Back to 2001: Bulldog Basketball Since the Championship
By JOHN E. WEARE
Caps and gowns lend an air of sameness to high school graduates, covering the individuality underneath. With graduation comes memories . . . class clowns, flunked tests, senior skip day, and watching or playing at least one game or sport. The Alliance High School Class of 2019 is now 18 years removed from the Bulldogs' most recent boys basketball championship team. Babies then walked onto the rebuilt AHS track this Mother's Day as full-grown men.
Over the winter, seniors Mason Hiemstra, Reece Jensen and Corbin Starke led the Alliance boys to their third state basketball tournament in a generation since an AHS team last hoisted the trophy and cut the net. Michael Baker, 2018-19 head coach, also appears in the 2001 team photo -- enlarged and framed for all to see entering the gym.
Baker, in his second stint leading the team, brought the Bulldogs back to Lincoln. Eighteen years ago he coached the freshmen. Then and now, he remembers crucial wins and losses. Perhaps the most avid fans remember their college brackets from more than a year ago. At the high school level, once you reach the capital city, a return trip is the only tangible goal.
This past season the upperclassmen wanted another shot after reaching Lincoln in 2017. Learning the sport in elementary school, the same players saw the older guys go to state in 2008. The 2001 run itself came after an overtime loss, 72-68, against Lincoln Pius X for the No. 3 seeded Bulldogs the year before.
In mid-March, a couple weeks after Aurora cut the latest championship hopes down in the opening round, Baker talked about the postseason, prospects for the fall and memories as a new coach.
"I think the most memorable part would be the Mount Michael game, winning the game to go to State," he said. ". . . District final games are the ones where there is the most pressure . . . once you get there (State) you want to win. We were just beaten by a better team. Aurora just had one of the best players in the entire state in any class.
"Three things to me I guess, that game -- Mount Michael, going into that gym there and winning was very good; Dec. 20, being able to beat Scottsbluff, ending that losing streak of several years . . . then the first weekend of January, going over to Cheyenne and beating three Class A-size schools," which they would have been in Nebraska. The Cheyenne games were in the middle of a nine-game winning streak for the Bulldogs.
A generation from now every player on the 2018-19 AHS team will also have stories to tell, but likely have lived lives far away from a blue home bench at Alliance High. While every path changes from prospects at graduation, Baker took a few minutes to focus on his seniors. Hiemstra will play at Hastings College. Jensen and Starke plan to start at WNCC's Lineman School in June.
Hiemstra - "One of the college coaches that was recruiting him just commented that he never gives up on a play. . . . That'll (Hastings) will be a nice fit for him. I've known the head coach there for a long time and he will be able to utilize Mason's abilities to the fullest."
Jensen - "He took on a role that really no one else on our team could, and that would be to guard the other team's best player. . . . The other guys weren't big enough or had the skills to move like that. He embraced that role and was willing to sacrifice some offense to help the team that way."
Starke - "His speed is what most people notice . . . We're going to miss that, somebody else will fill that role in that capacity I guess. But from a competitor standpoint, Corbin got so he could play through mistakes better as a sophomore and junior. That was just overwhelming . . . really pleased for him to be able to do that."
The bench was a highlight this past season. "Treavor Dubray was the first guy off the bench," Baker said. ". . . in Cheyenne he started really shooting the ball well . . . For our bigger guys, Collin Schrawyer and Caden Kindred would come in and sub for Braden (Palmer) and Reece, they really did a good job. . . . The thing about being a bench player is you don't know how long you'll get to play, could be two minutes, could be six or eight, it could be the whole half. After that you just don't know. After that it's hard to be prepared to deal with that and these guys did a good job . . . they filled whatever role we needed them there."
As the team heads into the stretch in 2020, Baker expects to have up to nine seniors on the roster. "It gives you more experience (compared to three and two seniors the previous two seasons), we're going to be a bigger team, have more bigger guys, we're going to be able to play, at times we'll have three guys who are 6-foot-2 or bigger out there on the court."
Though Coach Baker himself has been involved in basketball at Alliance Public Schools throughout two decades, long-term commitment has been a hallmark for faculty. Spring brings Steve "Nelly" Nelson back to the pole vault pit to advise, years after retiring as an AHS English teacher. Another middle school and later high school teacher, Greg Friesen, coached track in the spring and basketball over the winter season. His daughters soared over the pole vault bar. Friesen coached basketball for 32 years in Alliance. Like Baker, he start coaching the freshman team. From there he assisted under Coaches Almond and Dave Licari. Then stepped into middle school coaching for several years, before joining Roger Trennepohl as his assistant the last four years.
Looking back, Coach Friesen, now a teacher/coach at an Omaha Christian school, listed his ingredients for winning the title. As he remembers:
#1 The foundation was laid by the parents and grandparents of those senior boys who supported them in all of their athletic activities.
#2 The team was selfless, they were the perfect example of a TEAM. They just wanted to win, they did not care who got the headlines, who scored the most points or who earned the awards at the end of the year.
#3 Head Coach Rocky Almond was a big part of the team’s success, he kept it simple and let the guys use their athletic ability to shine on the court. He also got guys to believe in their roles and play it to the best of their ability.
#4 The 2001 class had at least 10 good players, two of them did not even go out (Eli Korber and Ben Essay). Ben loved basketball and he was soon one of the better players in that class when they want to college, despite not playing his senior season. (Basically—lots of competition in the class.)
The players (as described by Friesen):
Tony Wilbrand: And old-school center, who only attempted 1 three point shot in his career. (He was the heart and soul of the team.) He kept things light and did not get too serious but was our best player and earned super-state honors for his efforts. You could not tell if he scored 5 points or if he scored 20 points after the game, his demeanor was always the same.
He was the difference-maker. If we did not have him, this team is very similar to a lot of others, good, but not state champions.
Tony Essay: Fierce competitor. Loved to win. Athletic guard who did nothing great, but a lot of things well. Just made plays and was likely our best defender on the perimeter. Coach Almond was harder on him than anyone but after he figured out what Coach wanted, he flourished.
Matt Lyster: Great Shooter, good rebounder. Strong, better athlete than was given credit for. (Decent high jumper on track team.) But . . . what he did was shoot. He allowed the Bulldogs to spread the floor as Tony Wilbrand found him spotted up on the back side if they doubled off of him.
"Going to State was always one of our goals while coaching at Alliance High," Friesen said. "My first experience came in the 1988 and 1989 seasons. Chuck Tank coached some high-scoring teams that made back-to-back appearances in Lincoln. In 1988, they lost in a very low-scoring game to Broken Bow 45-44. The next year, they set the state scoring record at over 94 points a game. Playing in Class A that year, they won the first game against Omaha North, before losing to Columbus. As freshman coach, I had coached several of the players on those teams and actually travelled to many of the games and helping with the scorebook and stats. It was a very exciting time in Alliance basketball history."
His second experience with Alliance basketball and the State tournament came in 1994. "I was Rocky Almond's assistant at that time. We lost a hard fought game to Kearney in the Districts, but our record was good enough to allow us to enter the Class A tournament as a wild card. We lost to Hastings 44-48. It was a very special to be there on the 'Big Stage' coaching in a big arena against an 'Eastern' team. We were very proud of our guys and it provided a lot of great memories."
He explained that as his own kids got older, and schedules got busier, "I decided to step down from High School coaching and work with our middle school teams. I enjoyed coaching my kids and seeing their games during those years."
"I really had no aspirations of stepping back into the world of High School sports, when in 2013 Roger Trennepohl stepped into the head coaching position. He was in need of an assistant and he came to me and asked me to consider helping him as his assistant. We were great friends and had similar values that made it easier to make the commitment," Friesen said. "Over the four years, we saw changes in the culture that lead to more and more wins. Finally in 2017 we made the state tournament. After suffering an upset at the hands of Gering, we were again at State as the Wild Card team. We drew a first round matchup with Platteview. We had a great game and won 65-60 before running into eventual champs Gretna."
Again, he related coaching at the state level as "an awesome experience."
"To play at the Pinnacle Bank Arena with a great crowd of Alliance supporters was something I'll never forget. I remember Coach Trennepohl and I just taking a minute before the game to look around the arena to see the atmosphere we were a part of. The team was like another family. There was a closeness that had been born through a lot blood, sweat and tears. We had our ups and downs, but in the end, we had achieved a lot of our goals. We would have loved to be state champs, but we feel we gave it our best shot."
Asked about the nearly 20 years since, Ed Sughroue (another AHS assistance coach who relocated several years ago) first cited some of the players.
Spencer Brown: Spencer had some knee issues but was a division-one type athlete. He complimented Tony’s playing greatly. Was hungry to play and win as he did not see much varsity action until his senior season. Due to his knee issues, he came off the bench late in the year, but he was likely the best 6th-man at the state tournament by a mile.
Up at the Energy Classic in Gillette, he had one of the best dunks I have seen in person at the high school-level.
Mark Robertson: Point-guard. Point-Guard. Point Guard. Point Guard. Another player who did not start until his senior season. He ran the team. He was unselfish. Played great defense, got the ball to our playmakers and was just like I said -- an old school point guard who looked to pass first, shoot second.
Brent Taylor: Another player who bloomed late, who played most JV until his senior season. Team player, who knew his role was to rebound and play defense and get the ball to Tony in our high-low.
Andrew Lloyd: Also battled some injuries but loved basketball. Knew his role and played it well. He was an excellent perimeter shooter and a great teammate. Just like the rest of the guys in the class, knew how to keep things loose.
Chris Pranger: Very good athlete who contributed greatly off the bench. He could make plays off the dribble and hit the open shot. As with most, was very competitive.
He also lauded the junior players, including Chris Armstrong, Jeff Wineteer and Matt Collins, "who battled these guys every day in practice and certainly deserve credit for making these guys better."
"This team was good because they put the team ahead of themselves. Also had a Super-State Player in Tony Wilbrand, which separated these guys from everyone else," Sughroue said, joking that their only loss, to Hays, Kansas, was his own fault ". . . because I did not stop and get them some gum."
The Bulldogs ended the season ranked #2 All-Class. "Quite an accomplishment," Sughroue said.
Success in high school athletics does not translate to a college career for the majority of players in any sport. Wilbrand, however, went on to play at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The former Husker shared some of his main memories:
". . . such a great group of guys playing a game we loved. The seniors on the team had been playing basketball together for at least 5 years and up to 8 in some cases. I remember doing 3 on 2 plus 2 drills in practice and dreading running 8-6-4-2 at the end of practice. The downtime on road trips was always so much fun and featured a variety of video games. On the day of the state finals I remember how we all watched the tape of the Pius game from the day before multiple times because (it) was cathartic and because Coach Almond didn't want to let us go anywhere and do something like bowling so no one would get hurt."
Wilbrand still watches the state basketball tournaments every season and comes away "feeling so blessed and lucky for playing with the guys I did and accomplishing what we did. I'm so humbled. Better players than me were never able to win state for a number of reasons." He roots for the Bulldog boys, and girls, to win another title, but said, "I'll forever be happy we were able to do it first, for each other and for the town."
Two of his teammates live and work in Alliance.
Mark Robertson said, "Some of my favorite memories from playing on the 2001 championship team came from the bus trips and in the locker room. Every road game we all brought along our favorite music and most would bring a game boy," he said. "We all were very close and we got along really well. You would see the entire senior players all in one hotel room yelling and cheering over games. Still to this day, I miss those moments with those guys, just having fun and building lifelong friendships.
"When the senior year started, we burned a CD of our favorite songs. We HAD TO listen to it before every game. It pumped us up, it got us ready to go out and play. Every senior had a song on the CD they had to hear. We would dance and rap along with every track. You would not even know we were there for a basketball game if we did not have our jersey’s on. Pre-game was a blast, I never went into a game not hyped up to play."
For in-game moments it was a home game playing Chadron. "The Dawg Pound was super hyped that night," Robertson said. "The building was sold out and the crowd in general was super loud! The best type of crowd to play in front of. Micah Smith from Chadron was in bounding the ball at half court along the stage. The entire Dawg pound circled behind him, screamed and barked at him forcing him to call a timeout. When He called the TO, the crowd lost it.
"Later on in the season, we were playing Ogallala. We were playing extremely well and once again the place was sold out and the crowd was loud. The best part about our Dawg Pound/Crowd is that they were very creative with their chants. We had just gone on a couple back-to-back fast breaks scoring at will and out of nowhere, the Fire Alarm starts going off. Without missing a beat, the Crowd starts chanting, 'We’re On Fire, We’re On Fire' We went on to smoke them that game.
" . . . My last favorite memories of games came from the entire State tourney. We all felt like we should have won our junior year so we were playing with full intentions to not lose again. Every game we brought it. Matt Lyster was hitting shots; Tony Wilbrand was dominating in the post. Spencer, Essay and I were playing our best Defense. It was going to be hard to stop us. We are now in the championship game. And we struggled out the gate. It took some time but we finally started hitting shots. Matt Lyster went insane, kept us in the game, and then eventually gave us the lead. It is almost the end of the game, it is tied and Beatrice has the ball. Jared Obering tries to go left and I step in his way, taking the biggest charge of my basketball career. We get the ball back and we go down, run our offense to perfection and go up two points. The next play down we get a stop and they send Lyster to the line. He hit 1-2 free throws to put us up 3. Beatrice comes back down and miss the game tying shot. WE WIN STATE! To this day, 18 years later, people still ask me if I was the guy that took the charge. I am so glad that is what they remember. Because I still remember being the one that turned the ball over the play before almost costing us the season.''
Robertson related another instance that was part of the experience.
"We are in Gillette Wyoming. We are all in the team van heading back to the hotel. We are stopped at a red light getting ready to turn left and a car full of girls pull up next to us. We all start yelling “Roll Down the windows so we can talk to them” and Coach Baker turns and looks at us and says “I Can’t, I’m Married." We all stare in disbelief, light turns green and we make our turn, never seeing those girls again. We still talk about that moment and how funny it was. I honestly laugh really hard every time I hear it."
Spencer Brown now watches his own son on the hardwood. This past year with Ogallala they competed at State. In 2001, he explained, "Anything short would've felt like a disappointment."
Technology has helped the former teammates stay in touch. Brown noted the group was pretty tight and still shares a group message every once in a while. He played a year of football at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. He graduated in December 2005. More recently, he returned to help on staff under Coach Trennepohl.
Brown also referenced Sughroue's "gum" comment thinking back to a few memorable road trips. He said though the team fielded eight seniors, they did not all play together until freshman year. The group was split about evenly from Alliance Middle School and St. Agnes Academy. Brown played at AMS and was a forward as a senior in the team's "four around one" offense. He emphasized the "grade below us had good players."
Coach Almond returned to his hometown of Chamberlain, South Dakota, after also making his mark as an activities director and middle school mentor. He came out of retirement to serve as an elementary school principal.
"I was kind of raised as an orphan child here in Chamberlain and the town always took care of me, and I thought this was my chance to give back. And so I thought I'd give them a couple years. And here I am four years into it and signed my contract for next year going into my fifth year," he said.
". . . it's kind of funny the older you get, and I know the players will understand this and the assistants -- as great of a feat as it was looking back, the journey was a lot more memorable," the former coach said, "than the destination. It was incredible, thinking about it that whole year, winning the Gillette Energy Classic in Gillette, Wyoming; our one loss in the tournament in Kansas. We played, we had a really special year, and I think it was probably a true carryover from the previous year when we felt we should have been state champions that year. So we were kind of on a mission."
Almond came to Alliance in 1986 and had success with Bulldog basketball early. "In my run there until I left 21 years later we had some incredible kids. We really did. We were just blessed with the kids and coaches we had. I hope Alliance realizes how fortunate they were during that time. But I think that (1999-2001) group . . . when we traveled I swear we would only need three rooms. Those kids would all hang out with each other there and they just, were very unselfish. . . . Just that special bond they had is what made it so easy and unique, and they were pretty darn good basketball players."
Now Almond also keeps in touch with that team and coaches, more through his son who graduated from Alliance High in 2001. "I stay in constant touch with Coach (Randy) Hiemstra because we're both from Chamberlain here and go way back."
Before too many more AHS basketball season pass, Almond expects to see the 2000-01 team in the APS hall of fame. "We had the makings of a championship team because we had the kids who bought in. We had Coach Baker and Coach Sughroue, my two assistants, nobody could break down film or put together a game plan like them. I was just blessed to have these great kids and great coaches. And it was a lot of fun and I really want to thank those guys. I'm proud of what they're all doing. They all have kids playing now . . . Hopefully (the AHS hall of fame) will start recognizing teams (rather than solely individuals) for that too."