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BOYS' BASKETBALL: Ellsworth's Curt Schilling still looking for first championship

Matt Huss/Daily Globe Ellsworth assistant coach Curt Schilling (left) greets Matt Buntjer during Friday's semifinal game in the Class A boys' basketball tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- As the time ran out Friday in Ellsworth's 62-53 victory over Ada-Borup in the semifinals of the Class A boys' basketball tournament, Casey Schilling strolled toward the bench and shouted in celebration.

An Ellsworth assistant fired a piercing look in the freshman guard's direction and said, "We have one more game left, one more game!"

The warning immediately quieted Schilling, who took a seat on the bench and watched in focused silence as the final seconds ticked away.

The assistant's words had a great and immediate impact on Schilling for two big reasons: First, they came from somebody who's been in Schilling's shoes before. Secondly, they came from Schilling's older brother.

Curt Schilling has returned to the biggest stage in Minnesota high school basketball -- this time as a coach. A 2004 graduate of Ellsworth High School, Schilling led the Panthers to their first trip to the state tournament, in 2003. Schilling and the Panthers lost to Mankato Loyola in the championship game, and the junior guard was "devastated," but the trip paved the way for Ellsworth's recent dominance.

"His class in 2003 -- that was the group that started it all at Ellsworth," Panthers head coach Tyler Morris said.

The Panthers are making their fourth consecutive appearance in the state tournament. At noon today they will face undefeated Granada-Huntley-East Chain, with a win giving them their third consecutive Class A title.

"I don't say, 'If I wouldn't have been here, none of this would have happened no matter what,'" Curt said. "I think it definitely opened these kids' eyes to say, 'Hey, if we put the work into it like he did, we can maybe get there, too.' That's just how I look at it, by just saying, 'Hey, this is what hard work and dedication can do for you.'"

Curt's younger brothers followed his example.

Cody Schilling starred on Ellsworth's championship teams the past two years and finished his high school career as Minnesota's all-time career scoring leader. Now a starter at Augustana (S.D.), he was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference's freshman of the year and came within one victory of reaching the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

Casey is playing an integral part in Ellsworth's current tournament run. A starter, he scored a combined 27 points on 9-of-14 shooting in the first two games of the state tournament.

"Curt kind of started the whole basketball thing for our family; he got me and Casey going," Cody said. "When Curt was an eighth-grader, freshman on varsity, I was like a fourth- or fifth-grader, and I was always looking up to him and learning stuff from him. And I think when I was on varsity, Casey looked up to me. And now, with Casey playing varsity as a freshman, he kind of looks up to me and Curt, and he's willing to learn stuff from us every day. He's trying to become the best player he can become, and I think the three of us, we just kind of help each other."

Said Casey, referring to Curt: "We get into it a little bit sometimes, but it's great. He helps me a lot. He's been a great inspiration."

The Schillings' story has all the storylines of a Hollywood sports movie: Their mother, Carla, was a high school star on the hardwood. She holds the all-time career scoring record for the Little Rock (Iowa) Rockets -- a feat that isn't in any immediate jeopardy, since Little Rock now is a cooperative with George. Their father, Clayton, who also played high school basketball, nailed a hoop to the barn on the family farm in Ellsworth. First came Curt, who spent hours shooting in the yard before, during and after chores needed to be done. Next came Cody, who teamed with Clayton in two-on-two pickup games against Curt and Carla in the driveway.

"It all started when I was really young," Curt said. "It seemed like we always had a hoop on the barn somewhere, nailed up to a door. I was always asking my dad to put a hoop up here and a hoop up there. That's how it kind of started, through my family. All of my cousins and everyone played basketball, and there was always some type of game and it was always competitive."

The most competitive battles involved Curt and Cody. The lifetime series is somewhat lopsided -- depending on whom you ask.

"We had some great battles," Cody said. "In my sophomore or junior year of high school, I finally started beating him a little, one-on-one."

Curt remembers things differently.

"I don't think I've ever lost to Cody in a game of one-on-one," he said. "I don't recall that one."

Still, Cody has something Curt is still seeking: a championship.

Curt was called up to varsity a handful of games into his eighth-grade year before starting as a freshman. He was a three-time Camden Conference MVP, and Ellsworth went 72-16 in his career on varsity. In his senior season, despite missing the first nine games while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during football season, he recorded 16 double-doubles and averaged 25.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He finished his high school career with 2,255 points.

At Northwestern (Iowa) College, a championship continued to elude him.

His team reached the national tournament four times, reaching the Final Four twice but never the championship game.

"It would have been really awesome to get that ring the first time, especially since it was the only time we ever went to state," Curt said. "And then, going from high school to college and coming really close two different times and never getting that ring, it kind of hurts a lot more now than it did then because I never got a ring in college, either. You don't play basketball just to play, you play to win -- that's what I always did. I played for championships, and that's how I always looked at basketball -- as to win championships. Coming close so many different times, it kind of got pretty devastating there for a little while."

Now he has another chance, albeit in a different role.

Curt graduated from Northwestern last year with degrees in coaching and elementary education. He returned to Ellsworth to farm while working at the elementary school half-time, and he quickly got a job as the junior high basketball coach.

After Ellsworth's first game of the season, Morris asked Curt to be his assistant coach.

"The guys know him really well, and the guys know he's been there," Morris said. "He's been on this stage before, and I think he's just another great addition to the program."

It's because Curt has been in Ellsworth's current situation before that he won't let Casey and the Panthers take anything for granted.

"I don't think I was a guy who was ever satisfied with what I did; I always thought I could do something better or be something better," Curt said. "... I'm always trying to put things in perspective. We haven't accomplished anything yet until we get one more win.

"I try to help these young guys with things like that, like saying, 'OK, guys, let's not get overconfident here. We're going to the championship, sure, but we're going up against a great team, so keep it in perspective and bring your 'A' game (today).'"