by Adam Gruenewald
With fall sports practices just around the corner, a familiar face will be noticeably absent.
Having moved on to play basketball at Dakota Wesleylan, 2017 Central graduate Kellen Erpenbach accomplished just about everything he could have hoped or wished for out of his high school sports and academic career.
The standout student, earning salutatorian honors, capped off his career last spring by qualifying for and taking part in the state golf tournament as an individual. He certainly has a bright future.
The Student Council president also was chosen as Central’s 2016 Academic All-Star and was recognized as a 2017 Scholar Athlete by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation.
Well after the accolades and closure of athletic seasons, Kellen was able to celebrate those accomplishments on June 16 with a graduation party with family and friends that featured a list of goals Kellen created when he was in sixth grade, and again as a freshman at Central.
Among those goals were to be a 3.8 student or above, earn a college scholarship in athletics, earn a college scholarship in academics, go to the state tournament in three different sports, become a 1,000 point career scorer and become the school leader in all-time assists. With getting married and having two kids still undetermined, the only goals he didn’t accomplish were attending Duke or the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship.
Those are the goals that Kellen looks back on now with a smile.
“I look back at some of them and am thinking that was a stupid goal, but some of them are good,” he said. “A couple of them I got to check off, so that was nice.”
DEVELOPING HIS SKILLS
It was in his home’s basement as a 3- or 4-year-old where Kellen first set out to accomplish the goals he would put down on paper later in life. His mother Sheila set up cones in the basement for basketball.
“I just loved those things and I’d be down there for hours every night down there dribbling,” he said. “Mom knew what it took to be good at basketball because she played it. Our basement wasn’t finished at the time, so I’d go down there and bang balls off the wall and it didn’t matter.”
Dribbling with his left hand or right hand at night for hours in zig-zags, Kellen first put in the practice solo untimed, before timing himself and then asking for his mom or dad to time him.
Eager to help out, and with his eldest sister Lexi already succeeding in basketball, his dad Ron, a former wrestler, realized his son’s skill years later.
“I didn’t realize how good he was until he played his first organized game in fourth grade,” said Ron. “He can dribble a lot better than every other kid out there. I didn’t know that until I saw him out there.”
Also at that age, Kellen was drawing the rivaled response of his older sister Lexi, as he would watch Sports Center every day when he woke up and whenever he would come home.
“I remember my sister saying ‘why can’t you be like a normal kid and just watch normal TV instead of Sports Center?’” he said.
Lexi, a basketball standout in her own right at Central, and Kellen would engage in furious 1-on-1 competitions as well with Kellen admitting she was able to beat him rather consistently until he was a fifth-grader.
“All of a sudden it got serious,” he said. “We got in a huge fight and then we played a couple of times after that, and she couldn’t beat me anymore and we barely ever played since.”
As Lexi is easily the better shooter, which Kellen readily admits, they still play the occasional game of HORSE.
The friendly rivalry continued too and after Kellen’s performance at the state golf tournament, Lexi joked on Facebook stating that “I might not be able to hit a golf ball as far as you, but I’m still a better shooter than you.”
The joke makes Ron smile.
“That’s just the kind of enjoyment those two have had and the pride they’ve had playing for Central Raiders,” he said. “I’ve been proud watching them play for Central Raiders.”
Kellen started hitting golf balls at age 5 as Ron and Sheila played a lot and extended the invite to the Glencoe Country Club for their son.
“When he was little I would tee off and wherever I hit he’d go from there,” said Ron.
Ron’s job as Central activities director certainly played a factor as well, with Kellen taking advantage of every opportunity to shoot in the open gym or spend time with coaches and around Central practices from the age of 7.
“He must have been smart enough to stay out of their way or they wouldn’t have let him in,” said Ron. “He was always asking me questions or them questions.”
Kellen was a true student of the game as he would watch 10 to 12 hours of game tape on every opponent, hit golf balls at Glencoe or practice dribbling constantly in the basement.
Kellen said his film study and his friendships with Brice Panning and other teammates and peers kept him playing football despite an injury his freshman year and his size. He was just 5-8 and weighed 130 pounds as a corner his sophomore year, before later playing quarterback his junior year and then corner and wide receiver his senior year.
“If my buddies are playing then I’m playing,” he said. “You can make up for speed and athleticism with smarts. I was a huge film watcher. I watched hours of film every night, so that’s what did it for me.”
Basketball remained Kellen’s passion though despite the fact he was not the largest or tallest kid in the gym. He utilized his honed skills to break his defender down to create for his teammates.
“For a long time it’s stuck with me that assists are better than points,” said Kellen, going on to describe a situation that occurred tons of times in his high school career that allowed post players like Brice Panning, Zach Schnabel, Zach Stockman and others to thrive. “If I knew I drove and got my guy, it would be a 2-on-1 situation and usually they’d come over and I could dump it off to the post. I got a bunch of assists that way.”
SHINING AT GOLF
In the truly individual sport of golf, Kellen shined in his final season after just missing the cut for the state tournament his junior year.
Ron and Kellen Erpenbach were quick to say they thought it would be an easier accomplishment than it was,
“His golf career has been a work in progress to grind out,” said Ron. “He played a lot of golf for fun, but not nearly the competitive golf that these kids he played against with have. As a sophomore he thought he was good enough to play in the state golf tournament, but then you realize you’re not. You’ve got to do some serious work on your game and to his credit he did that. He got some lessons and worked hard to make his swing dependable under pressure.”
At the section 2AA meet in New Prague on May 30, Kellen shot a 84 to qualify for the section final and was just 3 strokes off the pace to qualify for state.
Then on June 5, Erpenbach carded a 79 for a total of 163, good for fifth place overall and a state berth.
According to co-coach Ethan Black, highlights included a 39 on the front 9, a tough scramble to get out from some trees on 10 and a downhill putt for a birdie on hole 17.
“Towards the end he really had to make some good shots and make some big putts,” said Black. “He was clicking at the right time.”
Ron said his son played the last six holes as best as he could play, needing a birdie or two to make it to state.
“I say that was as tough of thing as I’ve ever seen him do,” said Ron. “He knew where he was at and there was no wondering ‘are we close to the cut line.’ He needed a couple of birdies and figured out a way to make them.”
With the final scores not tallied completely across the state, Kellen and Ron ordered food and not having much of an appetite, set out to the range to create a game plan for a potential playoff hole.
Planning for a par 5 hole, Kellen and Ron took just two clubs – a 3 wood and a 6 iron – to the driving range.
“He blistered about six or eight 3-woods, so I said we don’t need to practice that anymore,” said Ron. “Then he hit some 6 irons and they were left and right, so I said we better try to hone that shot… 10 minutes felt like two hours.”
The wait certainly paid off for Kellen and Ron, who were on the driving range together when the news of making it to state arrived.
“It was just dad and I on the range, and I’ll never forget that moment because Coach Black was by the scorers table waiting,” said Kellen. “It was just dad and I on the range and he got the text and looked down and started crying. I think that’s a good cry. He said ‘you made it buddy’ and gave me a hug, and that was a pretty nice moment.”
The father-son embrace hit home for Black as well, since his dad Brian put a golf club in his hands when he was 3. The early start led to his success as he went on to golf at Northwestern College in St. Paul.
“It’s been cool to work with Kellen, and also Ron, and see their relationship out on the course too,” said Black. “I’m very close with my father and we play golf all the time. To see that come to fruition and them accomplish the goal was a neat experience as co-head coach.”
With that goal finished, Kellen was able to take part in the Class AA state golf tournament at the Ridges at Sand Creek in Jordan held June 13 and 14, to cap off his high school athletic career.
While there, Kellen finished in 56th place overall as he shot a 80-81-161, above his season-long scoring average.
“He’s that athlete that persists through the difficulties,” said Black. “Even in his state round he didn’t swing the club that great for some of the holes, but he just kept pushing through and ended up with a decent score.”
The state experience is something Black said he will not forget.
“To see the last chance to make it to state and experience three days in tournament play at the highest level was a dream come true for me as a coach, but also for Kellen and his father,” he said.
As for his performance at state, Kellen said he didn’t play his best golf but was able to settle in in the extremely competitive environment.
“The first few holes were pretty nerve-wracking but after that I kind of settled in and trusted my swing and trusted what I saw,” he said. “That’s golf. You got to try and recover when you’re not hitting it where you want to be.”
More so, Kellen was able to enjoy the moment with the support of family, friends and coaches like basketball/football coach Tom Doyscher and former golf coach Mary Mitchell, as well as his dad and Central co-head golf coach Ron Erpenbach.
“It was nice,” said Kellen, adding the support has been consistent throughout his career. “At basketball games and all the other games, it’s nice having people there that support you and lift you up.”
Ron admitted that his son’s stubbornness, a trait he inherited from both his father and mother, resulted in two mental mistakes in the final round, but all was redeemed on the 18th hole in the “weird” final moments of his son’s career.
“Him and I have been grinding away at this since he was 6 or 7 years old and he’s done a lot of amazing things,” said Ron. “Walking up the 18th fairway with him was pretty surreal… He didn’t have as good a few days as he wanted but he hit a shot on the 18th hole as good as any kid in the state can hit and it was fun to watch him walk up that 18th. I had a little tear in my eye and he had one in his.”
“It was all kind of coming to an end so I wanted to take it all in and try and have fun with it. But in the back of your head it’s almost over so embrace it,” he said, adding he was grateful for the final moments with his dad. “That was the icing on the cake for that to happen. It worked out pretty well and that was super fun and I’ll always remember that.”
CONCLUSION OF SENYA GOLF
In qualifying for the state golf tournament, just the second golfer in Central history to reach that level along with Allen Van Dien in 2010, Kellen notably put the potential finishing touches on the Central golf program as well.
“It’s maybe the end,” said Ron, who was head golf coach just one season. “At least temporarily. I think maybe it will come back as the economy is better. We’ll get it back but it will be a lapse of several years.”
Black, who said that Sibley East will seek another co-op to continue their program, agreed.
“It’s hopefully something that golf can grow back and we can see numbers coming up in youth that want to play golf again but at this point the numbers aren’t there,” he said. “I’m thrilled that we were able to put a capstone on the program that was SENYA and have our most accomplished golfer accomplish his goals and doing so with a lot of grace and etiquette out on the course.”
QUARTET OF ALL-MRC, DISTRICT HONORS
Kellen’s performance on the links also capped off a particular noteworthy achievement in getting All-Conference in four sports – along with football, baseball and basketball – something that is unprecedented in the 53-year history of the Minnesota River Conference.
“It’s rarefied air,” said Ron. “The kid has as good a career as a male athlete could have ever had. There have been other good ones, but he has played in multiple state tournaments and multiple sports.”
Ron and Kellen were both quick to credit teammates for their role in making it happen.
“He played with good kids,” said Ron. “We were lucky with the kids he played with, and those kids also worked hard. He’s probably been the linchpin of a lot of that.”
Finding the time to excel in baseball and golf in the final season was a challenge, as he would go to baseball practice until 5:30 and then hit the links until 7:30 p.m. every day.
It was a challenge Kellen readily accepted, wanting to savor one last opportunity to baseball with his friends and also the fact that AAU basketball was out of the picture.
“When I was growing up, fifth grade, baseball was my favorite sport and we were really good when we were younger,” said Kellen. “I had a couple of buddies like (Zach) Stockman and Carter (Clemensen) and MJ (Matthew Johnson) and even Brice (Panning) and Hunter (Rickaby). I just wanted to play one more time with those guys. Those were really my close buddies so when I joined golf, I wasn’t with them as much in the spring. I thought it would be fun to have one last go with that and also play golf.”
His competitiveness and willingness to put forth extra effort was something co-head coach Ethan Black saw daily, sharing that Kellen was not only athletically skilled, but Kellen had a “great mindset” for golf.
“He put in tons of extra hours,” said Black. “After baseball practice he’d come out to the driving range and hit balls and play golf on the weekends. He had one round this year where things didn’t go the way he wanted to, and he was right back out there with his dad an hour later trying to figure out what went wrong and they got it all figured out.”
Then there were the academics that Kellen fit into his schedule, taking on demanding college courses and finding a balance.
“I made sure when I got home then I really hunkered down on those tests,” he said. “My schedule was too rigorous to even do daily work all the time. I had to make sure I’d do well on those tests and do daily work so I knew what I was doing.”
In the end, Kellen wound up salutatorian of his class.
“There’s no sense in getting caught up in it (class rank) and you work as hard as you can and live with the results,” he said. “You have got to try and balance your academics and your athletics, and I think I did it pretty well.”
Whether it was making the state tournament in football in 2016, scoring 1,000 points and having a successful season in basketball, or in his senior season in baseball, Kellen found success.
Pushing himself earned Kellen the respect of not only his teammates and fellow students, but coaches as well.
Football coach Gary Kosek, who along with previous head coach Paul Henn provided guidance on the gridiron, was quick to praise the standout quarterback turned corner and wide receiver.
“Kellen is everything you want in an athlete, great teammate, leadership, tremendously talented and he’d outwork and out think the competition,” said Kosek. “His production gave him credibility, but his character made him great.”
Baseball coach Jon Wroge added his praise for Kellen, who made the time to play second base his senior year. In his return season to baseball, Erpenbach hit .440 and was third on the team with 10 runs scored.
“It has been a joy to get to coach an athlete like Kellen,” said Wroge. “I have had a few in the past years like Brice Panning, Isaac Hormann, Carter and Casey Clemensen and Kellen who just get it. They play the game the right way and compete like crazy. It has been a privilege to see him grow and these other student athletes as well.”
It was basketball though where Kellen truly excelled and thrived.
Basketball coach Tom Doyscher, who along with previous head coach Nat Boyer, saw Kellen’s impact on his teammates as the floor general.
In his senior year, Kellen Erpenbach was Central’s leading scorer at 17 points, with 7 assists per game and also became the sixth Central boys player to reach 1,000 points on Saturday, joining Pat Will (1987), Layton Schlueter (1992), Jason Zehnder (1995), Spencer Nelson (2011) and Brice Panning (2016).
Erpenbach also most likely set the unofficial school record in career assists.
“Kellen studied every sport he played at a depth that most kids don’t,” said Doyscher. “He welcomed the challenge of the big moment. He was a person that kids could look up to. He was a joy to coach.”
While he was recruited to play golf and football as well this fall, basketball overwhelmingly won out as Kellen will take to the court at Dakota Wesleylan in the fall.
Not surprisingly, he already has a golf membership in Mitchell, and already he is making a new list of goals, whether it is going into business, working on his MBA during his fifth year of college and maybe going into college coaching.
Above all, he wanted to thank his family, friends, teammates, coaches and supporters.
“Special thanks to the community and the fans and all the support they gave me over the years,” he said. “It means a lot.”
As empty nesters, Ron said he and Sheila will certainly make the effort to follow their son’s continuing successes.
“My wife and I will have a lot more free time in some regards,” he said. “Every Saturday next winter we’ll be driving to Nebraska or Ohio or South Dakota or North Dakota to watch him play.”
As his dad, Ron has no doubt in his son’s future success with Kellen is willing to put in the work to accomplish his early goals.
“For that little kid at age 9 or 10 to write those goals down,” said Ron. “They hung in his room and they’re still in his room. He’s always had a plan and worked hard to follow that plan.”
Follow Adam Gruenewald on Twitter @adamgruenewald.