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Chris Murphy, Published March 11 2014

Falcons boys basketball team reaps benefits of work ethic

MOORHEAD – In a 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated, San Antonio Spurs guard Doc Rivers said of teammate Avery Johnson: “People make the mistake of underestimating him because he’s a Christian. But he’s the first to remind us, ‘Don’t confuse being a Christian with being soft.’ ”

Moorhead Park Christian center Hunter Nickel laughed Monday when asked about the stereotype that religious athletes are soft.

“We’re still guys,” Nickel said at practice preparing for Thursday’s Minnesota Class 1A quarterfinal matchup with No. 1-ranked Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa. “Obviously, we have different beliefs, but we hit just as hard and we play just as hard.”

Nickel has the third-most blocks in a season in Minnesota high school basketball history, trailing Brad Kline’s 225 with Nevis in 2002 and Joel Przybilla’s 267 with Monticello in 1997.

Ask the players on the other side of Nickel’s 219 blocks this season if he’s soft. Or the players who have to fight with him for his more than eight rebounds a game.

Ask Nickel what he thought about waking up in the summer for basketball open gym from 6 a.m. until 8 a.m., lifting until 9:30 a.m. followed by five or six hours of mowing lawns and capping off a relaxing day with football practice. See who is soft then.

“They were very long days, but it was really fun,” Nickel said. “Just hanging out with your friends and getting work done.”

Half of that sounds about right for a high school summer. The other half is what separates the mindset of an athlete from the norm.

Park Christian leading scorer Matt Moberg had the same schedule as Nickel, including mowing lawns. Mixed in for Moberg was a trip to San Diego for service hours, which all Park Christian students must do. They are required 80 hours of service in four years.

“It was nice having to get up that early because then you can get things done afterwards,” said Moberg, who is averaging close to 17 points a game for the Falcons. “We’ve always been doing that. It’s just our summer. Nothing too special.”

The winningest basketball coach in North Dakota State history thinks differently.

“I credit these kids getting up every morning,” Park Christian coach Erv Inniger said. “The ones that actually moaned the most were the parents because they had to drive them. It was quite a feat and I don’t think many programs do that. Those mornings are how I got to know the kids.”

Inniger had coached 23 years of college basketball. What he didn’t know when he took his first job coaching high school basketball was there is no summer vacation.

“I just figured I’d be coaching from November to March for four months,” Inniger said. “I called my son, Bart, and told him I was going to take the job and he said, ‘Dad, you’re crazy. You know you have to have open gym all summer because everybody else is going to do it?’ I did not know that.”

Park Christian will make its first appearance at the state tournament when the Falcons step on the Williams Arena floor at 11 a.m. Thursday.

All the Falcons had to do to get there was knock off the last remaining undefeated team in Minnesota boys basketball in No.

2-ranked Battle Lake.

“We’ve kind of been underdogs all the way here,” Inniger said. “You got to play the No. 2 team and now we get the No. 1, so obviously there isn’t a lot of respect for us right now.”

The Falcons are handling it just like they handle any stereotype of being soft.

“Just because we’re a Christian school doesn’t mean we’re going to compete at a lower level,” Moberg said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to come at you with all we have. Just cause we’re Christian doesn’t mean we’re going to be nice.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548