Cale Mathern could still be bitter.
The former Edgeley High School senior, along with eight teammates, was supposed to represent his school at the state Class B boys basketball tournament last March for the first time in 30 years. Instead, a global pandemic snapped a streak of 87 such tournaments dating back to 1933 and flipped the lives of high schoolers upside down.
Mathern and fellow Edgeley/Kulm/Montpelier senior Jace Hanson led the Rebels to the Region 3 tournament championship on a Thursday, had their dreams crushed Friday and didn't return to school Monday. The two starters finished their final two months of high school over a computer; a reality no other senior class had ever before endured.
Nobody could blame Mathern for holding a grudge eight months later, but a rural farm life surrounded by cattle and soybeans two miles south of Edgeley has produced a more humble young man.
"It's kinda behind me now. I've kinda moved on," said Mathern, who's currently chasing an applied science degree in agronomy at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. "I figured, it's life. You don't get everything you want."
But not getting that was unthinkable up until 2020, and last March 13 -- Friday the 13th -- had to have been incredibly difficult for the handful of kids whose dream it was to play basketball on statewide TV before sports crowds rivaling that of Bison football and Fighting Hawks hockey in North Dakota.
One day after appearing in their third Region 3 title game in five seasons, EKM veteran coach Kevin Strobel and the Rebels were finally over the hump having defeated Strasburg-Zeeland 63-55. The Rebels learned they'd be opening the state tournament the following Thursday in Bismarck facing Beulah when almost immediately the sobering news reached the team in Edgeley.
"We found out our pairings and, I'm kidding you not, it was no (more than) five minutes later and Morgan Schwartzenberger, my athletic director, got an email," Strobel recalled. "He was sitting right beside me -- I mean, I can see this just like it was yesterday -- and said, 'Uh oh, guys. Here it is.'"
The announcement by the North Dakota High School Activities Association to suspend all sports tournaments, practices and activities came shortly after the White House declared a national emergency in response to COVID-19. The Class A state basketball tournament, already underway in Fargo, was also ultimately canceled with Jamestown, Fargo Davies, West Fargo Sheyenne and Bismarck High all still alive.
The Richland Colts, the Hillsboro/Central Valley Burros, the Four Winds/Minnewaukan Indians, the Shiloh Christian Skyhawks, the Rugby Panthers and the New Town Eagles, along with the Rebels and the Beulah Miners, were all looking forward to three days of basketball at the Bismarck Event Center for the "B" -- an annual North Dakota classic.
"It was suspended at first, so everyone kinda had their fingers crossed," Strobel said. "But, to be honest with you, after the first two weeks I didn't see how it could happen."
Hanson, who currently attends the University of Jamestown but is planning to transfer to Valley City State to further his education and play baseball for the Vikings, said the surreal circumstances were tough on an 18-year-old mind.
"For, like, a day and a half after it got canceled I didn't know what to think?" Hanson said. "We were riding that high of winning regionals and finally getting to where we wanted to go and it just got taken away in a matter of 10 minutes."
Mathern wasn't physically in school when word came but was quickly summoned to the high school in Edgeley from work-study.
"I found out the seedings for the tournament and they called me right after that to come to school," Mathern recalled. "I walked in the room and they were all teared up and I was just wondering what the heck was going on?"
The team watched a replay of its Region 3 title win from the previous night and unceremoniously went their separate ways. Strobel remembers saying a few parting words to the first Rebels team he's led to a state tournament in his now 18 years coaching the program, but none of it came easy.
"It's probably the toughest thing I've ever had to do as a head coach," Strobel said. "I didn't see the kids again until graduation rolled around and Cale and Jace had their open houses."
Mathern and Hanson graduated on May 24 with the rest of their 2020 classmates, and Hanson went on to help LaMoure baseball win an independent Class B state championship in August. COVID-19 also put the kibosh to American Legion Baseball in 2020.
Hanson pitched LaMoure to a 7-5 victory over Renville County in the independent semifinals held Aug. 8 in Minot, before LaMoure clinched the title 7-0 over Kidder County the following day.
"We didn't really care what we had to do to get there, we just wanted to get there and put together a good tournament," Hanson said.
But that didn't replace the tournament lost. The NDHSAA had previously overseen a high school champion in boys basketball every year since 1914 -- a run of 105 years.
Edgeley was supposed to have appeared in a fifth state tournament and first since winning a state championship in 1990. Kulm should've appeared for the third time and first since back-to-back appearances and winning a state championship in 1958.
Montpelier was set to appear for a fifth time, qualifying previously three times as part of the former Litchville/Marion/Montpelier co-op between 1995-2000.
Strobel and the Rebels have piled up 83 wins over the past five seasons and last year's group excelled at team basketball. Strobel's eight-man rotation of Mathern, Hanson, Alex Huber, Paxton Mathern, Jorgen Paulson, Dalton Madcke, Adam Nitschke and Chayse Entzi put together a 20-4 season and gelled at the regional tournament.
The Rebels shot nearly 50% from the field (71-144) in its three tournament wins over Kidder County, Ellendale and the Clippers, leaning on junior forward Alex Huber's 21-point average over the three games.
After rolling past KC 74-44, the sophomore Nitschke went 5-for-5 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, and made 2-for-2 at the foul line to help the Rebels defeat the Cardinals 63-57. Madcke, who's also coming back for his junior year, recorded seven assists in the win.
Huber made a loud argument for all-state on title night, producing 25 points, six rebounds, four assists and two blocks in the eight-point win over Strasburg-Zeeland, and, according to Strobel, the exceptional forward has grown a couple of inches in the offseason.
"I saw him at graduation in Edgeley and I was talking to him. I'm 6-foot-7 and we were about eye-to-eye," said Strobel. "He's pushing 6-6. I know he spent a lot of time this summer getting better and he's just a good all-around player. I know he's really hungry to come back and have a crack at state again."
Strobel said the Rebels will be short on depth to start the winter with the loss of Mathern and Hanson. Madcke also suffered a broken ankle during the football season but should hopefully be cleared to play at some point.
"I think adjusting to not having the depth that we had last year might be the biggest adjustment," Strobel said. "We'll also have to have some guys pick up some scoring, but we've got six kids that got a lot of experience. I think that is one element that does show come tournament time is when you've got some experience; some guys that've been there and played a lot of basketball."
Mathern was a three-year starter who turned into a defensive stopper for EKM by the end of his career, drawing assignments against the likes of Linton/HMB's Lucas Schumacher, Oakes' Garrett Meehl and Carrington's Seth Nelson.
"I was focused on the state championship," Mathern said. "That's what I wanted to do, so drawing one of the stronger players I felt like it put me more into a leadership role and I just tried to help my teammates out the best I could."
Hanson didn't crack the starting lineup until last season, but he played starter's minutes as a junior.
"That whole summer (2019) we had open gyms probably three times a week and I think that was a big part of it," Hanson said. "We built a lot of chemistry during the summer."
Without summer programs taking place in 2020, there probably won't be a team in the region that'll know exactly what'll take the court this fall until game time. Strobel estimates the Rebels lost 15 to 20 games over the summer due to the loss of team camps, which included an annual trip to Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.
"That's half our season, really," Strobel said. "We try to go to three to four team camps every summer and that all got canceled. It's a huge part of our program."
Strobel likes Oakes, Linton/HMB and Ellendale as Region 3 frontrunners, but added a host of teams should prove to be dangerous. As of this writing, high school basketball teams could begin practicing on Nov. 30 with games beginning Dec. 14.
"I'm looking forward to the year, there's just a lot of uncertainty yet even with this upcoming season as to how it's gonna play out," Strobel said. "But the guys are hungry to prove they're still the best team in the region."
Simply getting back to normal should help dampen the sting of last season's loss, which inexplicably ended in both victory and heartbreak for the Rebels.
"It still hurts at times and you think what could've been or how we would've turned out at state, and so on and so forth," Strobel said. "But we've moved forward and I guess we're optimistic and looking forward to the year."
Class B Boys Basketball
2020 State Tournament pairings
At Bismarck Event Center
(Tournament seeding/records in parentheses)
G1: (2) Rugby (22-2) vs. New Town (21-6)
G2: (3) Beulah (21-3) vs. Edgeley/KM (20-4)
G3: (1) Four Winds/Minn. (23-1) vs. Richland (18-5)
G4: (4) Hillsboro/CV (20-4) vs. (5) Shiloh Christian (18-6)