ALBURNETT — Imprinted in purple on one end of the floor along the baseline at Alburnett High School’s gymnasium is the word “BELIEVE.”
On the other side of the baseline, also in all caps, is the word “ACHIEVE.”
That the Alburnett boys’ basketball team climbed on a bus Sunday afternoon and headed to Des Moines to prepare for the school’s first-ever state tournament game Monday afternoon shows you it definitely accomplished the latter word. The initial word didn’t come easily, either.
“No, I didn’t,” sophomore guard Hunter Caves said, when asked if he thought reaching state was ever in his mind when the season began in November. “I was talking earlier in the year to our assistant coach, and I was like ‘Well, I guess it’s just another mediocre year.’ Then we got going.”
Alburnett had just a 4-3 record three weeks into the season. Its top player, senior center Izic Mackey, injured his left knee in a preseason scrimmage and was on the shelf.
But Mackey recovered quickly after surgery, young guys like Caves and fellow sophomores Shane Neighbor and Reed Stallman kept improving, and here are the Pirates. Alburnett (18-5) plays Sioux Central (22-2) in a Class 1A quarterfinal Monday afternoon at 2:45 at Wells Fargo Arena.
Alburnett is the 1A field’s No. 7 seed, Sioux Central second.
“It has been really nuts, actually,” Caves said. “There aren’t too many words to describe it. We’re still pretty in awe. But we’ve got work to do. We know when to have fun, but we also know when it’s time to work, get after it.”
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“The community is really excited, really happy for us,” Mackey said. “Whenever I go into Lefty’s (convenience store in town), there’s always somebody saying ‘Hey, congrats on the substate win (last) Saturday.’ I hear all the teachers saying congrats to the guys on the team and everything. The community is really psyched for this. We definitely want to win.”
Perhaps the coolest part of this whole deal is that Jeff Christopherson gets to experience it as well. This is his 25th year as head coach of his alma mater and his 32nd year coaching overall at the school.
Christopherson graduated from Alburnett in 1980, went to Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State) and got a job in the private sector upon getting his college degree. The 56-year-old began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant for Steve Reck in the 1986-87 season and eventually worked his way up to head coach.
He has coached the fathers of some players on this team. Another guy he coached was Hollywood actor and singer Riley Smith, who has tweeted his support and congratulations.
So proud and happy for my old High School @AlburnettCSD who just made it to their first ever state basketball tourney. Happy for the town, the kids and especially our coach Christopherson! Always wished we could have takin him there. Go win it boys!!
— Riley Smith (@RileySmith) February 24, 2019
“It means everything to have the opportunity to do this,” Christopherson said. “I get the opportunity to coach in March. We’re actually part of March Madness this year ... It is a lot more difficult to get there than a lot of people think.”
Christopherson has produced a consistently competitive program at Alburnett. He was asked why this particular team was the one to finally break through the wall.
Part of it, he said, was falling on the Class 1A side of the 1A-2A line the school always seems to be on. The other part is the players.
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From his talented sophomores to junior Austin Huber to seniors Mackey, Jared Graubard and Luke Neighbor, and everyone else on the team, these guys get along.
“I think there is a different chemistry here with this group,” Christopherson said. “They get after it, get after each other. But when it’s all said and done, at the end of the day, they are family. They are all brothers in this, working together. The sweat, whether it be in the weight room, whether it be on the football field, the track. They’re together all the time.”
They plan on being together at least one more week. A win Monday insures a three-game tournament for Alburnett.
The Pirates rallied from 18 points down in the third quarter of their district final to win in overtime against Calamus-Wheatland and won another OT game against WACO in the substate final. You can bet against them, if you wish.
But there’s some good mojo going on here. And a great story.
“We just want to go down there and play to our ability. If that happens, we’ll be OK,” Christopherson said. “I told them that everything you get in life, you have work for. It’s no different from here. They’ve earned the right to be there. If you want to earn being a champion, you’ve got to work to be a champion.”
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