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Cook County Boys Basketball – Four Seniors Lay a Solid Foundation for Future Vikings

Over the last few years, Cook County’s varsity boys basketball team has bounced back into the competition. According to Coach Keaton Riley, this year the team won more than the last three years combined and ended the season with an 8-14 record. “For the first time since 2019, we got ourselves out of the play-in round of the sec­tion tournaments,” he said. “That was a big goal coming into the year.”

The team met and exceeded oth­er goals as well. Points per game used to be in the forties and fifties, but they have bumped up to an average of sixty-two. Their defense was sol­id and there were improvements all around. “Exceptional growth as young men,” said Coach Riley, while speaking to the progres­s of the team this year. “A lot of responsibility was gained from these guys, and they learned how to compete.”

The coach has recognized a shift in commitment and the players have seen the rewards their dedication can bring. Where attendance issues used to plague the team, it’s now a clear expectation that players show up to practice. “The structure of everything is different. Different mentality. Much more competi­tive and a lot more fun on and off the court,” said Coach Riley. The coach has heard from many play­ers that it’s been the most fun season they’ve ever had.

The shift extends off of the court, too, as evidenced by the marked im­provement in academics. Twelve players made the honor roll this year in both the first and second quarters. This is quite a feat, con­sidering how much time these kids spend at practice, traveling to games, and some of them even have jobs to boot.

Coach Riley credits a large part of the success the team has reached to the dedication of the players to train hard during the season, and also in the off season. Another large part of the Viking’s victories has to do with the experience of the team and their leaders.

Some of this year’s seniors were thrown into the fire of varsity play when they were freshmen or soph­omores. Having them join at that time was a necessity in order to have enough players for the high school team. It took time for them to be more capable of the phys­icality the older players had built up before them. They stepped up and have continued to step up ever since.

“This is the first group where I’ve got to know them for three years,” Coach Riley said of the seniors. “All four of them have grown up a ton in every aspect including bas­ketball. They’re all good students. They’re all there every day you need them. They are all working jobs, as well, and they’re all think­ing about plans for next year.”

#21 Andrew Hallberg has plans to go to UW-Superior to study polit­ical science. Hallberg joined the team in his senior year, having been on the ski team previously. “He knew the program and wanted to try something new,” said the coach. “The biggest thing I will remember him by is just the courage he had to try something new, especially as a senior.”

He was welcomed into the team and quickly displayed dedication to the sport. “He showed up every day, he worked hard. He clearly loves the game of basketball. He liked being part of the team and the boys liked having him as a teammate,” said Coach Riley. “Our guys love him.”

Another likable senior, #22 Amos Falter, plans to travel for a year before attending college. “The big­gest thing I’ll remember about Amos is his maturity. He used to be a kid who would come up with a lot of reasons why something didn’t hap­pen, and he turned into a kid who would say, ‘Okay, I’ll work hard­er and make it happen,’” said the coach. “He really puts in 100% ef­fort any time he steps on the court.”

When asked where he would like to see himself in ten years, Falter told his team he wanted to be happy. This is a young man who has his priorities straight!

Weighing community college op­tions, #31 Ryan Smith, is a good student who has been able to bal­ance basketball and school while also currently working a job. Smith had a bit of a rough go of things coming into the season. He had a concussion issue from the previous football season and was suffering from back pain. Yet, “he never complains about anything,” the coach confirmed. “There’s really only one Ryan Smith in the world. If you knew him, you’d understand what that meant. Just the quirky things he says sometimes. I’m go­ing to miss him being around.”

#14 Captain Recko Helmer­son-Skildum has grown by leaps and bounds throughout his high school basketball career. “He’s one kid who really got thrown into the fire as a freshman for varsity playing time,” said Coach Riley. On senior night, Helmerson-Skildum was teased by his coach who reminded him he was a bit of an uncoordinat­ed kid then but relentlessly worked to improve. He is now going into the military.

“This year he made all-conference. Just incredible growth on the bas­ketball court,” Coach Riley said. “He self-made his game. He’s a kid who every week was in there play­ing basketball and it showed.”

Through hard work, perseverance, growth, and thoughtful leadership, this group of seniors has built a mo­mentum that upcoming teams will be able to harness.

“I think our group is appreciative of the fact that this senior group laid that foundation. The wheels were getting stuck in the mud for a real­ly long time,” said Coach Riley. “I want the senior class to be remem­bered that they’re the class that got to that first 8-win mark and they really got those wheels out of the mud.”

Now that the team has had a taste of success, the coach says they are still really hungry for more. He knows they will be working hard over the summer. They’ve recognized that they can compete and are ready to continue to up their game. Things look good for the Cook County Viking’s future in basketball. Ju­nior varsity went 11-7, which is the best record in the conference. The stability and sustainability of boys basketball in the area show a lot of promise and part of that is due to the work the seniors put into the program.

“I think where we were as a team this year, this senior class will be more missed than any other class I’ve been around. Just because of how tight a group we were,” Coach Riley said.

This season was also special be­cause of the engagement of the community which came out to the games to cheer on the team. “I want to thank the fans and the parents that come out and support their kids every night. We have really good fans this year. The gym atten­dance was clearly up. I heard from a couple parents just how much fun it was to watch this year and how competitive it was,” said the coach. “I really want to thank them for their support. Our kids love home games because of that.”

Coach Riley also expressed grat­itude to Ann Jorgenson, the head of the booster club, who does a lot of behind the scenes work for the team. She was able to secure a coach bus to bring the team to In­ternational Falls, which was a spe­cial trip for the boys.

Just as it takes a village off the court to manage a team, it takes a team of coaches on the court to ensure well rounded guidance and leadership. “I want to thank my coaching staff, Will Sandstrom and Tia Parks,” said Coach Riley, explaining the countless hours they put into the program. “They completely im­merse themselves into coaching.”

The season came to an end this year when the team lost to Crom­well-Wright in the Class 1A, Sec­tion 7 – South Subsection Quarter­final in a Seed 7 vs. Seed 2 game. Earlier in the season, the Vikings had taken on the Cardinals and lost only by a few points. In the March 7th playoff game, Cook County fell 49-69.

While Coach Riley is excited for what’s to come, he feels the se­niors are leaving some big shoes to fill. “They are going to be dearly missed. Just thinking about practice next year, it’s going to be a very dif­ferent dynamic,” he said. Luckily, they leave behind a younger gen­eration that has learned a thing or two from the class of 2024 boys basketball players and they are ready to take on the challenge.

Congrats on the great season, Cook County Vikings! Thank you, se­niors, for all you’ve contributed to the program. Wishing you all the best of luck and happiness in your future!

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