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ngs, in 2003: Chase, Max K., Ben Akers, Chris, Grant. Back: Max G., Brach Schmelzer, Kelyn, Nolan.

The success of the Vinton-Shellsburg Vikings 2012-13 basketball team has not come as a surprise -- not at all -- to the parents and coaches who watched and taught them first and know them best.

That's because the team has been turning heads, inspiring cheers and bringing the community together to celebrate basketball success for a decade.

Moms and dads have been watching and applauding the triumphs of the Viking Starting Seven -- Noland and Grant Sagan, Kelyn Rickels, Chase Overton, Chris Merchant, and the Two Maxes, Kearns and Griffith, since November of 2003.

The program that Kelyn's mother, Michelle, has in her scrapbook indicates that the boys -- then playing with the team name "Cavaliers" -- won 42-8, on November 1, 2003, in their first game in the YMCA league.

On Tuesday, after their win over Oelwein, the players lined up for a photo, in the same order as they appeared in their first YMCA photo that year.

In the back row, standing from left, were: Chase, Max K., Ben Akers, Chris, Grant. Kneeling on one knee in the front were: Max G., Brach Schmelzer, Kelyn, and Nolan.

Ben and Brach have been replaced with eighth man Tayler Dinderman, but the other seven lined up in that same order, as Angela Sagan looked the 10-year-old photo in her smart phone and directed the players where to stand or kneel.

Before the players' last regular high school game on Tuesday, parents and coaches Nick Sagan and Dan Kearns recalled the journey that began in the fall of 2003.

"They played up a year because they wanted more competition," said Sagan, who grew up playing basketball in the Minneapolis area.

Despite playing kids a year older, the Vikings won much more often than they lost.

In 2004, they won a tournament at La Porte City, by a combined score of 87-35 over three games.

They played in the YMCA league, then a Salvation Army league, as well as in a variety of tournaments until officially beginning their school basketball careers as VS Middle School sixth-graders.

They played in hundreds of games in several cities throughout Iowa, traveling as far as Carroll. Their opponents included a Parkview team that included the sons for former U of Iowa basketball coach Steve Alford and former Hawkeye basketball player Michael Morgan.

As fifth-graders, they traveled to Carroll, competing with 6th-grade teams from Ames, Carroll, Waterloo and Grimes. They finished second. As eighth-graders, they lost just once, 44-43, to Marion. With the exception of a 5-point win over CPU, they won every game by 10 or more that year.

They won most of their games, tied at least one, and lost a few -- Parkview was always tough, recall the parents.

All during those years, The Seven would at times sit in the stands, watching older sibling and older Vikings on the basketball court, looking forward to their days as Vikings.

Finally as freshmen, sophomores and juniors wearing the Viking uniforms, their success continued. They won most of their games those years, too.

The only team to defeat them on their home floor, recall the parents, was Western Dubuque. Now in Class 4A, Western Dubuque is undefeated this year; the Vikings' last loss was to them in the Class 3A Sub-State game nearly a year ago (although they did defeat WD in a scrimmage over the Christmas break).

Like current Viking coach Joe Johnson has said about the players as high schoolers, The Seven often did things on the floor as elementary players that their coaches had not yet taught them.

Very early in that first year, Max Kearns ball-faked an opponent before moving the ball the length of the court, recalls Sagan.

"We had not yet taught him to do that," says Sagan. "After that, he became our point guard."

Dan Kearns began his YMCA coaching career a bit earlier than Nick Sagan, Max's older brother, Luke, started playing basketball at a young age before moving on to football, and Dan was one of his coaches.

When Max began playing basketball, Kearns and Sagan began a coaching tandem that lasted throughout all of those leagues.

Kearns said the toughest time the team had was in the fifth grade, when one of the players could not play because he was struggling in school. But since then, the players have taken care of business in the classroom as well as on the court; Viking Coach Johnson said eligibility has never been a problem for those players in high school.

"Tell him about the dowels," Angela Sagan said to Kearns as he sat with other parents, discussing the early history of the team.

One day at practice, Kearns handed each player a thin wooden dowel.

"Break it," he said.

They all did -- easily.

Then he handed them a handful of dowels.

"Break them now," he instructed.

They couldn't.

It was a lesson in teamwork: Together, you're better.

And as the players became better teammates, they also became good friends. The parents watching in the stands also bonded through weekend road trips and countless hours of sitting together in vehicles and on bleachers.

"One of the best things for us is the friendships we have made while watching our kids," said Craig Griffith.

But now, the days of those seven boys playing together as their parents sit together watching are numbered. At most, the undefeated, No. 1 Vikings have only six games left -- two District games, a Sub-State game and then up to three games at the State Tournament.
"It's going to be hard watching them walk off the floor that last time," said Kearns.

But, he says, it will be a bit easier if when they do, they are carrying that State Championship trophy.

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Comments (3)

Congrats to the Vikings! I however remain firm, that I will not feel old...Having been taught and coached by these teachers who were having these "babies" who are now young men.....while I sat in their classes. We hope you go all the have earned it!!!
By: Donna Hiepler on February 13th 1:53pm
What a great article and great memories. I'm tearing up just reading about the boys and their awesome journey together. Congratulations Vikings!
By: Susan Meyer on February 13th 3:19pm
Great story Dean! The coverage that you provide for our community is second to none. I enjoy how you don't just report the scores and stats, but you often find a personal story within the big story. I have in the past heard comments down playing the importance of "junior league" sports. Whether we are talking about basketball, football, soccer, baseball etc etc.. But here is a great example of a group of young men who started young, stayed the course and are enjoying the fruits of their labor. In this situation Nick and Dan took a group of boys who only knew one other from recess, molded them, sculpted them and instilled into them their first concept of TEAM. Regardless of the success that they have on the court,field,track etc. The real success is how these boys have grown into responsible and mature young men who have not lost sight of what hard work and determination and most importantly TEAMWORK will do for you in life. Very Proud of you guys!
By: Scott & Annette Merchant on February 13th 5:56pm

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