Thursday, July 25

Amid tragedy, one high school basketball team shows the power of sports

GRETNA, Neb. — This is not a story about high school basketball. It’s not about a treasured coach who died midway through a season. It’s not a story of redemption, sorrow or achievement.

It’s about togetherness. This is a story about community and a team that has revealed, through its resilience and fight to honor a lost leader, what the best of sports looks like.

Wednesday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb., Gretna High School will play a first-round game in the Class A boys state tournament against Millard North.

Brad Feeken coached the Dragons to win. He coached them with a passion known around Nebraska. His death at age 48 on Dec. 30, 2023, after a battle of more than two years with neuroendocrine cancer marked a new chapter for his players.

Gretna starts five seniors and brings two others off the bench. Landon Pokorski, Alex Wilcoxson, Alec Wilkins, Kade Cook, Joey Vieth, Chase Doble and Avery Schendt have already secured their legacies. This week matters little for how they’ll be remembered — and still, it means so much for them to arrive in this position at the state tournament after months of pain.

On the morning Feeken died, Gretna’s players and coaches gathered at their high school. They felt more equipped to move forward as a group rather than individually. The schedule showed a game later that day in the quarterfinals of the Metro Conference holiday tournament.

The Dragons chose to play. Nine hours later in an emotionally charged gymnasium, Pokorski sank a game-winning buzzer-beater. He pointed a finger skyward as teammates mobbed him. Pokorski believed that if he lofted the ball just right, Feeken would help it find the net.

From that moment, the boys showed the way. As Feeken’s condition worsened last fall, parents, teachers and supporters in Gretna prepared to hold the team up.

It has unfolded just the opposite — with those seniors inspiring a community in search of answers.

“They just keep showing up,” said Travis Lightle, the Gretna Public Schools superintendent. “They just show up. They’re there for each other. With how they treat the fans, the little kids, they say, ‘This is what (Feeken) would want us to do.’ And when you watch them, they are playing exactly how he would want.

“They’re not angry. They’re not bitter. They just continue to do the right things.”

My view on Gretna basketball is skewed. I’m biased. Too close to it, too invested.

I resisted for months to touch this story professionally. But last week, something changed. I’ll get to that.

First, some background. I’ve lived in Gretna with my wife Shannon since 2005. Both of our kids were born here. They’ve grown up as part of this swelling suburb southwest of Omaha that’s still small enough to foster an attachment.

Ten years ago, I coached T-ball with Bill Heard. His daughter was 6. Mine was 7. A longtime assistant on Feeken’s Gretna bench, Heard took over the basketball team when his old college teammate grew too sick to coach.

He has mourned the loss of his best friend for the past nine weeks. Heard also runs the Gretna softball program, and he plans to coach both sports as his two children progress through high school.

Feeken won two state titles in 21 years as the head coach, but he impacted more lives in Gretna as a seventh-grade reading teacher. My daughter learned about life in his classroom four years ago. Few teachers meant more to her.

My son attended his basketball camps. Feeken’s teams embodied his lively persona. This piece written by Dirk Chatelain beautifully captures the Feeken spirit.

When he got sick, the community rallied behind the coach, his wife, Jenny, and their children, Rylinn, 13, Maylee, 11, and John, who turned 7 last month.

In his final weeks, Feeken connected with Brad Stevens, general manager and former coach of his beloved Boston Celtics. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg and Creighton’s Greg McDermott voiced their admiration for Feeken.

As word spread of Feeken’s death, my family, like many others, felt called on Dec. 30 to attend the Dragons’ Metro Conference tournament game. In that gym at Omaha Creighton Prep, the moment of silence and pregame tribute to Feeken added to a mood unlike anything I’ve experienced — a mix of disbelief, heartbreak and resolve.

In a top corner of the seating area, Hoiberg watched.

“It honestly was one of the more special games that I’ve witnessed in person,” the Nebraska coach told me this week.

Gretna jumped to a 15-point lead at halftime against Papillion-LaVista South, then saw it disappear as the weight of the moment took hold.

“We’ll never play in a game like that again,” Pokorski said. “It still hasn’t fully hit me how hard that day was, how hard that game was.”

When Pokorski drove to the baseline in the last seconds, with Gretna down 48-47, Hoiberg predicted out loud that the shot would fall.

A town held its breath.

“To see the reaction of the team, those guys all hugging out on the court and crying, I know they did it for Brad, what he meant for those kids,” Hoiberg said. “It was emotional. I got a tear in my eye.”

He was far from alone.

The Dragons with Feeken daughters Rylinn, 13 (left) and Maylee, 11, after Gretna’s 65-63 win at Kearney to clinch a berth in the state tournament. (Courtesy of Angie Wilcoxson)

The tears didn’t stop on that Saturday night. Nine days after Feeken died, Rylinn, his older daughter, delivered a tribute to her father at his memorial service.

Heard eulogized Feeken. Pokorski and Wilcoxson spoke to his legacy. For years, they said, Feeken preached to them about the importance of “doing hard things.”

Three of Gretna’s five losses this season came in the first 18 days of January. It was a hard time.

“Basketball was secondary,” Heard said. “But basketball was really important because it’s the place where we all got to be together. It was evident that the kids needed it. I needed it.”

Feeken famously left motivational messages on sticky notes for his players to find. In January, Jenny Feeken took his place, sending text messages to the seven Gretna seniors.

They receive snippets from “Pound the Stone: 7 Lessons to Develop Grit on the Path to Mastery,” a book that Jenny is reading with Rylinn and Maylee.

The frequency of her messages increased last month as tournament time neared. Lately, she’s reminded the seniors that they’re ready for whatever life presents.

“Everything has been hard for them,” she said. “It helps me. They’re telling me that they like it, so I hope it helps them, too.”

The Dragons won nine consecutive games before a three-point defeat in the regular-season finale against top-ranked Bellevue West. The loss knocked Gretna from a host position in state-tournament qualifying district play and set up a Feb. 27 trip to Kearney High School in central Nebraska.

In Kearney’s hornet’s nest of a 3,000-seat gym, the path of this season changed for Gretna. Basketball came roaring back to the forefront. Another chapter began. It was Feeken’s kind of night. And again, the Dragons showed their strength.

Late in the district final, crowd noise shook the floor. Gretna won 65-63 to secure a trip to the state tournament as a Kearney halfcourt heave at the buzzer hit the rim.

Conceivably, no team in the state could have handled that wild environment as well as Gretna. In the celebration, Rylinn and Maylee cut the final strands of the net from the rims. The nets went back to Gretna with the girls.

“Just one of those moments that’s so much bigger than a ball game,” Heard said.

Likewise, Heard said, the state tournament often elicits exaggerated emotions.

Gretna, in seasons past, has felt the postseason pressure. Last year in Lincoln, Millard North beat the Dragons in the semifinal round. Officials waved off a Pokorski bucket in the final seconds. Video of the play shows Feeken, stomping toward the action before Millard North held on to win 54-52.

The same Mustangs eliminated Gretna two years ago in the semifinals and in 2021 district play. The Dragons’ history against Millard North looms in their minds, Pokorski said.

But pressure for Gretna? Not a chance with this team.

“When you’ve been through what we’ve been through off the court,” said Pokorski, the unflappable point guard set to play at Southwest Minnesota State, “it tends to make basketball a little easier. What we were supposed to do this year, we already did.

“Our purpose was way bigger than basketball.”

(Top photo of Bill Heard and Gretna’s five senior starters (seated), courtesy of Nicole Stuchlik)