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From inexperienced to undaunted, junior quartet becomes key in Kernels' continued growth

Feb. 16—MITCHELL — Entering the 2023-24 season, the Mitchell High School basketball team returned just three players to log significant minutes during the 2022-23 state runner-up campaign.

There were question marks surrounding who would fill the void left by seven graduated seniors and further uncertainty about whether the Kernels could find depth, an area of strength last season.

Enter Gavin Hinker, Parker Mandel, Landen Soulek and Sutton Thompson.

What the rising junior quartet lacked in varsity experience early was bridged with familiarity and trust in one another, and as the crew has continued to play, the Kernels' on-court product reflects a growing collective maturity.

That growth has helped propel Mitchell to a 16-1 record alongside ownership of the unanimous No. 1 ranking in the South Dakota Prep Media poll and Class AA boys seed-point standings with a week to play in the regular season.

"We're getting steady contributions, and I feel good with any of the four of them on the floor," Mitchell head coach Ryker Kreutzfeldt said. "They all have different ways to contribute, and as long as we continue to expand on that, we're really excited about that crew."

With all four newcomers as members of the same class, Hinker, Mandel, Soulek and Thompson have spent near-countless hours together on the court.

Though that time hadn't come at the highest level until this season, the shared experience proved invaluable as the group adjusted to their newfound roles for the Kernels' varsity squad.

"We've been playing together our whole lives; we had to adjust to how we had to divide playing time between us," Thompson said. "We know we can trust each other and rely on each other through all the good and the bad."

Though the Kernels were winning, there were a few growing pains early on. The speed and physicality of the varsity games took some getting used to, as did finding exactly how each piece fit alongside the more veteran varsity trio of Gavin Soukup, Markus Talley and Colton Smith.

There were ups and downs in the process, perhaps the most notable low point coming in Mitchell's lone loss to date, where a late lead in regulation slipped away in an overtime defeat against Harrisburg. In that contest, the group combined for one point, 10 rebounds, five assists and five turnovers.

But the response from that Jan. 2 game has been even more telling. It served as a wake-up call that it was going to take all members of the rotation playing near their best for the Kernels to beat other top teams in Class AA and helped galvanize the group.

"It was definitely tough right away as something we weren't used to," Mandel said. "But I think we adjusted to it pretty quickly and have come together pretty well."

Though the Kernels' schedule has become progressively more difficult, there's been an added element of consistency due in no small part to the up-and-coming junior quartet settling into their roles.

"That's a group that's been pretty tight-knit, so it's fun to watch them support each other and continue to get better," Kreutzfeldt said. "There are just so many different things we can do with those guys, and it's because they've bought into what we're trying to do."

But the Kernels' gameplan changes with every game, meaning players aren't always going to be asked to fulfill the same set of responsibilities. It's an added challenge, to be sure, but not one the group is shying away from. With the veteran trio's leadership factored in, the Kernels continue to gain confidence each time out.

"They've made us better players by leading us and showing us how the varsity games work," Thompson said. "That's made it a lot easier for us."

Collectively, the quartet is shooting 45% from the floor (61% from inside the arc) and contributing 13.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game. But Kreutzfeldt maintains that their value in rounding out the Kernels' rotation goes further than a box score.

"It's not always going to be scoring. It's about how many times they're making winning plays, and they're not making a lot of losing plays," Kreutzfeldt said. "There are a lot of things basketball-wise that they're doing right, but it comes back to that they're putting the team before themselves all the time."

With ever-heightening confidence added to their talents, the junior quartet is relishing their role in helping guide Mitchell back toward what they hope is a deep postseason push.

"I think this makes us super dangerous," Mandel said of the group's continued evolution.

Added Thompson: "I think this is only the beginning."