Boys State Basketball Recap: Spartans make state tournament for first time since 2016


Photo by Courtesy of Carter Glenn

The Spartans punched their ticket to state for the first time since 2016 after defeating Lincoln Pius X.

The Lincoln East boys basketball team, like the girls team, had many obstacles thrown at them throughout the season. There was the delayed start for the schools in Lancaster County, positive Covid-19 tests or close contacts, and on top of that a ridiculously difficult schedule. The Spartans’ first game of the season was against the eventual state champion Millard North Mustangs, led by 5 star recruit Hunter Sallis. The Spartans had the lead at the half but the Mustangs found their groove in the second half en route to a 69-53 win. But that early lead for the Spartans more or less set the tone for the season. They knew that they could compete with some of the best teams in the state and they would need to.
The Spartans played 3 of the eventual 4 teams that played in the state semifinals in their shortened season. Because of that difficult schedule, East entered districts with an 8-12 record, enough for the three seed in the A-4 district hosted by Lincoln Pius X. The Spartans’ first district game was against city rival Lincoln Southeast. Southeast was without playmaker Jake Appleget and East rolled to a 56-38 win setting up a showdown with Lincoln Pius X for the third time. The Spartans lost the first game, won the second, and the winner of the third would earn a trip to state. It was a back and forth affair that ultimately wasn’t settled in regulation. The game went to overtime and East pulled the upset again, 56-51 at Pius X and earned a trip back to state for the first time since 2016. It says a lot about this year’s team overcoming all the obstacles thrown at them and not letting the regular season get in the way of postseason play.
“We had a group of guys who just competed so hard in everything we do,” senior guard Carter Glenn said. “We knew our potential right from the start and we had a goal of making it to state. Once that happened, we had a new goal of making it to the semifinals or finals. It really said a lot about our trust and confidence in one another.”
So who did the Spartans get matched up with at state? Only the defending champions and top 25 team nationally, the Bellevue West Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds, led by Wisconsin commit Chucky Hepburn, had blown the Spartans out by 30 earlier in the season. But the state tournament game was a different story for a couple different reasons. First off, East’s head coach Jeff Campbell was unable to coach due to a positive Covid-19 test, so Matt Wrenholt was thrust into the spotlight for arguably the biggest game of the season.
But according to Glenn, it wasn’t that much different having Wrenholt there than Campbell. “We still just went out there and played as hard as we could for 32 minutes,” Glenn said. “The preparation was just the same, so no matter who was coaching, we couldn’t let that affect us.”
But for Coach Campbell, it was much different. “In 22 years of coaching basketball I have never missed a game or practice because of illness… so this was new,” Campbell said. “I was nervous for the kids because I so badly wanted them to perform well because of how hard they had worked. I definitely felt helpless but I had a lot of confidence in our coaches and players because I felt we had prepared for the game really well.”
The Spartans’ preparation for this game showed as the game was much closer than any of the media anticipated. The Spartans kept it close and eventually cut the lead to 7 with under a minute left, but the Thunderbirds held on for a 55-47 win. The Thunderbirds were led by UNO commit Frankie Fidler who scored 22 points. East held Chucky Hepburn to 5 points. The Spartans were led by junior Brayden McPhail who chipped in 17 points.
Playing the Thunderbirds earlier in the season helped the Spartans to be more prepared, Coach Campbell said. “We’d been on the court with them before and knew what didn’t work very well for us so it was a lot easier pinpointing a few things we had to do better in order to have a chance. I thought everyone played really hard and competed their tails off,” Campbell said.
The Spartans finished the season at 10-13 and lost several talented seniors from this year’s team. The seniors include Carter Glenn, Quinton Adams, Trevor Henrickson, Dylan Witherby, and Oliver Edwards. Coach Campbell says that their leadership will definitely be missed as they were integral in establishing a work ethic and positive culture. But even with the loss of so many key pieces, the future still looks bright according to Glenn.
“So many people have stepped up this year and are coming back along with new kids who definitely will step up,” Glenn said. “We all compete so hard in practice to be able to get to a spot like we were this year and those guys coming back next year will do the same.” It was a season to be proud of for East, whether it be how well they handled adversity or performing in the roles assigned to them, it all ended with the first state tournament berth since 2016 in a year that was all but normal.