MITCHELL – The well-appointed Mitchell weight room was the ideal setting for this year’s Elite 45 captain to talk about what it was like to play football for the state champion Kernels this season.
There was a unique level of togetherness, he said, built in part right there where he was sitting. They’d all brought a positive attitude to the grind just as they’d brought a mutual appreciation for the role one can play in promoting a culture of success within a program that had suffered through a slump of interminable length and depth.
It wasn’t just Spencer Neugebauer’s 42 touchdowns that made the Kernels go this, year and it wasn’t just a dedication toward lifting weights that made that happen. To hear the coach tell it, the school’s first-ever title run was more of a lifestyle than it was a series of completed tasks.
MEET THE TEAM: Argus Leader Elite 45
“You go through years where you have to call alumni and even younger kids to show up to help at our football camps,” said Mitchell coach Kent VanOverschelde, a former Kernel himself. “Sometimes you just have those years. This group of guys? You text one of them about helping out and six are going to show up.”
A natural leader
The coach’s praise of his star running back starts with football, but it never ends there because this is a kid who hits all the targets. Good handshake, he looks people in the eye, he spreads the wealth in praise of his teammates; in short, he walks the walk.
“It would be a quarter after seven, we’d be done with practice and I’d be saying, ‘Let’s go guys, let’s get out of here,’” VanOverschelde said. “They’d be hanging out, maybe 10 or 15 of them. Spencer was their ringleader. He has that personality – people want to be around him. There’s that trust. Just a tremendous young man.”
The Kernels won the Class 11AA football title this year with a 41-6 win over Harrisburg at the DakotaDome, marking the first time since the state began using a playoff system that Mitchell, known forever as a basketball town cranking out 20-win seasons for the late Gary Munsen at the Corn Palace, had won a football championship.
This was a long time coming both from the perspective of someone who’d watched the Kernels play football for decades, as well for the kids themselves, who’d never seen it come close to happening in their lifetimes.
“We had a salty little team in middle school,” Neugebauer said. “And everybody around town said, ‘Oh, you guys are capable.’ So we knew we were capable, then we just continued to put in the work and it all paid off in the end.”
Did it ever. The Kernels opened the season with a 27-10 loss to Harrisburg and then commenced to bulldozing opponents with the 6-1, 185-pound Neugebauer at the center of it, piling up 2,191 yards rushing and 42 touchdowns with an instinctive knack for finding the right path to the open field.
It didn’t hurt that the team’s best player was its hardest worker — and probably its toughest-minded, too.
“We were up in Brookings and Spencer was running the ball along the sidelines and got hit out of bounds,” said Jed Schmidt, a friend and teammate who has been playing sports with Neugebauer since third grade. “We felt he got piled on late. Spencer gets up, hands the ball to the ref and runs back to the field. One of our linemen came over and said something, though. We got called for an unsportsmanlike penalty and they called it on Spencer thinking he was the one who said it.
“He just went back to the huddle and got the ball again,” Schmidt continued. “This time he took it about 80 yards to the house — he must have broke four tackles. That’s how he responds to things like that. Doesn’t say anything, just takes it to the house.”
The symmetry of the Kernels’ title run went a little over the top when it was Harrisburg waiting for them at the DakotaDome for the championship. All the lessons learned in Game 1 could be directly applied in this case.
“All we heard after that Harrisburg game was, ‘Mitchell hasn’t played anybody,’” Neugebauer said. “So to come out and get that victory was icing on the cake. We were able to establish a lot of things right there.”
Neugebauer broke the Mitchell record for single-season yards and career yards, finishing with 3,658. He set the single-game record too, running for 325 yards in a semifinal win over Pierre, and then he closed it out with 236 yards – an 11AA record for a championship game — in the win over Harrisburg.
“It’s been really exciting to see him perform the way he has,” VanOverSchelde said. “You think back to the potential we saw in him as a freshman and a sophomore, and then we saw him really come on as a junior and a senior. You look at the amazing numbers our football team has put up, but Spencer himself set the bar really high as far as future running backs and future teams. Really high.”
Learning the ropes
It didn’t start that way. Neugebauer is an all-around athlete who plays baseball, hockey and competes in track, but as a middle-school kid he was fast — he’d earned the nickname “Speedy Spencer” — but was not quite physically ready to get a lot done.
“It wasn’t that he wasn’t any good,” VanOverschelde said. “But you think about seventh-graders who are 5-7 and shaving every day – and then they look the same physically five years later. Nothing against those kids, but Spencer wasn’t like that.”
He shot up five inches as he entered high school, maintaining a well-rounded athletic life while spending a lot of time in the Mitchell weight room. As he contemplates where he’ll be play college football, he remains more of a lean running machine than the burly 18-year-old who could pass for being 25.
“I think there is great upside for him,” VanOverschelde said. “He’s still developing, he’s still growing. He’s going to continue to grow and mature physically in college.”
Emotionally, it’s a little different. That’s where he’s developed past the typical teenager.
“I’ve coached him in baseball,” VanOverschelde said. “Baseball is about failure. I’ve seen the way he handles those ups and downs. And then he applied that to the football field. Our team fed off that patience and that confidence: We’re going to battle, we’re going to adjust and eventually things are going to break through for us.”
The Kernels had a 13-6 lead at halftime against Harrisburg in the final, having given up a touchdown on a blocked punt. The Spencer Neugebauer Show the Kernels were banking on had yet to materialize.
The Kernels scored three times in the third quarter with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Kiel Nelson to Cody Reichelt followed by touchdown runs of 40 and 83 yards by Neugebauer. The last one in particular was a gut-buster.
“We’d kicked the field goals and we’d scored a touchdown and then we gave up the blocked punt,” VanOverschelde said. “There wasn’t any reaction from the team other than, ‘Hey, we’re going right back to work.’”
Watching the game on television that Friday night was Luvern “Buddy” Neugebauer, Spencer’s 81-year-old grandfather who was suffering from cancer.
Buddy was there in person for Spencer’s 325-yard effort against Pierre, but didn’t feel well enough to make the trip to Vermillion. By Sunday, he was gone.
“Everyone on the football team knew him,” Spencer said. “He was on the Ethan Fire Department, he was on the township board — everybody south of Mitchell knew him. There was about a thousand people at his wake. That was something special to have that many people there.”
During on-field interviews after the win over Pierre, Spencer glanced past the reporters and saw his grandfather in the background taking in the scene.
“He thought that was the coolest thing ever to see his grandson doing interviews,” Spencer said. “He was standing right there with the biggest smile on his face. It was something special that he wanted to see. And then he hung in there to watch the final. He took great pride in our football team.”
Neugebauer, who has a 3.67 GPA, had not yet decided where he wants to play college football – he’s had conversations with SDSU, Dakota Wesleyan and Augustana, among others — but intends to pursue an agriculture business degree and eventually help out with his extended family’s farming operation.
It wasn’t a bad way to grow up if you want to see how a football team should work, he said. There is teamwork, cooperation and a resolve to get things done, much like he experienced with the 2016 football team.
“These guys have been my best friends since seventh grade, in football and out of season as well,” he said. “It’s just not football that brings us together, but football has that bond – everybody has one common goal.”
SPENCER NEUGEBAUER FILE
POSITION: Running back / linebacker
SIZE: 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
HIGHLIGHTS: Helped lead the Kernels to their first championship in the playoff era. Neugebauer, a senior, broke the single-season touchdown record with 42 touchdowns. He also set Mitchell records for career rushing (3,658), single-season rushing (2,191), single-game rushing (325), career scoring (65 touchdowns) and sits 11th all time in school history with 162 tackles for a career.
AWARDS: Two-time All-ESD member and two-time Class 11AA All-State performer.