Boys basketball team had state in their sights all season

Nathan Hawkins, Managing Editor

One year ago, the Bellevue West basketball team went to the state tournament in Lincoln with a 18-6 record as a five seed, a team that was finding their stride at the right time. They won their quarterfinal and semifinal game, giving them a shot in the coveted Class A State Championship game.

That’s where the team’s run ended, falling to powerhouse Creighton Prep in the championship game 56-46.

A year later, the T-Birds return to the state tournament with a bit of a different narrative. This season, the team has been on a mission, seeming unstoppable throughout most of the year and locking down the #1 seed in the tournament.

To the players, including senior Nico Felici, their success was far from a surprise.

“Coming into this year we expected to go undefeated,” Felici said. “That was the mentality, that we know how we can play and nobody can beat us.”

Although not undefeated, the boys basketball team came close, losing only one game in December against Lincoln Southeast.

Fueled by coming so close to state glory last year, the team used the difficulty of their loss to propel them to success this year.

“At first I think it was all just disappointment,” Felici said. “We felt like we should’ve won it, like we had it at a certain point in the game. But then it was a sense of accomplishment, a thanks to how far we had gotten. We realized that we could only come back better next year.”

The focus for the next season switched almost immediately, as on the bus ride home the team exchanged texts that affirmed their notion that they never wanted to feel that again. For then-freshman Chucky Hepburn, he saw the path the day after.

“I switched focus the day after,” Hepburn said. “I started grinding the day after. In fact the day after I got in the gym for like two hours and I knew that we would be back.”

And back and better they were.

Although the players were confident they’d contend again, for coach Doug Woodard, the path to excellence for this team wasn’t always as clear. He didn’t see the team as a true threat for the state championship until the Nebraska high school holiday tournament in late December.

“Playing and winning those games in a row, we didn’t play great but we played with toughness,” Woodard said. “I’d say then and as it’s gone on, the ability to, although not playing perfect, be fairly consistent from a night to night basis, that’s very hard for a high school team to do.”

To make the holiday tournament that much sweeter, they defeated the team that they fell to in the state finals game the previous year, Creighton Prep.

That wasn’t the only time they defeated Creighton Prep, however. On Feb. 4, Hepburn banked in an off-balance three pointer with less than 20 seconds left to take the lead over Prep by one point. They ended up winning the game 69-66.

And it wasn’t the only the only time Hepburn had any late game heroics, as in the season opener against Kearney, Hepburn hit a buzzer beating three pointer to win the game, 44-41.

Hepburn claims he can hit the shots, but he isn’t the only one who can hit those big shots.

“I don’t really want the ball in my hands but I know I can make the shot,” Hepburn said. “But I trust in my other teammates to hit the shot as well.”

Woodard seconded the notion that the team has many players who are capable of making those last second shots.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that we would not be afraid if they were taking a big shot at the end of a game,” Woodard said. “The issue is Chucky has the ball in his hands a lot, so in certain situations there’s probably a greater chance that he might be in that situation. But he’s also such a good team player that if he found somebody else who’s wide open or whatever, you’d have no hesitation to give them the ball.”

Nico Felici is no doubt one of those players, as he has been one of the core leaders of this team. He and Hepburn take on the role as captains of the number one team in the state. Felici, however, said that the team is full of capable leaders.

“Everybody’s taken their leadership roles, giving somebody a ride to practice and talking and communicating,” Felici said. “Everyone is just really responsible and has a good head on their shoulders.”

He also said that the bond the team has been “one of the tightest bonds I’ve ever had with any team I’ve ever played for.” When they’re not hanging out, they’re playing video games, or even getting pedicures together.

That bond has translated into seamless leadership for the players. Besides the connection the players have had with each other, Woodard points to the competitiveness of Felici and Hepburn as one of the main reasons for their great leadership.

“What people would see as our two leaders, Nico and Chucky, are so competitive,” Woodard. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to win some games we probably shouldn’t have won. Those guys are so competitive and the rest of the kids are so competitive, setting that tone is one of the great things Nico and Chucky have done as leaders.”

It’s been a season to remember for Felici particularly. Not only is the Bellevue West team the best it’s been in his four years here, but he has also put his name in the Thunderbird record books. In his senior night game against Millard South, Felici hit the heralded 1,000 point career mark.

Felici said that accomplishment can be traced back to when he was playing in the T-Birds youth system as a kid.

“When you’re a little kid, a Jr. T-Bird, and you come to the games, and that’s just something you’ve always wanted to do,” Felici said. “You don’t really think it’s possible until you actually do it. When you’re watching players like Malik Hluchoweckyj or players like that get those 1,000 point balls, you just don’t think you will be able to do it. And now that I have my own. It’s a huge accomplishment.”

Now, the Thunderbirds as a team are interested in putting this team in the record books. With the stride they’ve hit and the consistency they’ve played with, they seem as poised as any team to hoist a trophy at the end of the tournament. And with the promise they’ve shown, it seems as almost the team has a win-it-all or nothing at all mentality.

Felici says that’s not quite the case.

“Somewhat I do see it as a ‘win state or bust’ type year, because that was the goal, and that’s still the ultimate goal,” Felici said. “When you look back on the season, it’s not always about winning the state championship or not, it’s about becoming better people and better basketball players. But I would say it’s almost a state or bust year right now.”

All the players have given their all for this season, including Hepburn. He said with the maturity and experience he’s gained as a player, a championship this year would be a fitting way to cap it off.

“It’d mean a lot,” Hepburn said. “It’d probably mean more this year than it did last year, because I just put more heart into this year than I did last year. I should’ve put more heart into last year as a freshman but I just feel like I wasn’t ready enough. This year I’m ready.”

Creighton Prep is no longer a threat to the T-Birds quest for state glory, after falling to Lincoln North Star 56-43 in the first round of the state tournament. Their two previous victories against the Junior Jays this season will end up being the most revenge the T-Birds will be able to extract against Prep.

Hepburn said he believes this team will be a contender for as long as he’s here, but the focus is now simply on the road to the championship.

And that path starts tonight against Papillion-LaVista South. For Felici, it’s the final path as a T-Bird basketball player, and he wants it to end only one way: with a banner.

“It would mean everything,” Felici said. “I’ve been telling everybody since my freshman year when we were two games above .500 that we were going to win a state championship at Bellevue West. People laughed, people didn’t think it was going to be possible, but now it’s looking like we might do it. I just want to hang up a banner for the school.”

Bellevue West vs. Papillion LaVista-South begins tonight at 7 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. The NSAA is also providing a broadcast here.