This weekend, a handful of future Huskers in both football and basketball competed in the state basketball tournament.
After their finals games, Hail Varsity caught up with them to reflect back on their season and career and look ahead to what is next.
The two Nebrasketball commits—Omaha Creighton prep senior Akol Arop and Lincoln North Star junior Donovan Williams—faced off in the first round, ensuring one of them would be going home early. Prep won round one in overtime during the regular season but the Navigators got their revenge as No. 7 North Star knocked off No. 2 Creighton Prep 56-43 on Thursday.
Arop finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and two steals in his final game as a Junior Jay, and first at Pinnacle Bank Arena since committing to the Huskers.
“It felt good,” Arop said about playing at his future home. “Those lights, I’m telling you they’re really bright. But I’m going to have to get used to that and I can’t wait to be there next year and be in front of thousands and thousands of people, packed home games, sold-out home games every game. It’s going to be fun.”
Arop played three seasons of varsity basketball at Prep, qualifying for the state tournament in all three seasons and claiming the Class A title as a junior last season. He amassed 1,268 points, 525 rebounds and 173 blocks in 75 career games. The Junior Jays went 69-10 during his varsity career.
“The last four years have been great,” Arop said. “All four years we made it to state; one out of four, winning a state championship last year with the team was an amazing job then come back the year after, my senior year, winning districts and making it to the state championship was really amazing. I’m proud of myself and my team. I want to thank the coaches and all my family and friends, and I especially want to thank God for giving me this talent because without Him none of this would be possible.”
Arop averaged 16.9 points in his career including 19.4 per game as a senior. Creighton Prep coach Josh Luedtke said he easily could have bumped that number up if that was what he wanted to do, but his focus was on doing what the team needed of him.
“Akol could score 30 points a game if he really wanted to and he could take 25 shots a game and be a 24, 25-points-a-game guy, a 30-points-a-game guy,” Luedtke said. “But he plays within himself and in the offense and that’s a kudos to the kids in our program because that’s the way we play.”
Luedtke said Arop has meant “everything” to the Creighton Prep basketball team and community as a whole.
“Everybody loves him,” Luedtke said. “He’s a super kid. The only time I’ve ever seen emotion on him is when he fouled out and he broke down. I think it’s because he knows how much he means to the program, how much he means to me and everybody around us. He’s like a second son. He’s around us all the time, he’s around our house. He’s got the utmost respect for kids. He’s not arrogant, he doesn’t talk smack on the floor, he just plays the game and has fun and he keeps his head down. I’ll tell you what, I respect that kind of guy; it’s hard to find those kind of guys and there are not a lot of guys out there that are that way. That’s a kudos to Akol, it’s kudos to his parents and the people that have helped raise him.”
What’s next for Arop?
“I’m going to take a week off, just rest a little bit,” Arop said. “Then I’ll call up [Tim] Miles and see what’s going on with him. I talked to him yesterday and it was great talking to him. I talked to Coach [Michael] Lewis today. We’ll see from then on.”
Williams had 20 points and five rebounds against the Junior Jays while sophomore Kwat Abdelkarim added 14 points and nine rebounds, roughly twice his season averages.
“We’re just fighters,” Williams said. “Having those six seniors and realizing that could be our last game with us really hit us underclassmen in the heart and made us step it up because we didn’t want to lose for them.”
Sadly, their run came to an end in the semifinals against Omaha South. The Packers jumped out to a 17-12 lead after one before the Navigators battled back to within one at halftime. South made a run later in the third and early in the fourth to take control and held on against a late North Star rally to end the Gators’ season.
North Star got off to a slow start, losing four of its first five games. They turned things around, however, winning eight of their last 10 regular season games then upsetting Kearney at Kearney (one of the two teams that beat them during that last 10, the other being Prep) in the district final to qualify for state.
Williams told me before the season he thought North Star had the potential to be a top-five team in Class A, and he backed those words up by leading his squad to the final four.
“I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished this season as a team,” Williams said. “We went through so many ups and downs and we managed to come together and be fighters instead of giving up. If I could go back and change anything I wouldn’t, because I feel like we did all we could.”
Williams got a bit of a pick-me-up on Sunday as he attended Nebraska’s come-from-behind overtime win against Iowa on senior day. It was also his birthday.
Scott Frost had a few future Huskers make it to the big stage with their teams as well.
York, led by Nebraska football signee Garrett Snodgrass, earned the No. 4 seed in the Class B tournament and faced off against No. 4 Omaha Skutt in the first round on Thursday. The Dukes rallied to beat the SkyHawks in double-overtime in the Class B title game last season, but Skutt got its revenge this year with a 71-64 win to end York’s season.
Snodgrass finished with 11 points, four rebounds, four blocks, two assists and a steal.
“Garrett brings a sense of physicality, he’s a great leader, he has the ability to shoot the ball and he’s such a great young man,” York coach Scott Lamberty said. “There are a lot of them in there that are the same way but he’s been fun to coach.”
During his four-year varsity basketball career, York made the state tournament three times with one state title.
“I’m just proud of the relationships we built with each other,” Snodgrass said. “It’s a brotherhood we’ve built. We’ve obviously been really successful, and that’s helped a lot with building the friendships but I couldn’t have asked for better guys to be around and to be with every day. I’ll miss it.”
His run at York isn’t quite over, however. He still has the track season. Snodgrass said he’ll likely compete in the discus and the 400-meter relay, and the track coach wants him to try shot put again too, though Snodgrass said he isn’t very good at it. The track season will offer Snodgrass a chance to add some weight to his frame as well.
“It’s been kind of hard gaining weight during basketball, but I’m going to start trying to get bigger,” Snodgrass said. “My personal goal is 225, but just as big as I can get while maintaining my athleticism will be something I’m trying to do.”
Snodgrass said he’ll make it to a few of Nebraska’s practices this spring and is excited about getting to campus.
A few football walk-on commits made it to state as well. Brayden Miller and the Kearney Bearcats lost in the first round of the Class A tournament while Jacob Herbek and the Grand Island Central Catholic Crusaders fell in the first round of the Class C-1 Tournament. Both teams lost to eventual state champions in Omaha South and Auburn.
One future Husker did get to end his basketball career on a high note, however. Austin Jablonski and the Lincoln Pius X Thunderbolts finished off a 27-2 season with a double-overtime win over Omaha Roncalli in the Class B championship.
Pius outscored Roncalli 12-0 in the second overtime as the Crimson Pride ran out of gas, and Jablonski ended the game with a dunk in front the the Pius student section just before the buzzer.
“Whatever sport I’m playing at the moment, that’s my favorite sport,” Jablonski said. “I invested my heart and soul into this team and it means the world to us all to win this for the Pius community.”
Jablosnki finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in the title game. He had 13 points and 10 rebounds in Pius’ 62-59 overtime win over Skutt in the semifinals and he contributed nine points and four rebounds in the Bolts’ 40-point win over Scottsbluff in the first round.
Listed at 6-foot-3, Jablonski’s athleticism and toughness allowed him to play bigger than he is and hold his own at the center position.
“We have five athletes on the floor that are very interchangeable and that against Roncalli is very important because their ability, their skill, the way they space you out, the different kinds of things that they run out there, it was very important for us to be able to switch a lot of those things so we could try to keep them in front of us … To have these guys, especially defensively, because we can do a lot of different things with them that maybe you can’t with a traditional five man,” Pius coach Brian Spicka said. “Having a guy like Austin as our center, that’s not bad.”
Jablonski is going to compete in track as well, but for the time being he’s looking forward to getting to a Nebraska football spring practice.
“I’m super excited to go down there and observe some meetings and practices just because I’m dying to get down there ad work my tail off and make something special happen,” Jablonski said.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.