In the midst of tragedy, a high school basketball team shows the power of sports

GRETNA, Nebraska. —This is not a story about high school basketball. This isn’t some precious coach who died mid-season. It is not a story of redemption, pain or conquest.

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

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

Brad Feelen coached the Dragons to win. I trained them with passion known in Nebraska. His death at age 48 on Dec. 30, 2023, after a more than two-year battle with neuroendocrine cancer, marked a new chapter for his players.

Gretna starts five seniors and brings two more 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 to how they will be remembered, yet it means the world to them to be in this position at the state tournament after months of heartbreak.

The morning Feelen died, Gretna players and coaches gathered at their high school. They felt better equipped to move forward as a group rather than individually. The program 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 gym, Pokorski sank a game-winning buzzer beater. He pointed his finger towards the sky while his teammates attacked him. Pokorski believed that if he threw the ball the right way, Feelen would help him find the net.

From that moment on, the boys showed the way. When Feelen’s condition worsened last fall, Gretna parents, teachers and supporters prepared to support the team.

Exactly the opposite happened: those elders inspired a community looking for answers.

“They keep showing up,” said Travis Lightle, the superintendent of Gretna Public Schools. “They just show up. They are there for each other. The way they treat the fans, the kids, they say, “This is what (Feeken) would like us to do.” And when you look at them, they’re playing exactly the way he wants them to.

“They’re not angry. They are not bitter. “They just keep doing the right things.”

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

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

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

Ten years ago I coached T-ball with Bill Heard. His daughter was 6 years old. Mine was 7. A longtime assistant on the Feeken Gretna bench, Heard took over the basketball team when her old college teammate was too ill to coach.

He has been mourning the loss of his best friend for the past nine weeks. Heard also runs the Gretna softball program and plans to coach both sports as her two sons progress to high school.

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

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

When he became ill, 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, Feelen reached out to Brad Stevens, general manager and former coach of his beloved Boston Celtics. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg and Creighton Greg McDermott expressed his admiration for Feeken.

When word spread of Feelen’s death, my family, like many others, felt called on December 30 to attend the Dragons’ Metro Conference tournament game. In that Omaha Creighton Prep gym, the moment of silence and pre-game tribute to Feeken helped create a mood unlike anything I’d ever experienced: a mix of disbelief, heartbreak and resolve.

In an upper corner of the seating area, Hoiberg watched.

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

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

“We will never play a game like that again,” Pokorski said. “I still haven’t realized how tough that day was, how tough that match was.”

When Pokorski reached the baseline in the final seconds, with Gretna down 48-47, Hoiberg predicted aloud that the shot would miss.

A city held its breath.

“To see the reaction of the team, all those guys hugging each other on the field and crying, I know they did it for Brad, for what he meant to those guys,” Hoiberg said. “He It was exciting. “I have a tear in my eye.”

He was far from alone.

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

The tears didn’t stop that Saturday night. Nine days after Feelen’s death, Rylinn, her eldest daughter, delivered a tribute to his father during his memorial service.

I heard Feelen’s praise. Pokorski and Wilcoxson talked about his legacy. For years, they said, Feelen preached to them the importance of “doing hard things.”

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

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

Feeken is famous for leaving motivational messages on sticky notes for his players to find. In January, Jenny Feeken took over, sending text messages to Gretna’s seven seniors.

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

The frequency of his messages increased last month as tournament time approached. Lately, she has been reminding seniors that they are ready for whatever life presents.

“Everything was difficult for them,” he said. “It helps me. They tell me they like it, so I hope it helps them too.

The Dragons won nine straight games before losing three points in the regular season finale to Bellevue West. The loss eliminated Gretna from host status in the state tournament qualifying district and set up a Feb. 27 trip to Kearney High School in central Nebraska.

In the crawl space of Kearney, a 3,000-seat gym, the path this season has changed for Gretna. Basketball has roared back into the spotlight. Another chapter has begun. It was Feelen’s kind of night. And once again the Dragons showed their strength.

Toward the end of the final district, crowd noise shook the floor. Gretna won 65-63 to secure a trip to the state tournament like Kearney a mid-court gasp as the buzzer hit the rim.

Presumably, no team in the state could have handled that wild environment as well as Gretna. To celebrate, Rylinn and Maylee cut the last strands of the net from the edges. Nets returned to Gretna with the girls.

“Just one of those moments that is so much bigger than a baseball game,” Heard said.

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

Gretna, in past seasons, has felt the postseason pressure. Last year in Lincoln, Millard North beat the Dragons in the semifinals. Officials waved a Pokorski bucket in the final seconds. Video of the show shows Feelen, sprinting towards the action before Millard North held on to win 54-52.

The Mustangs themselves eliminated Gretna two years ago in the semifinals and in District Play in 2021. The Dragons’ history against Millard North looms large in their minds, Pokorski said.

But pressure for Gretna? No chance with this team.

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

“Our purpose was much bigger than basketball.”

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