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In 2017, Neligh-Oakdale’s boys basketball team completed the most successful season in school history. The Warriors won 26 games, set numerous team and individual records and made their first-ever state championship appearance, finishing as the C2 runner up.
While many will point to the consistent improvement over the last few years as a reason for the success, the foundation of that team was built years ago with a strong youth basketball program. For years, Jeff Kerkman led a program that included players such as recently graduated Grant White and Tyson Belitz.
Now, the program has been entrusted to Tanner Knutson, another Neligh-Oakdale alum. As an assistant coach for the varsity boys, Knutson was a perfect option to hand the reins over to. When he took over, he asked a couple of guys he trusted to help him out in White, Belitz and Tyler Doerr.
“All three of them love basketball and know basketball, so I knew they would be perfect,” Knutson said.
The four former Warriors take time out of their own busy schedules to put in work with the fifth and sixth graders three times a week. Aside from being an assistant coach for the varsity boys, Knutson also works full time for the City of Neligh. Doerr works for Pierson Wildlife Museum. White and Belitz, both freshmen at Wayne State, travel back and forth to Neligh from Wayne while juggling their busy college schedules.
“These guys sacrifice a lot to help these kids,” Knutson said.
The team practices twice a week, with a game nearly every weekend from November through March. That takes a lot of time and effort, especially when it includes a two-hour round trip. Thanks to classes getting out in the early afternoon, White and Belitz are able to make the trip. They do it because it is important to them to see the young kids build on top of the foundation they themselves set as players.
“I want to see them keep improving and keep the whole tradition of Neligh-Oakdale basketball up,” White said.
Knutson and Doerr often oversee the entire operation of practice while Belitz works with the kids on fundamentals and White works on their shooting. However, there is much more than just basketball skills that the crew works with the kids on.
“Besides fundamentals, we teach them to be good teammates and be encouraging,” Belitz said. “We always tell them that good teammates and good fundamentals will help you in high school.”
The Warrior alumni have developed a great relationship with their players. With Belitz and White finishing with nearly every individual record in Neligh-Oakdale history, they have given the kids plenty to look up and aspire to. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop the kids from taking a few shots at the boys for finishing second last year.
“I feel like they do look up to us, but we try to be pretty approachable, so they still like to take jabs at us,” White said.
Belitz joked, “Usually they give us a hard time. They’re always like, ‘Why did you lose the state championship game?’ We’re like ‘Don’t want to talk about it!’”
While the Neligh-Oakdale grads are working to continue their own legacy, none of them have forgotten the work Kerkman did to get them to the point of having a legacy. Knutson said that taking over the program from Kerkman was an incredible chance.
“It means everything,” he said. “I love coaching and teaching the game that I love. Doing it with Tyson, Grant and Tyler makes it even more special.”
“Jeff was so good to us, so when Grant and I got the opportunity we couldn’t say no. We had to return the favor,” said Belitz.
“Jeff was a really big influence on all of us. I just hope we can be as big of an influence on these kids as he was on us,” White added.