CEDAR FALL, Iowa — The lights to Nielsen Fieldhouse have gone dim.
Into the darkness fade state tournament banners and the tradition of a small-school boys’ basketball program that had established itself as one of the state’s elite.
Last spring’s announcement that Northern University High School (Malcolm Price Laboratory School) would be closed sent shock waves throughout a tight-knit community within Cedar Falls. The decision locked the doors on a basketball program that had reached the state tournament nine times, including four trips in the past five years.
Paul Elser, who coached the Panthers to a 2008 state championship and four state tournament appearances in five years, has taken a teaching job in the Cedar Falls district.
The majority of the players on last year’s Panther team were seniors. Durrell Jackson, the team’s third-leading scorer, is now a sophomore at Cedar Falls. HaLanier Holmes, the only other returning varsity regular, is currently a senior at Union Community High School.
“It was a little school that probably 350 kids went to and they were all close,” said Kyle Denning, a current sophomore on the University of Iowa basketball team who played on four state qualifying teams at NU High. “Nobody was left out. The best thing about it was we could get a group of kids in kindergarten and first grade to really bond together well and work our way up.”
Denning’s dad, Brent, invested several years with the youth basketball program. Kyle’s older brother, Brad, was also a part of the school’s athletic success.
“We built the program all the way up and to see it go down just like that is really tough,” Kyle Denning said. “They might be able to take away the school, but the memories we made, nobody will ever take it away. It’s just hard because my sister is a seventh-grader and I know she wanted to finish at NU and she couldn’t.”
Indeed, the closure of a school goes beyond a basketball program. Yet, the sport served as a source of unity for the district.
“Even the guys on the bench were just as much part of the team as the people who were starting,” said Jake Struck who played for NU High from 1997 through 2001. “The people that went to the games, our fans, parents, classmates, it was a really exciting time. I think it (basketball) brought us together and showed how strong the NU High community is.”
Struck joins Denning as an all-stater and two of NU High’s six players to finish with more than 1,000 career points. He witnessed firsthand the rise of NU High’s basketball program.
Growing up, Struck would run into athletes such as Trev Alberts and Matt Hilliard inside the hallways of the K-12 Price Lab school building. Alberts and Hilliard went on to star for Nebraska and Iowa, respectively, on the football field, but also were members of Panthers’ 1988-89 team that became the school’s first basketball state qualifier.
“There was a sense of history there,” says Struck, who now works as a lawyer in Boston. “I remember going to the Barn (Vets Auditorium), sitting up top and watching Hilliard and Alberts play. I think all the kids in my age group that went and watched that team, we definitely wanted to grow up and be NU High basketball players.”
Multiple coaches took their turn at leading the Panthers to prominence. Following Paul Waack’s lengthy tenure at the school, Dave Smith coached teams to the state tournament in 1998 and 2001. Wapsie Valley native Jon McKowen then took over from 2002-2007, leading NU High to three conference championships and one state tournament appearance.
“One of our philosophies is leave the program better than you took it over,” said McKowen, who has recently coached Ottawa High School in Kansas to three straight state finals. “You just want to make strides and make sure things are going in the right direction. It kept doing that until the end.
“Talent level is always going to change, but the way the kids played the game and bought into the program with their offseason work was just phenomenal.”
Jon’s dad, Marty McKowen, often coached against NU High with a North Iowa Cedar League Conference championship hanging in the balance. The veteran Wapsie Valley coach knows this season will have different feel to it.
“It was a special game on our schedule that, not only did our players and coaches look forward to, but I think our fans also enjoyed that game, too,” Marty McKowen said. “A tradition that has been out there for a lot of years will be gone now and it will be tough to fill.”
Aaron Thomas also competed against NU High for league titles during his tenure as a basketball coach at Union Community. He continued to share a league with the Panthers when he recently took over as Aplington-Parkersburg’s head coach.
“There was a lot of battles and that’s a quality basketball program that’s not there,” Thomas said. “But athletics are just one part. I know what Aplington-Parkersburg means to me, being somebody who was an athlete there and now an employee of our school district. That goes a lot further than just not having them in the conference to play sports.”
Struck says he still gets together with NU High alums and they’ll end up debating which teams and players were the best.
Denning also has fond memories of the 2008 championship team led by twins Nick and Travis Ellerbroek.
“A lot of people probably think that we recruited, but we practiced and we put the time into it,” Denning said. “We started early, built it up and did it the right way. We had a good program there and were winners no matter what.”
“There were 12 people on the basketball team, but the actual team encapsulated a lot more than that,” Struck added.
“Hopefully, what people remember is that it was good basketball, but it was a better school and it was a better community.”