116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
TROY MILLS — There was a season within the last decade when North Linn's boys' basketball team wasn't too good. Just one.
The 2013-14 Lynx went 8-15 and averaged under 40 points per game. Their leading scorer averaged only 7.9 points.
This was an anomaly, as North Linn won a combined 80 games the four years prior to that 'off' season. Then there is what has come after it.
The Lynx have gone one for the thumb, qualified for five consecutive state tournaments. They are 25-0, top ranked and top seeded going into their Class 1A quarterfinal Monday morning at Wells Fargo Arena against South Winneshiek.
That only scratches the surface, though. We'll get to the specifics in a bit.
'We've gotten to talking about how have we been so lucky?' said Coach Mike Hilmer. 'I was talking to (girls) Coach (Brian) Wheatley about it, because it's not only our boys, but our girls have done the same thing, been so good for several years. We were trying to figure it out, how fortunate we are as coaches to have such great athletes.
'We've just happened to have all the pieces. We always seem to have enough kids who have a passion for the game, that learned the game at a young age, play on AAU teams. We've had the luck of nobody getting hurt, and we've been able to overcome them when we have had injuries.'
Hilmer is in his 22nd season at North Linn, and these are the proverbial salad days of his coaching career. There are the five straight trips to state, the 153-5 overall record since 2015-16, the 99 consecutive non-state tournament wins, the fact the Lynx haven't lost to a fellow Tri-Rivers Conference foe in the regular season or postseason since a district loss to Alburnett in 2016.
Incredible stuff, especially from a small public school.
'We've had coaches and parents with great athletic backgrounds running our youth programs for several years,' Hilmer said. 'So it's just parents that buy in. We've had zero, and when I say that, I mean 100-percent zero, issues with parents or kids about who plays and who doesn't play. Not any of that stuff, nothing. I think that's pretty rare.'
This run all kind of began with the 2014-15 team, one that went 18-6, its leading scorer being a freshman named Ryan Miller, who would go on to become The Gazette's Male Athlete of the Year as a senior and who now plays at Grand View University. The next season, Hilmer's son, Jake, joined the varsity and made it a one-two punch of excellent young players.
North Linn went 21-2, with that district loss to Alburnett. It made it to state the following season, going unbeaten until losing to Gladbrook-Reinbeck in the semifinals, beating Remsen St. Mary's for third place.
The only loss in 2017-18 came in the 1A championship game, by three, to Grand View Christian. North Linn moved up to 2A in 2018-19, led by Co-Mr. Basketball Jake Hilmer, and won it all, finishing 26-0.
Last season, despite graduating Jake Hilmer and three other important seniors, the Lynx were 26-1, losing in the 2A title tilt to Boyden-Hull. Now there's this year's group.
'When it first started, I was obviously in middle school, but it was pretty incredible to watch them those first couple of years,' said junior guard Austin Hilmer, Jake's brother, and the leading scorer on this team. 'Then I think it's what motivated the groups behind them. Once we watched them be successful, we just wanted to emulate what they were doing. I think that's how it all started. You get one group winning, and everyone else wants to follow them and continue to do what they've been doing.'
'It's something that is great to be a part of, and I'm proud to be a part of,' said senior forward Kaleb Kurt. 'We get out there, and we work our butts off all season and all offseason to do what we want to do and get down to The Well like we have the last five seasons.'
Kurt's record in his four years on varsity is an absurd 105-2. He's the only senior on the roster and doesn't start, which means you can expect North Linn to keep winning and winning.
They all expressed surprise, by the way, about going unbeaten this season, because the Tri-Rivers was as good and deep as it ever has been.
'We're like brothers out there,' Kurt said. 'We work together, we're always working together in the offseason and stuff. So it really just comes together then during the season. We spend all weekend together. I mean, there's not a time during the season where we're not hanging out and stuff. I think the 'team' aspect of it really helps us to be successful. That's how it's been since I was a freshman, for sure.'
The culture of success that has been built in this program has been built around togetherness. It's a unique and special thing when freshmen and sophomores are accepted by their older peers.
It's a sign of the quality of the kids. Coach Hilmer said for the last five years he has asked every member of his team to sign a pledge that they will be alcohol and drug free during the season.
That might sound like a small thing, but it's really not in today's culture.
'I sent out a tweet, I think it was two years ago, on New Year's Eve night, saying how nice it was as a coach to know that we don't have to practice at 5 in the morning just to make sure our kids aren't doing something they're not supposed to do,' Hilmer said. 'Austin got a text literally within a half-hour from a kid from another school, with the kid saying 'You have some kids that drink, right?' Austin was like 'No. We have 21 kids on the team, and nobody drinks.' ... The kid was flabbergasted.
'Obviously that doesn't mean we've never had a kid in our program drink, but over the last five years, in particular, it's been kids with high character, kids with parents of high character, kids that get along and include everybody in what they're doing. The manager, the freshmen, it doesn't matter who you are, you are included when they get together after games and what not. Which is pretty neat.'
They insist there is no pressure that goes with all of this success. They're confident they will be a loose group in Des Moines.
'We just feel fortunate to play for the community that we do, play for the coaches we do and have the teammates we do,' Austin Hilmer said. 'Just play it one game at a time, and, hopefully, you continue to do what we've been doing over the last six years.'
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