Driving on I-80 towards Lincoln, 30 minutes east of Kearney, you come over a hill and see the village of Shelton. It only takes up one square mile of land and holds just over 1,000 people.
Shelton is a town you drive through without noticing, a town that looks like all the other towns you have passed on your trip through the state. What makes this town different from the rest, however, is a run of recent basketball success. Shelton has sent both boys’ and girls’ basketball teams to the state basketball tournament for the past two seasons.
It is hard enough for one team from a town to make it to state, let alone both. What makes this even more rare Shelton has done it for the second straight year. In 2022 the Bulldogs were just one of eight teams to send both boys and girls teams to that state tournament and just one of four teams that weren’t within 30 minutes of Lincoln or Omaha.
During the 2021-2022 season, the Shelton girls surprised many when they made it to the state championship game in their first-ever appearance in the state tournament in school history. The Bulldogs came up short in a 42-34 loss to Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family.
Shelton entered the 2022-2023 season with bigger expectations than it had in school history. Jeff Thober, head girl’s basketball coach at Shelton, said he believed that it really came down to taking just one game at a time this season while everyone looked toward the state tournament.
“Our expectations went up even higher this year,” Thober said. “We tried to take it one game at a time, but it seemed like we were looking forward to the end of the year and getting to the tournament to try to win us a championship.”
Taking it one game at a time proved to be a great recipe for the Bulldogs, as they rattled off 12 straight wins to start the season before they lost to Overton in late January. Shelton won 10 straight games to end the season with a record of 22-1 and was the No. 2 seed in the Class D2 State Tournament last month in Lincoln.
This season the mood for the Bulldogs was a little different from last year, in which the team was just happy to be there and took in everything on a wild ride to the championship. This season Shelton went with one thing on its mind: and that was bringing back the biggest trophy of them all.
“We knew it was going to be hard,” Thober said. “Once you get there, everyone you play is going to be hard.”
The Bulldogs took down their first opponent Wilcox-Hildreth with ease 52-22 to advance into the state semifinal round. There they faced eight-time state champion Wynot. Shelton fell short of the Blue Devils 43-36 to end their run for a second straight state championship game appearance.
While there was no shot at winning the trophy they had on their minds all season, the Bulldogs still had to play Humphrey St. Francis in the third and fourth-place games. Shelton came out victorious 48-43. Capping off their season with a 24-2 record.
Thober mentioned that no one really wanted to play St. Francis on that Saturday at Lincoln Northwest. Still, after the game, it was really a great time to reflect on the whole body of work that the seniors of this year’s team had done for Shelton basketball.
“This group of seniors have played four years and played since they were freshmen,” Thober said. “We talked about what we have accomplished and what we have done for Shelton basketball, it has just been tremendous and they should be really proud of what they have done and accomplished in that short amount of time.”
Unlike the girls, the Shelton boy’s team had been to state before but, until last season, hadn’t appeared in a state tournament since 1995, where it lost in the first round.
It was a storybook season and the Bulldogs made it to the state tournament as the No. 8 seed. The book’s last chapter came in the first round as Shelton lost to No. 1 seeded and eventual State Runner-Up O’Neill St. Mary’s 60-42.
Just like the girls, the boys took their successes from last year and used them to fuel this season. The Bulldogs lost their first game of the season to Elm Creek and then rattled off 22 straight wins. Shelton only had four games in that stretch where they didn’t outscore their opponents by more than 10 points. The Bulldogs finished the season 22-1 and earned the No. 2 seed in the Class D2 State Tournament as well.
“This year, everyone knew what we were expecting to do,” said Will Reutzel, head boys basketball coach at Shelton. “Everyone played and knew what we wanted to.”
After knocking off Santee in the first round 72-68, Shelton moved into the semifinal round and took on No. 3 seed and defending state champion Parkview Chrisitan. The Bulldogs fought hard and made their runs, but the Patriots proved too much, and walked away with the win 86-57.
Shelton moved into the third-place game, where it took on No. 5 seeded Sumner-Eddyville-Miller, who had just lost by three to No. 1 seed Wynot. The Bulldogs couldn’t get a bucket to go in the final second and lost 62-60 to finish fourth.
“It is something that we improved or worked to get to and that we should accept and be proud of,” Reutzel said. “Not every team gets a medal it should be seen as a special thing.”
While neither team won the state championship either year, it has still been one heck of a ride for the town of Shelton, and two years that are going to get remembered and talked about for decades to come.
“Small towns need this stuff,” Thober said. “This is what keeps small towns together and keeps getting us gathered for events.”
Thober joked a little bit that it is pretty special the town can shut down for a couple of weekends in March and come spend them in Lincoln. It is something that many in Shelton would love to keep on doing in the years to come.
At the boy’s state tournament, Shelton was honored with the sportsmanship award. For Reutzel, besides winning, taking home the award was something that he thought showed how much it meant for the school and the town to be at the state tournament.
“It shows some good aspects of our school and town that we were awarded that,” he said.
Not many towns in Nebraska can say it has had the best two-year run for the school and town like Shelton can. One thing is only on their mind, though, and that is getting back and bringing a state championship trophy back this time.