Millard North’s Hunter Sallis throws down a second-half dunk in the Class A boys state basketball final March 13 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Often, the hype outplays reality.
But, man, did the 2021 Class A boys state basketball tournament live up to the hype. Bellevue West, Creighton Prep and state champion Millard North were part of classics at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Those games were so good, they make for a clear-cut favorite as the most memorable high school moment of 2021. But it was far from the only memorable moment this year. In fact, it was quite difficult to trim this down to a top 10.
From one giant upset on the Class A gridiron to a long-standing state title reign in the swimming pool coming to an end, we bring you the top high school moments of 2021.
1. Bringing their "A" games to PBA
High school basketball fans were treated to two of the greatest boys games in state tournament history within a 24-hour window last March.
Led by Chucky Hepburn,
Bellevue West outlasted Creighton Prep 95-94 in triple overtime in the Class A state semifinals at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
A night later, and in a rematch of the 2020 state championship,
Millard North topped the Thunderbirds 84-78 in overtime in a game that had the PBA crowd buzzing throughout. Both teams were nationally ranked.
The third quarter featured a mind-boggling period in which Bellevue West and Millard North combined to score 14 points in just over a minute.
The game featured numerous Division I players, led by Hepburn (Wisconsin) and Millard North's Hunter Sallis (Gonzaga). Coach Tim Cannon getting that elusive state title as a coach also was a feel-good storyline.
2. A Viking quest
Omaha North lost its first five games of the season and barely made the Class A state football playoffs, which set up a meeting with No. 1 and state title favorite Millard South.
The Vikings rallied from down two touchdowns to begin the fourth quarter to
stun the Patriots 49-42 in a matchup of the Nos. 1 and 16 seeds.
The fourth quarter alone was packed with big plays, drama and thrills, none more impressive than Keshaun Williams catching the go-ahead 39-yard touchdown over two defenders.
The game featured four touchdowns of 39 yards or more.
Omaha North beat North Platte the following week to reach the state semifinals.
3. Benchmark moment for girls wrestling
A year after being categorized as an emerging sport, girls wrestling was sanctioned as an NSAA sport in the spring.
It was a long time coming for a sport that had been gaining more and more popularity over the past three or four years. A year after falling a vote short of being sanctioned, the NSAA board passed it with an 8-0 vote.
Nearly 100 schools trotted out girls wrestling teams for the 2021-22 season and they'll share the state tournament spotlight with the boys in February.
"It was just joy," Pierce coach Les Painter said in May. "Finally these girls have the same opportunity as the boys. That's what we have been fighting for the past six years."
4. Gretna football gets hot late
Millard South, Bellevue West and Omaha Westside filled Class A football title talk in 2021, and rightfully so.
Then Gretna crashed the party.
Behind a couple of big plays from quarterback Zane Flores and an incredible defensive effort, the underdog Dragons upended defending state champion Westside 7-3 at Memorial Stadium for its first state football championship.
The game was low on points but high in yards and theatrics. It included a goal-line stand — the most memorable play being Korbin Nickolite's stuff of Dominic Rezac — late in the game by the Dragon defense.
“The defense has been great all year; they really showed it last week shutting out Omaha North, and it’s just right that they (helped us) to this championship,” Flores said.
5. Seven straight for SkyHawks
Omaha Skutt entered 2021 having to replace several stars, including Lindsay Krause, and Norris and Waverly were primed to take their turns to reign in Class B volleyball.
Yet, there were the SkyHawks on the Devaney Center court on the final day of the season celebrating a seventh straight Class B state championship.
Shickley (1987-92) and Bellevue West (1992-97) won six straight, but no volleyball team had won seven straight until Skutt.
The SkyHawks outlasted Waverly in five sets in the state semifinals and followed with a four-set win against top-ranked Norris in the final.
“I know what we just did, and it’s freaking amazing,” Skutt coach Renee Saunders said. “Seven doesn’t just happen.”
6. Markowski, Weidner lead teams to unblemished gold
In back-to-back state championship games at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Humphrey St. Francis in Class D-2 and Lincoln Pius X in Class A capped perfect seasons with girls basketball gold.
Both teams also were led by players set to make PBA their future home.
Allison Weidner, a Super-State point guard, helped St. Francis hold off Falls City Sacred Heart 57-48 to cap a 25-0 season and win an elusive state title.
One game later, Super-Stater Alexis Markowski put together one more dominant performance as Pius X rallied to beat Fremont 56-52 to finish 25-0. It was the Thunderbolts' second straight championship.
Two of the best girls basketball players in recent memory were cutting down the nets.
7. Scottsbluff's Garcia wins fourth gold
Scottsbluff's Paul Garcia became the 34th wrestler to join the elite four-time champions club, edging rival Paul Ruff of Gering 1-0 in a Class B 126-pound match on a Saturday night in Omaha.
The victory came with some controversy.
A third caution slapped on Ruff gave Garcia the winning point after Ruff lined up incorrectly twice in the first tiebreaker period.
Ruff, who is deaf, later said he was unaware of the officials' caution calls and unaware that he trailed 1-0.
"Right when he put those knees up, I was like, 'There it is,'" Garcia said afterward.
8. Omaha Skutt's perfect season
With three Power Five conference recruits leading the way, Omaha Skutt became the first Class B team to go a softball season without losing a game.
Skutt finished 33-0 and was the first Class B team to repeat since Blair in 2008 and 2009.
Skutt did so in dominant fashion. It outscored Class B competition 197-13, including 46-11 at the state tournament. The SkyHawks also thrived against Class A competition, leaving little doubt who the best team in the state was.
"Obviously, our goal was to go back-to-back, but once we got about halfway through the season and we're beating all these Class A teams, we realized, 'OK, this is possible and we can do this,'" pitcher Ruby Meylan said at state.
9. Hawks end Prep's swimming reign
One of the more incredible state title runs came to an end in 2021 at the Devaney Center pool.
Creighton Prep entered the state swimming meet having won 14 straight boys state championships.
On paper, Lincoln Southwest had the depth to challenge Prep, and the Silver Hawks did just that, getting championship wins from Tommy Palmer, Kael Mlinek and Mason Schroeder.
The finish was dramatic as the Hawks held off the Junior Jays in the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, to seal a title.
10. Pius X's Kolbas goes lower
Nicole Kolbas made history as a sophomore in 2020, shooting a two-day total 140 to set the all-class scoring record at a girls state golf tournament.
Could she really top that a year later? Yes.
Kolbas, a junior, shot a two-day 136 to set the record again and win her second straight Class A title, and doing so against a very tough field at Norfolk Country Club.
* Papillion-La Vista South volleyball goes 40-0 and wins Class A.
* Falls City Sacred Heart's Doug Goltz wins 700th career basketball game.
* Noah Walters' record-breaking season in football for Lincoln East.
* Gretna girls soccer player Sarah Weber nets a Class A-record 48 goals.
* Lincoln East girls win fourth straight Class A state cross country title.
* Lincoln Northeast's Daniel Romary and Elkhorn South's Gabe Hinrichs duel at state track.
* Auburn extends win streak to 62 in boys hoops and wins third straight C-1 title.
* Winnebago girls make Cinderella run at the girls state basketball tournament.
* Grand Island boys basketball player Isaac Traudt scores 57 points against Norfolk.
* Fremont's Cole Macaluso and Columbus' Madison Henderson become first state bowling champions.
Best of 2021 photos: Justin Wan
LINCOLN, NEB. - 01/04/2021 - Melanie Butcher holds her cat Miss Chievous at Staybridge Suites, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Butcher and her mother settled into a local hotel after they were evicted on New Year's Eve. They didn’t know it was her responsibility as a renter to actively invoke protections during the federal eviction moratorium. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 02/23/2021 - Lincoln Northeast's Nyathak Gatluak (top) and A'lyana Jones try to wrestle the ball away from Lincoln East's Olivia Kugler during an A-7 girls basketball district semifinal, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, at Lincoln East. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 02/25/2021 - Pat Moseman (left) and Roger Silver play a game of noodle ball at Hillcrest Firethorn, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Group activities and in-person family visits are making a slow return as COVID-19 numbers in Lancaster County fall. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 03/11/2021 - Falls City Sacred Heart's Jack Fiegener (front) and Jakob Jordan celebrate a win against Humphrey St. Francis in a Class D-2 state tournament semifinal, Thursday, March 11, 2021, at Pinnacle Bank Arena. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 04/20/2021 - ET Apothecary & Hemp co-owner I'sha Kelley (left) shares a laugh with worker Eidom Assefa during the first hour of the business' grand opening, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 05/04/2021 - Rep. Jeff Fortenberry speaks during the Republican watch party, Tuesday, May 4, 2021, at Suite 111 Venue. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 05/11/2021 - Workers remove the "Kissing Columns" in May near Ed Weir Track on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln downtown campus Tuesday, May 11, 2021. The granite columns and the original university gates have stood next to Memorial Stadium for 86 years. They are being removed to make way for the Huskers' new $155 million athletics complex. They will be placed in storage and then returned to campus later at a site yet to be determined. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 05/14/2021 - Luke Hoff, a ninth grader in LPS' Science Focus Program, is seen in a reflection as he surveys a pond at Sunken Gardens on Friday, May 14, 2021, during a class on introduction to research. On Saturday, more than 60 volunteers and Parks and Recreation Department staff planted flowers for the annual Wake Up The Beds event. This year's garden theme is Ruby Slippers, from "The Wizard of Oz." JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 05/24/2021 - Alexis Ricard (left) and Denise Legaspi share a laugh as they try to fix a worm to the hook Monday at Holmes Lake, Monday, May 24, 2021. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 06/04/2021 - Tony White, a civilian navigation instruction and a retired Air Force Lt. Col. who has worked with the Open Skies program since 2006, sits at the cockpit at the final OC-135B Open Skies aircraft, Friday, June 4, 2021, at Lincoln Airport. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
WILBER, NEB. - 06/09/2021 - Aubrey Trail is wheeled out of the Saline County courtroom on Wednesday after being sentenced to death in the killing of Sydney Loofe, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at Saline County Courthouse. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 07/05/2021 - Omarion Parker, 5, players in the water, Monday, July 5, 2021, at Pawnee State Recreation Area. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 07/20/2021 - Gus Albertson (from left) and Brody Tunks of Missouri talks with Cauy Masters of Iowa as her horse, Smoker, shakes off the water during the National High School Finals Rodeo at the Lancaster Event Center, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 09/10/2021 - Seventh grade history teacher Mike Hix leads a lesson on 9/11 at Schoo Middle School on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. Hix, along with fellow teacher Cody Thatcher, were nationally recognized in 2019 for their lesson on 9/11. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 09/11/2021 - Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost is greeted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green after the victory against Buffalo, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 09/13/2021 - Sens. Justin Wayne and Lou Ann Linehan sign their competing legislative redistricting proposals at the Legislature Monday during the first day of the special session at the Capitol, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, at Nebraska State Capitol. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 10/22/2021 - The Lincoln Southeast football team takes the field before playing Elkhorn South, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, at Seacrest Field. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 10/27/2021 - Marcus Winston wipes off tears during his sentencing on a manslaughter charge in the 2020 shooting death of Timothy Montgomery, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at Lancaster County District Court. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 11/06/2021 - Lincoln Lutheran players celebrate their victory against Kearney Catholic in the Class C-1 state volleyball championship match Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at the Devaney Sports Center. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
WILBER, NEB. - 11/08/2021 - Bailey Boswell walks into the courtroom for the sentencing hearing of the 2017 murder of Sydney Loofe, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, at the Saline County Courthouse. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 11/09/2021 - Mike Emmons of Lincoln paddles on a kayak as he fishes at Holmes Lake, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 11/23/2021 - Dawson ElDorado soars in the air as he practices his skateboarding skills while David Maya (from left) and Malcolm Opoku look on, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, at Tierra Skate Park. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
FAIRBURY, NEB. - 12/08/2021 - Fairbury's McKena Schramm does a headstand as girls wrestling coach Dom Cherry looks on during a team practice Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Fairbury. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
LINCOLN, NEB. - 12/17/2021 - Patrice Watson of Council Bluffs, Iowa, embraces her granddaughter, new Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Regan Holst, as her grandson Evan Watson, 8, looks on after the agency's graduation ceremony at the Capitol, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star
Best of 2021 photos: Eakin Howard
Humphrey, Nebraska - 06/03/2021 - Allison Weidner poses for a portrait on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in the St. Francis High School gym. EAKIN HOWARD, Lincoln Journal Star
Omaha, Nebraska - 06/21/2021 - Vanderbilt's Dominic Keegan (12) misses a foul ball on Monday, June 21, 2021, at TD Ameritrade Park. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 06/24/2021 - Tommy Shaw plays guitar for Styx on Thursday, June 24, 2021, at Pinnacle Bank Arena. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Seward, Nebraska - 07/04/2021 - Peter Seger (left) and Lena Hughes (right) compete during the championship round of the Bubble Gum Contest on Sunday, July 4, 2021, in the Bandshell. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 07/16/2021 - Larry Bartlett of the Lincoln Sport Parachute Club prepares to land with the American Flag the during the Opening Ceremonies of the Cornhusker State Games on Friday, July 16, 2021, at Seacrest Field. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 07/19/2021 - Marcus Williams helps Lydia Lucas try on her new hat at the Heads or Tails Hats booth at the NHSFR Rodeo & Horse Expo on Monday, July 19, 2021, at Lancaster Event Center. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 07/19/2021 - Clarke Gordon prepares to lasso his steer while competing in the Tie-Down Roping event during the National High School Finals Rodeo on Monday, July 19, 2021, at Lancaster Event Center. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 07/19/2021 - Jake Schlattmann gets bucked off while competing in the Saddle Bronc Riding event during the National High School Finals Rodeo on Monday, July 19, 2021, at Lancaster Event Center. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 07/29/2021 - (Left to Right) Ryan Kelly (11), Paul Warner, Sam Warner (12), and Ben Warner (10) roll up posters to keep them from blowing in the wind during Nebraska Fan Day on Thursday, July 29, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 08/09/2021 - Sophomore Genesis Springs stands on the field before warm ups during practice on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, at North Star High School. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 08/13/2021 - Saltdogs' Justin Byrd (21) fist bumps kids after signing hats, bats, and balls after the game on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, at Haymarket Park. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 08/14/2021 - RJ Morgan (3) plays with his B-29 model while he waits in line to tour the B-24 Liberator Diamond Lil with his father Elias Morgan on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, at Ross Aviation. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 08/14/2021 - Garth Brooks performs on stage during his largest ticketed concert on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 09/18/2021 - Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) hits the ball past Louisville's Amaya Tillman (25) in the first set on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Devaney Sports Center. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 09/19/2021 - Nebraska's Jordan Zade performs a flip throw-in during the a second half of their game against Purdue Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, at Hibner Stadium. Purdue defeated the Huskers 3-1. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 09/19/2021 - Purdue's goalie Marisa Bova lies on the ground after losing control of the ball as Purdue's Lauren Holleran falls on her and Nebraska's Kate Leachman (front) attempts to gain control of the ball in the second half on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, at Hibner Stadium. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 09/20/2021 - Waverly's Maci Steckelberg gets tagged out by Norris' Sage Burbach at first after attempting to steal second on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, at Waverly High School. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 09/25/2021 - Joey Pynes (left) reacts to a bad Huskers play in the 4th quarter on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at The Railyard. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Hastings, Nebraska - 10/15/2021 - Lincoln Southwest's Mack Mlnarik (left) and Anna Reiling (right) hug after winning the Class A state championship 16-7 over Lincoln East on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at Bill Smith Softball Complex. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Kearney , Nebraska - 10/22/2021 - Crawford's Jordyn Arens (637) leads the Class D qualifiers out of the start on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, at Kearney Country Club. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 10/24/2021 - Hannah Blythe and her step-daughter Stella Slattery observe the LPD/LSO Law Enforcement Memorial after a ceremony to commemorate the unveiling of the memorial on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, at Lancaster County Hall of Justice. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 10/29/2021 - Lincoln Lutheran's Max Bartels (10) runs into the end zone for a touchdown as Gordon-Rushville's Kyler Vincent (20) comes in for the late tackle in the first quarter on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at Seacrest Field. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Firth, Nebraska - 11/01/2021 - Norris senior Maisie Boesiger poses for a portrait on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, at Norris Middle School. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 11/06/2021 - Nebraska's JoJo Domann (13) breaks up a pass intended for Ohio State's Jeremy Ruckert (88) in the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 11/06/2021 - Omaha Skutt celebrates defeating Norris 3-1 to win the state Class B championship on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Devaney Sports Center. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 11/14/2021 - Nebraska's Bella Cravens (14) celebrates a foul by Alabama A&M's Darian Burgin (0) on Nebraska's Jaz Shelley (not pictured) in the third quarter on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, at Pinnacle Bank Arena. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 11/17/2021 - Nebraska's Peyton Robb celebrates defeating North Carolina's Austin O'Connor (not pictured) in the 157-pound weight class on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Devaney Sports Center. O'Connor is the NCAA 149-pound defending champion. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Madison, Wisconsin - 11/20/2021 - An official stands on the field during a media time out in the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at Camp Randall Stadium. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 11/26/2021 - Nebraska's Jaquez Yant (0) dives into the end zone for a second quarter touchdown against Iowa on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Lincoln, Nebraska - 11/14/2021 - UNL freshman Cooper Axe, a Business Administration major, poses for a portrait on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. "For me being a Husker fan is simply enjoying being a part of the husker family. This community is so amazing and energetic, being able to add to that spirit is what makes me a proud Husker fan." EAKIN HOWARD, Journal Star
Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.