This weekend, the 15th annual Heartland Hoops Classic will bring some of the best high school teams from around the state as well as three national prep powerhouses to the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island for a day full of hoops.
This Year’s event will feature a big-time showdown on Friday between two of the five best high school teams in the country at Grand Island Central Catholic before seven more game at the Heartland Events Center running all day on Saturday.
Hail Varsity will be there all day on Saturday bringing you coverage of the games. If you’re a basketball fan who is planning to head to Grand Island (or considering doing so), here’s a preview of what you can expect to see at the Classic.
Game 1, 7 p.m.: Link Academy (Branson, Missouri) vs. Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kansas)
Sunrise (21-1) is the top-ranked team in the country in the latest USA TODAY Sports Super 25 and just captured the inaugural NIBC championship (the NIBC is a super league of some of the best prep programs in the country).
Link Academy is a newcomer to the national picture this season but is ranked third nationally at 25-0 and features some familiar names for Nebraska fans. Nebraska freshman Quaran McPherson spent last year at Link playing for its prep team.
Friday will be the first meeting between the two powerhouse teams and promises to be a great way to tip off the weekend of hoops in Grand Island. Striv will stream the game for those who can’t make it in person but wish to follow along.
Sunrise features a pair of 5-stars in Duke commit Mark Mitchell and Kansas commit Gradey Dick. Mitchell is a long and athletic forward while Dick is a dynamic and skilled wing, and the duo played together during the summer as well for KC Run GMC. I’ve seen both play in person multiple times, and they are certainly fun to watch.
They’re not alone, however. Cam Corhen, a 6-foot-11 4-star big man, is committed to Florida State. Dillon Hunter, a 6-foot-4 3-star guard, is committed to Baylor. Sunrise has a pair of 4-star juniors as well in Layden Blocker (6-foot-2) and Scotty Middleton (6-foot-7).
Link is star-studded as well. The familiar names are 5-star forward Omaha Biliew and 4-star guard Trey Green, a pair of juniors who have visited Nebraska. Biliew isn’t the only 5-star, however, as Arkansas commit Jordan Walsh and LSU commit Julian Phillips play big roles as well. Link has plenty of size in addition to Biliew and Phillips with 4-star Ohio State commit Felix Okpara and 4-star Michigan commit Tarris Reed Jr., another player who has visited Lincoln.
Game 1, 8 a.m.: C1 No. 2 Ashland-Greenwood (17-1) vs. B UR Grand Island Northwest (7-12)
The headliner for this one is Ashland-Greenwood senior Cale Jacobsen, one of the best players in the state regardless of class. There aren’t many players in Nebraska that con dominate a game in as many ways as he can, from scoring to playmaking to rebounding to defending.
Jacobsen has a pair of sharp-shooting seniors around him in Evan Shepard and Max Parker. The latter is unique as a 6-foot-6 forward who overcame losing most of his hand in a fireworks accident when he was 12 to become a knockdown shooter from the corners as well as an impactful interior presence.
Game 2, 9:40 a.m.: D2 No. 3 Osceola (17-3) vs. C2 No. 7 Doniphan-Trumbull (16-2)
The Bulldogs will jump up two classes to take on Doniphan-Trumbull. Osceola feature one of the better one-two punches in D2 in junior Isaiah Zelasney and sophomore Kale Gustafson. Zelasney is a multi-sport star averaging 16.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.4 steals. Gustafson is a 6-foot-4 forward averaging 15.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 56% from the field.
Whereas Osceola is young and star-centered, Doniphan-Trumbull has four seniors averaging double figures in scoring: Ethan Smith (11.5), Blake Detamore (11.4), Myles Sadd (10.6) and Andrew Stock (10.4). Sadd is also leading the team with 3.3 assists per game and 2.7 steals per game and is second in rebounding at 5.6 per game.
Game 3, 11:20 a.m.: C2 No. 1 Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family (20-0) vs. C1 RV Milford (16-4)
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family is the reigning Class D1 champion yet hasn’t missed a beat after jumping up to C2 this season. The Bulldogs are one of just two teams still without a loss on the boys side and features a pair of versatile twin forwards Jacob (16.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 3.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per game) and Jason Sjuts (12.1 points, 5.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game).
Milford brought a lot back from a team that made a run to the state tournament last year including Concordia commit Jaxon Weyand and Micah Hartwig in the backcourt and Seth Stutzman inside.
Game 4, 1 p.m.: C1 No. 4 Omaha Concordia (16-3) vs. B No. 7 Aurora (12-8)
Concordia is coming off a loss to one Class B team in Elkhorn Mt. Michael and the Mustangs will take on another on Saturday in Aurora. Concordia features a sharp-shooting backcourt of seniors Karsten Mathsen (a Northwestern College commit) and Zac Kulus (a Concordia University commit) as well as a string interior presence with Justin Otten (another Concordia commit) and Zach Alharithy, both 6-foot-6 seniors.
Aurora has eight losses already as they’ve faced a difficult schedule, but they picked up a big road win at Waverly last Friday.
Game 5, 3:45 p.m.: C2 No. 2 Grand Island Central Catholic (15-3) vs. B UR Elkhorn North (7-11)
The Crusaders, coached by event organizer Tino Martinez, are the reigning Class C2 state champions and brought three key pieces back from that team. Isaac Herbek, the younger brother of Nebraska football walk-on Jacob Herbek, is leading the team at 15.8 points while shooting 51% from the field, 48% from 3 and 86% from the free-throw line. Fellow senior wing Marcus Lowry is averaging 14.3 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 50% from the field. Senior Gil Jengmer, a 6-foot-8 center, is rounding out the big three with 11.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 59% from the field.
Elkhorn North has struggled somewhat in their second season since the school opened, but they’re certainly capable. Senior guard Brandon Orgilbold leads the way offensively while senior Jack Lusk, the son of former Creighton and current Purdue assistant coach Paul Lusk, and junior Paxon Piatkowski, the nephew of Nebraska legend Eric Piatkowski, are capable of carrying the scoring load in any given game as well.
Game 6, 5:30 p.m.: A No. 1 Omaha Westside (19-1) vs. A UR Grand Island (9-9)
The top team in Class A will face off against the top-rated player in the state.
Westside has won 18 straight games as junior wing Tate Odvody has emerged as one of the most efficient scorers in the 2023 class, scoring 15.9 points per game while shooting 60% from the field, 39% from 3 and 90% from the foul line. The Warriors feature a pair of dynamic senior guards in Reggie Thomas (12.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game) and Chandler Meeks (9.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game).
Westside’s sophomore backcourt of CJ Mitchell (the younger brother of Creighton point guard Shereef Mitchell and son of former Husker and Omaha Maverick Alvin Mitchell) and Caleb Benning (the son of former Nebraska football player Damon Benning and a Husker football target in his own right) ratchets up the defensive intensity off the bench as well.
Virginia signee and 4-star recruit Isaac Traudt leads the way for the Islanders at 23.8 points, 8.9 points and 1.9 assists per game while shooting 51% from the field, 34% from 3 on a high degree of difficulty and 83% from the free-throw line. St. Paul transfer Andy Poss is chipping in 8.8 points, 2.8 assists and 2.8 steals per game and the Islanders have gone 7-2 since he became eligible at the end of the first semester.
Game 7, 7:15 p.m.: Link Academy vs. Wasatch Academy (Mt. Pleasant, Utah)
Saturday’s nightcap is another showdown of talented teams from beyond the state’s borders. After facing Sunrise on Friday, Link Academy will face another difficult opponent from the NIBC in Wasatch Academy.
The Tigers don’t have any 5-star players, but they do have a handful of Division I players led by 4-star Ohio State commit Roddy Gayle. Wasatch has two other 4-star recruits in Syracuse commit Chris Bunch and uncommitted center Keba Keita. Camden Heide, a 3-star wing committee to Purdue, adds shooting on the wing while Bowling Green commit Willie Lightfoot and Sam Houston State commit Anthony Wreszcz provide two more future division I players to the backcourt.
Sunrise was originally scheduled to face Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln on Saturday, but the Links had to withdraw from the event leaving the Buffaloes with just the Friday game against Link.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.