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Q & A with ... Markus Okeson

With three double-digit victories at this year's Class A boys' state basketball tournament, the Ellsworth Panthers were crowned champions for the second consecutive season under head coach Markus Okeson.

In just his third season at the helm of the Panthers, Okeson already has a pair of state championships and a state runner-up finish on his resume.

The Daily Globe spoke with Okeson days after state the tournament to bend his ear on the competition, the team's dress code and fan support.

Q: How did this year's tournament differ from last year's?

A: As far as the tournament itself, there isn't much difference when you come out on top both times. It's a great feeling either way to go 3-0 at the state tournament.

Q: Did you expect the competition to be a tighter than it was this year?

A: At the state tournament, you know it's going to be tough. I think our kids rolled through the challenges and played extremely well in the beginning and the end, and it worked out to our benefit. The way we worked through the state tournament and the way we played, we had them down and out to begin with. I think we came out in the championship game really determined. Our kids were focused, and they wanted to get a championship, and that's what happened for us.

Q: How did the fan support help fuel the team's efforts?

A: Our fan support is great. It felt like we had a lot more people everyday we played, and our kids really fed off the fans' energy. It was great to see all the fans from Ellsworth up there, and our kids just really appreciated the support. Anyone who could get up here did, and it seemed that we had a lot more than the 500 people that are the population of Ellsworth.

Q: After coaching Cody Schilling for four years, what's it been like to coach a player like him?

A: Unbelievable. As a head coach, you don't get to coach a lot of 3,000-point scorers, let alone a kid with over 1,000 assists. He's been a very special player, and it's going to be an odd feeling not seeing him in an Ellsworth jersey anymore. He's really grown over the years and is a great player and a great individual. He is very deserving of the AP Player of the Year and is very deserving of any honor he can get. He's put in the time and the effort to get those awards.

Q: Do you think Cody Schilling has been recruited as strongly as he deserves?

A: I think after the summer he was recruited very heavily. I think the vibe is that he wants to stay close to home so his parents can see him play, and he can see his little brother play as well.

Q: With Ellsworth players wearing shirts and ties before the game, and you wearing a tie on the sidelines, is dressing for success part of Ellsworth's game plan?

A: I tell my kids, everyday, that when they wake up and put the shirt and tie on they know its game day. I think we've drawn on that philosophy that they wake up every day going to school sometimes is a grind. But when they throw the shirt and tie on, they know it's game day, and I think it's a different mindset when they get up in the morning. It seems to carry on over the day. My seniors said they are going to miss putting on the shirt and tie weekly. It's nice to see.

I'll still wear (the championship tie), but that might be the big-game tie.

Q: How does Ellsworth's success affect area basketball teams outside of Ellsworth?

A: I just think they see what our kids do and maybe understand what it takes. Our kids put in a lot of hours outside of what I do. Obviously, I'm in the gym and they are in the gym, but they put in extra hours as well. I know our kids are friends with kids from the surrounding communities, so I believe they'll pick up on it. Southwest Minnesota is a hotbed for basketball. I think players in the surrounding communities will continue to put the time in and do what it takes to get to the top. Our Section (3) is deep. You take the top four, and you throw in R-T-R and Dawson-Boyd, and they could have competed up there just as well as we did.

Q: Do good coaches make good players, or do good players make good coaches?

A: I think it's a little of both. Obviously, to have quality teams you need to have good players, and you need that talent. But from a coaches' standpoint, you just need to corral it and get everybody on the same page, and let them run with it. They make the shots and make the plays, but I think as a coach you need to have a good game plan and have your players follow it. Our kids have bought into what I've preached and have done a nice job.

Q: With teams throwing every defense possible at your team this season, how difficult has it been to create game plans for your opposition?

A: We saw just about everything that you could imagine. We saw it all, and I told our kids that we need to focus on what we do and not worry about what they do. Our kids and coaching staff don't get all bent out of shape, saying 'oh my gosh, they're doing this.' We just worry about what we're going to do and what we can do better.

Q: At this point in your career, would you have ever imagined that you'd have two state championships and a state runner-up finish?

A: Not at all, not at this age. I just feel very fortunate to get the opportunity to coach the teams like I've coached. Many coaches coach their whole career and never make one state tournament, let alone win it twice. I feel very fortunate with the kids that I've been dealt.

Q: What's next for Markus Okeson?

A: Keep doing what we're doing and, hopefully, keep this ball rolling. We have the program built in Ellsworth where it needs to be built, and we have kids excited about playing basketball. Hopefully, we can keep this momentum of a state championship going into next season.

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