Clark Grell: Much like this year’s unique state setup, a fantastic Nebraska playground project brings boys and girls together | Basketball Boys

Alyssa Fortik loved basketball so much that she didn’t care who she played with or against growing up.

At recess, Fortik planted the boys’ party, and planted the boards, on the concrete slab. She wanted to play ball.

“I would definitely play with all the boys because all the girls would sit and talk,” said intrepid junior point guard Malcolm. “I would play football and I would play basketball…

“I would say the guys are just built for pickup games, so it was really fun to hang out with them.”

When the state basketball tournament begins Monday in Lincoln, the boys will hang out with the girls and the girls will hang out with the boys.

They won’t share the same basketball, but they will share the limelight for six consecutive days.

For the first time, the girls’ and boys’ basketball tournaments will take place in the same week instead of following the usual two-weekend format. Because Pinnacle Bank Arena was needed this weekend for the Big Ten Wrestling Championships, the NSAA had to find a one-year solution.

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When a first-round match between the boys from Bennington and Platteview wraps up Monday morning, the next group to take the stage at Pinnacle Bank Arena will be the girls from Millard South and Bellevue West. Championship Saturday is now a two-day crowning event. Three girls’ teams and three boys’ teams will be crowned champions on Friday. Six more will cut the nets on Saturday.

It will be different. A bit chaotic. But, man, it should be fun. If you like binge-watching basketball, grab a big popcorn and a box of M&Ms.

Think about it: there will be 96 teams in Lincoln to start the week. That means plenty of opportunities to watch many of the state’s elite players.

Some of them joined the Journal Star on Thursday night for a cool little project – the Prep Extra playground project. We asked eight players, four boys and four girls, to draft their playground teams, choosing players from across the state.

William Kyle (Bellevue West), Connor Millikan (Platteview), Cale Jacobsen (Ashland-Greenwood), Jacob Sjuts (Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family), Taylor McCabe (Fremont), Britt Prince (Elkhorn North), Bailey Kissinger (Hastings St. Cecilia) and Fortik (Malcolm) are talented basketball players.

From top left to right, Luke Mullin and Clark Grell of the Journal Star are joined by players: Connor Millikan (Platteview), Cale Jacobsen (Ashland-Greenwood), Jacob Sjuts (Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family), Bailey Kissinger (Hastings St Cecilia, Taylor McCabe (Fremont), Britt Prince (Elkhorn North), William Kyle (Bellevue West) and Alyssa Fortik (Malcolm) participate in a virtual playground draft on Thursday on Zoom.

Lincoln Journal Star

You know what? They are also very good talent scouts.

Their homework: Imagine you are a playground captain and you have to choose four players (two boys and two girls) to team up with. With the entire state at their disposal, our captains have been tasked with building an elite team for pickup play.

Fortik, who had the first pick (No pressure, Alyssa!), took on Grand Island star Isaac Traudt with the No. 1 selection overall. Our eight playing field captains agreed the rookie from Virginia was the consensus No. 1 pick.

Millard North’s Jasen Green was also quickly removed from the draw.

Class C-2 standout Sjuts hadn’t seen her in person, but he knew and had seen enough clips of Inia Jones to select Omaha Central’s second point guard from Class A. Prince can play most of his games near metro Omaha, but Elkhorn North’s second-year standout knew Bridgeport’s Ruthie Loomis-Goltl would make a good first-round selection.

By the time the draft was complete, players from Class A to Class D-1 were selected.

Like Taylor McCabe from beyond the arc, our eight playing field captains were tight in their picks (you can watch video of the entire draft on

Through it all, it was fun to see four boys and four girls from multiple classes come together in one place (thank goodness for Zoom). Soon these eight players will be together in another location (Lincoln). They each have different backgrounds and different skills, but the goal is the same.

For many of them, their love for basketball began on the playgrounds of their respective cities and neighborhoods. In Jacobsen’s case, it was the gymnasium at Ashland-Greenwood, where his father was the head coach, and of course, down the driveway at home.

“It was one-on-one battles,” Jacobsen said of going one-on-one against his brothers. “When I train with my older brother, we end the workouts with winners most of the time. Yeah, it’s something you’ve always dreamed of and always thought about.”

On a Thursday night, Jacobsen, who plays in the C-1 class, and our seven other playground draft captains came from different schools, different classes and different genders for a light and fun activity. They shared the stage, if there is such a thing on a Zoom call.

In a few days, they’ll be sharing the Lincoln stage. Boys and girls. The girls and the boys.

Just like on the playground, everyone is welcome.

Contact Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.

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