headache after that Riverside game from screaming so loud,” he remembers. “And when we won, I remember Lance had the ball and he threw it up and hit the scoreboard.”
The next day, in the final game of the 2017 state tournament, Lance Moore threw a perfect lob pass to Luke Christen on an out of bounds play under the Mullen hoop. Christian gathered it for the winning shot in a 29-28 state championship victory over Mead.
Clayton Moore smiles.
“They were the dudes back then.”
It was Rusty Moore’s 200th win.
Nothing would ever be easy again.
Rusty was diagnosed with a brain tumor in February 2018. Wright and Rusty’s brother, Justin, coached the team to a third place finish at state. “Rally for Rusty” shirts made their way to Lincoln.
#RallyforRusty has really taken off around the state. It's an honor to be able to tell this story. Good luck to Mullen and all the area basketball teams who are heading to state. #CoachMoore #MooreStrong pic.twitter.com/Z8jYn3YN2N
— Chelsea Croft (@ChelseaCroft_) March 1, 2018
In 2019, the Broncos lost in a district final to Blue Hill, while the Mullen girls team made it to state for the first of a three-year run. One of their standouts was Clayton’s sister, Samantha.
The next year, on the day before sub-district play started — February 24, 2020 — Coach Moore’s fight with cancer ended. He was 46. The lives he impacted were countless.
“Somehow, we got through it,” Coach Wright says. “District time really makes me think of him. It’s hard. I grew up with Rusty and worked for him on the ranch. We were really close.”
In that empty gym three years later, Moore clicks his iPhone to see the date.
“Tomorrow,” he says, simply. “When I think of him, I use it as good. Trying to use it as my advantage.”
In the next few years, February — somehow, sometimes with a little pain and remembrance — would always turn to March. And each year Moore, Wright and the Broncos have finished in Lincoln.
Rusty Moore left a deep love for basketball in his family. In Mullen.
Lance officiates now, giving back to the game that gave him so much. He worked a district final last Friday night in Gothenburg.
Samantha plays at Kearney — the Lopers in the middle of a dream season her dad surely sees. They take a 27-3 record and No. 7 national ranking to this week’s MIAA conference tournament in Kansas City.
“We had a hoop out at the ranch and we just played all the time,” Clayton said. “Lance would kick our butt. I’d kind of like another shot.”
Freshman sister Tierston was the leading scorer on a young Mullen girls team this winter. Adopted sister Mercedes Garner also played varsity minutes.
Brad Wright sees Rusty almost every time he looks on the basketball floor.
“The passion and fire,” he says of the Moore’s. “They all have it. Just like their dad.”
There is one more chance at Lincoln for Clayton Moore and the Broncos. A bus ride to Ord to face high scoring Santee in a district championship game.
“We knew this year we would have to work our butts off to get this far,” he says. “And, we did. We pit our heads down and we went to work. We have earned it.”
This game, on the last day of February, and just over three years without his dad may be his most important one in a Mullen uniform. But, Clayton Moore knows who is watching.
“Get the first shot to fall,” he says of dad’s normal advice. “Then the rest will go in. Hustle. Play defense. Work hard.”
The result of the game, surely will be important to Moore and his teammates. You don’t live in Mullen and think about backing down to anyone.
But, it’s also clear to see that Clayton Moore has already won when he remembers a father who loved him — by the cross and RM initials on his left wrist or that final point to the sky before a Bronco tip.
Yes, Rusty Moore is still here in this gym on the top of the hill. Or on a bus ride to Ord or Lincoln. In the memory of the players and coaches that try to pass down his final lessons.
Lessons of teamwork and friendship and hard work that lives each day in the solace of the Nebraska Sandhills.