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Cook County Boys Basketball: Committing to the Culture

To say being a student-athlete is a time com­mitment would be an understatement. Add the logistics of attending a very rural school, and it becomes even more so. Cook County School is k-12 and made up of 6 towns. Some of the Vikings boy’s basketball players travel from Grand Portage to get to practice. The varsity team’s nearest road game is two and a half hours away. Their season consists of a lot of practices, a lot of games, and a lot of time on the bus.

And yet, even factoring in declining stu­dent enrollment, the Vikings’ basketball pro­gram is thriving. Last year’s roster listed 14 varsity/junior varsity players. This year that number has grown to 20. There are 13 mid­dle school players, and 48 kids in the younger grades. The last time the program had this much interest was back in the early 2000s.

Coach Keaton Riley believes stability is a big part of the growing numbers. The entire coaching staff returned this year. “I think kids that are on the fence of playing or not really benefit from knowing the coach so they have the expectation of what will be expected and what that looks like,” said Coach Riley.

Riley is from Rochester, Minnesota, and moved to the area to work as the Cook Coun­ty probation officer in 2020. He jumped on the chance to be an assistant coach that same year and became head coach the following season.

“I know most of these boys for 9-10 months of the whole year,” Riley, who also coaches football, said, “We’ve gotten pretty close. That personal experience with the kids is a big part of it.”

With a communicative style of coaching, the coaching staff has learned to set clear expectations while meeting the players at the level they are at. Riley described the first year as head coach as “tough.”

Expectations were set high. “Kids either grow with it or sometimes they quit,” he said. In his second year as head coach, he has seen a shift in dedication. “These kids really want to work hard and they show up every day,” Riley stated. “It feels like they want to be there. They’re focused.

They’re supportive of each other. It’s a good environment in practice right now.” And it’s not just at practice that the Vikings basketball players have stepped it up. Over the fall quarter, the team’s cumulative GPA has risen from 2.8 to 3.3. In fact, the team hit a record of 12 recipients of Cook County High School’s Honor Roll or High Honor Roll. All three managers also made the list.

Coach Riley noted that he has seen upper-classmen grow in their leadership. The players are reminded that, in a k-12 school, a lot of kids look up to the varsity players. It’s important to lead by example. “It’s a responsibility you’re granted with when you wear the jersey,” he said.

On Saturdays, the varsity team coaches the k-3 players as volunteers. It’s something they take a lot of pride in and the kids love having them as mentors. The players also get out into the community to do fundraising at Fishermen’s Picnic and other events. “Credit goes entirely to these boys,” Riley admits. “I have a really good coaching staff. Basically, all we do is set the expectations and script the practices.

The rest of it is totally up to them to buy in.” The coaches ensure there are conversations about personal goals, both on and off the court. This year the players have shifted from, for example, how many points they wanted to score to instead being a good passer, a good teammate, better at dribbling, etc.

Focusing on individual goals and seeing the big picture are something Coach Riley tries to ingrain into each player. “I want these kids to have the journey,” the coach said. “And to understand and love the journey.” He stresses the importance of soaking up the experiences and hopes to help them realize that the memories are built on the road and in the gym, not so much as on the scoreboard.

The transition to higher expectations, elevated motivation, and commitment has made all the difference. In the summer basketball program, the team went 5-3. The program continues to grow as other kids see basketball as something, they want to be a part of. In the three years that he’s been part of the coaching staff, Riley said this year he has seen a shift. “I can confidently say that this is the best culture I’ve been around.”

The Cook County Vikings played their first game against the South Ridge Panthers on Friday, December 1st. It is not a surprise that the team went into the game ready to go and looking to compete. The game went into double overtime with the win going to South Ridge 57-56.

Player of the game was awarded to Rohan Rude, a junior, who put up 14 points, had 9 assists, and 4 rebounds. Congratulations to the Honor Roll and High Honor Roll recipients and thank you to the team and coaching staff for your commitment to education, the community, and the game. Best of luck this season!

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