Basketball's Lasting Relationships

Over 30 years ago, Ogallala and coach Mark Etzelmiller authored one of the great upsets in state tournament history. Tonight, with the memory of his father in his pocket, his son Mike leads Millard North to a fifth straight finals appearance.

HEAD MAN: Millard North coach Mike Etzelmiller directs his team during the Class A state semifinals against Omaha Westside on Friday night. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)

March 13, 1992. Section C17. Bob Devaney Sports Center. A lucky sophomore from Hampton High School gets a seat with his buddies among 12,000 or 13,000 of our closest friends.

Wahoo has a 114-game win streak and is going for a fifth straight title. No one — not a single soul but the town of Ogallala and their players and coaches — believes the “streak” will end tonight. We are there to watch Wahoo on their way to more history.

And, then Chad Spady dunked the ball off the opening tip, scored 30 points and we all wore black and orange from that moment. Ninety-some minutes later, Ogallala had defeated Wahoo 84-68.

Their coach, Mark Etzelmiller, had crafted one of the most legendary game plans many in the state had ever seen. The newspapers say Wahoo turned Ogallala over 20 times that night, but the Indians countered with 31-for-55 shooting — breaking the vaunted Warrior press and turning the game into a layup drill.

“This was a game plan executed excellently,” coach Etzelmiller tells the Lincoln Journal-Star’s Ryle Jane Hambleton. “Three things would tell us how we were doing. First was if they had to take the press off. Second was if they had to switch to a half court trap. And, third, if they went man-to-man we figured the game was ours.”

Ahead by 16 at half and 19 headed to the fourth quarter, the final eight minutes was a coronation one of the greatest upsets in Nebraska history. The newspaper the next day gave a headline etched in my mind ever since.

WA-WHO: The Lincoln Journal-Star headline after Ogallala shocked Wahoo in the 1992 state semifinals.

Mark Etzelmiller starred at Minden and graduated from Kearney State where he was a member of the Lopers 1978 national runner-up basketball team. But his calling was to be “Coach Etz.”

He was a hard-driving basketball coach. He wanted your best all the time. That’s how we went about basketball back then. But, he knew that basketball was not about the score of some stupid game — that was certainly important — but about the relationships you developed.

Just shy of 20 years after his signature win, Coach Etzelmiller passed away too soon. Just over 12 years ago now. He had a diabetic reaction while driving. He was 54.

But, his gift of relationships he did well to pass on to his son, Mike. He was six on that fateful night in 1992. Nearly 32 years later, I find him underneath the stands at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

“I didn’t even get to come,” he said, a sly chuckle. “My mom left me in Ogallala with my aunt.”

Relationships. Quickly, Mike is six years old again. He remembers those Indians like the back of his hand. If you knew Mark Etzelmiller you knew that he wanted every young kid in every town he coached to have a basketball in their hand. Not to win games, but to learn life.

“Those guys were role models to me,” Mike Etzelmiller says all these years later. “I mean, they came to my birthday party that year. Kent Koehn, he was here tonight. Chad Spady, Jeremy Glenn.”

Young Etz fades off.

“I can name that whole starting lineup. They were really important to my family.”

FINALS TRIP: Neal Mosser (13) and Millard North will play in their fifth straight Class A state championship game tonight at Pinnacle Bank Arena. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)

Tonight, Millard North will embark on their journey for a third state championship in the past five seasons. The opponent, the same every year. Bellevue West. A sort of rubber match, if you will. The T-Birds have won in 2020 and 2023, the Mustangs in 2021 and 2022.

Mike Etzelmiller was entrusted with the Millard North head coaching position after the 2022 season when long-time coach Tim Cannon retired. Last year, Bellevue West beat the Mustangs 64-41 in the Class A final.

Getting to tonight was not easy.

An emotional win over Gretna. And, last night a gutsy overtime win over a fantastic Omaha Westside effort. What would Mark say about all these tight moments?

“Probably nothing you can print,” Mike says first with a grin. “But, I think mostly that you remind the kids in those moments of the things they deserve. They have put in a ton of work and making sure it’s more than basketball, but fighting and handling themselves and how they compete.”

A message for after a hard-fought semifinal or before a state finals game, but for life, too.

There is no money in the money clip that Mike Etzelmiller will have in his right pocket tonight when his team takes the floor for the Class A state championship game. But, he needs it just the same.

Etched on the top is a 115 with a circle and a line through it. And a score. Ogallala 84, Wahoo 68. His father’s crowning victory that means so much more than that night 32 years ago.

It means the relationships that basketball builds.

“These are the good moments that you get to remember,” he says, looking both forward and back. “You remember the funny moments from practice and off the court and the times we had together.

“But, I hope ultimately I am able to build the same relationships with my players that my dad had with his.”

Millard North is going to play for a state title tonight and for some 90 minutes or so the result will matter. Emotions will run high. The players will give it their all. The coaches will do their best in a pressure packed arena. Those moments and memories will last a long time.

But, somewhere in the stands, Mike Etzelmiller’s six-year old heroes will see him all grown up too. Living his dream, to have an impact just like his dad did for them.

That’s the power of basketball. The power of being on a team. The power of being best friends for the rest of your life. The power of memories in a special money clip.

The lasting lessons of another Nebraska state basketball tournament.

JUST LIKE DAD: Mike Etzelmiller coaches Millard North during the Class A state semifinals on Friday night. (Harvest Sports / Andrew Placke)