NORFOLK — A decent of amount of three-pointers were still splashing through the basket as a session of the Norfolk boys basketball camp neared its end one day last week, but coach Tony Siske could tell the players were tired.
Many of the high school players had been there most of the day, first helping with the youth players and then playing in their own session.
Those are two key parts of what Siske thinks Norfolk has to do well to sustain long-term success in the sport, despite being one of the few schools playing in Class A outside of the more populated areas of Omaha and Lincoln. Norfolk was the second-smallest Class A school this season, half the size of some schools.
Norfolk must build the program from the youth players up, Siske said, and work very hard during the summer to match the opportunities that players have in Omaha and Lincoln.
The formula worked for Norfolk this season, with the Panthers winning the Class A state championship. That led to a scene where Siske got to watch the city celebrate the Panthers’ second state championship in boys basketball, and the first in 30 years, after coming up short of winning the title in its previous 12 trips to state.
It was late on a Saturday night when the team arrived back from the state tournament, but that didn’t stop the celebration. There was a police escort from the county line. Fireworks. A pep rally at the school gym, where some supporters didn’t leave until 2 a.m.
“I kind of just sat and watched our kids, to be honest with you,” said Siske of that night. “They were taking it all in, and pretty excited.”
Siske was in his first year as Norfolk coach, and benefited from the culture and a talented group of players, including seven seniors, that was in place. But he’s also built a program before, coaching Scottsbluff to a Class B state championship in 2012 and runner-up finishes in 2013 and ’16. For this season, and his 16-year career, he’s honored as the Lincoln Journal Star boys coach of the year.
Siske feels like he got more credit than he deserved for Norfolk winning this year. He took over for Ben Ries, who became the athletic director at the school.
But Siske had the Panthers ready for the postseason. After entering the state tournament ranked No. 5, Norfolk beat No. 4 Creighton Prep in overtime in the first round, No. 8 Omaha South in the semifinals and No. 1 Papillion-La Vista in the championship.
Ries believes there are very few coaches who could have done what Siske did in winning state in his first year at the school. Ries had coached against Siske for several years in the Greater Nebraska Athletic Conference, and hoped Siske would be interested in the job.
“He focuses on relationships and experiences and program structure, and those big-picture ideas, along with his personality and expertise, was really a perfect match for what we needed at Norfolk,” Ries said.
Siske also got a lot out of 6-foot-8 senior forward Logan Strom, who averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per game, and scored 12 points and had 17 rebounds in the championship game.
“We just kept encouraging (Strom),” Siske said. “I don’t think he always understood how dominant he could be. He’s a very, very talented player. And our players knew that and they wanted to get him the ball, so as a group we just continued to try and encourage him. There were times I had to get on his case a little bit, and had to use the bench as a motivator sometimes, but when he played really well we were really good. And fortunately he finished the year really strong for us.”
Siske says there are disadvantages to being a Class A team away from Lincoln and Omaha, but they try to turn those into advantages. The Norfolk players don’t have the same opportunities for summer leagues and tournaments.
“So we sell our kids on that our open gyms have to be better than anyone else’s,” Siske said. “So when we come to open gym we’re not playing half-speed. It’s got to be competitive. That’s our summer league. That’s our time to compete.”
There were about 215 youth and high school players in camp last week, including the coach’s sons, Toryn and Tenyson. The high school players helped coach. As the only public high school in Norfolk, many kids know from a young age they’ll be playing for the Panthers.
“The community support is a big pro here,” Siske said. “When teams come up here they expect to see a full gym, and they don’t get that every night in Omaha and Lincoln.”
At both Scottsbluff and Norfolk, Siske has put effort into building relationships with the players. For the past few years he’s had a weekly breakfast with the seniors on the team. In Norfolk, that meant meeting at 6:45 a.m. at Hy-Vee, Perkins or McDonald’s. They start meeting during the second week of school, but don’t talk about basketball outside of the season. They talk about leadership and character, but mostly Siske listens.
“I started that in Scottsbluff, and the kids in Scottsbluff really enjoyed it,” Siske said. “I was a little apprehensive to even ask them, initially, and when I asked me first group of seniors all of them right away wanted to do it. My only rule is I told them I’m not taking attendance, but I don’t want to be the only one here. So at least one of you has to show up each week. At both places I bet every kid was there 80 percent of the time, or more.”
Siske graduate from Ralston in 1995, where he played basketball for his dad, Ron. Tony Siske started coaching as an assistant at Mead while still in college at Midland. He was later an assistant at Dorchester for one year, then head coach at Raymond Central for six. Then he was the head coach at Scottsbluff for nine years, taking teams to state seven times there.
His wife, Paula, is from Pierce, and by moving to Norfolk they were excited to live closer to their families.