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Forget the win-loss record and the individual stats. Focus only on the energy, enthusiasm and encouragement that Nebraska’s four senior basketball players demonstrate every time they step on the Devaney Center court, or, for that matter, anyone else’s floor.
A big part of Division I basketball’s smallest team, the four seniors come to play every time they put on a practice uniform, let alone a game jersey.
Whether it’s Kansas or Oklahoma, Missouri or Kansas State, Texas or anyone else fighting for those top four spots in the Big 12 Conference, Nebraska will challenge you and fight you and do everything humanly possible to push you to the very end. The Huskers will dive for every loose ball and take a charge from someone twice their size. They will scratch and claw and compete like their lives depend on it.
So, please, erase all memories of the heartbreaks from 2008-09, and give it up Wednesday night when Ade Dagunduro, Steve Harley, Paul Velander and Nick Krenk play their last regular-season home game against Iowa State.
“Those four guys give you everything that you could ever ask for,” Nebraska Head Coach Doc Sadler said Monday. “We have a long way to go to be the program we want to be in the Big 12, but when you measure the hearts of those four guys, you’re going to look back at all four and understand how very, very important they’ve been in setting the foundation for us in the future.”
Lincoln Pastor Gives Huskers Highest Marks
Doc isn’t the only one who appreciates what the four seniors stand for and believe in. Jim Miller, the senior pastor at Lincoln’s Christ United Methodist Church, is a season ticket holder who’s been following Nebraska basketball closely since he was a student at Nebraska 43 years ago. In terms of endearment, guess where he puts this group of seniors?
“On the highest platform possible,” said Miller, who bases his basketball faith on more than winning. “I don’t ever remember being engaged to a team like I’ve been engaged to this one. They just might be my favorite team ever because they give every ounce of energy they have in them almost every time they step on the court. To me, that makes them fun to watch and easy to root for. They’re just so darn resilient, and isn’t that the truest test of character?”
“Absolutely,” Doc said. “When you get consistent effort even when things aren’t going like you want, you’re talking about high-character people. With as many disappointing defeats as we’ve experienced, we wouldn’t be able to compete like we have without that character.
“That’s why this group of seniors is truly special,” Sadler said. “Special groups sometimes get remembered best down the road, and I think this team will be remembered that way. When we all get together 10 years from now at a reunion party, we won’t be talking about what games they won or lost. We’ll be talking about how special they really are.”
They will be remembered mostly for the tone they’ve set and the work ethic they’ve built for other teams to follow.
Doc knows that most fans and almost all sportswriters measure value strictly in terms of wins and losses. “I understand that winning and losing is one of the most important things I’m judged on, but that doesn’t mean I have to judge the guys who play for me that way,” he said.
“I judge this team by the commitment they make and the effort they give every single day, and, believe me, these guys bring it every day,” Sadler said. “I’ll say this. I’m sure there are some teams in this league that are more talented than we are, but they haven’t won as many games as these guys have. That’s a real credit to the players and especially the seniors.”
The Foursome: Ade, Steve, Nick and Paul
All four are worthy of a closer, values-based examination.
Ade Dagunduro is a caring, compassionate, vocal leader. He’s all about his roots in Nigeria and talking about people who were born and raised in Inglewood, Calif., like he was. "I just want fans to remember me as a competitor," Ade said. "I tried as hard as I could – on and off the court – to represent my heavenly father, my family, my coaches and my teammates."
He has succeeded on all counts. “I look up to him like he’s my older brother,” Velander said, adding that Ade is a hard worker, a spiritual person and a competitor who loves his family so much that he talks to his brother (former Husker defensive lineman Ola Dagunduro) almost every day.
“If Ade respects you, he’ll do almost anything for you,” Krenk said. “He’s amazing to be around, and I’m proud to call him one of my very best friends.”
Steve Harley is the team’s "silent assassin". He doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s powerful and it’s meaningful. He’s a tough nut to crack – a quiet, intensely loyal person who doesn’t expect anything from anyone. He’s laid back and sticks to himself, but once he opens up, his teammates consider him funny.
“I just want to win – for the whole state of Nebraska, not just for the University of Nebraska, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Harley said, whether it’s scoring, rebounding or delivering the assist for Dagunduro’s game-winning layup last December against Creighton.
“I learned how to work hard here, and I love Doc for teaching me the meaning of character and the value of hard work,” Harley said.
“Steve respects everyone, but he doesn’t judge anyone,” Velander said. “That’s what I love most about him.”
Nick Krenk "works hard every day and even harder in the weight room," Harley said. "I’ve never seen that guy take a day off. Fans don’t know what they’re missing. Nick deserves the same ovation we get on Senior Night, if not more."
Dagunduro agrees. "We’re a group, and no one deserves any more recognition than anyone else," he said. "Nick is my brother for life. He’s the ultimate competitor. The way he gives himself up in practice is something to see – unbelievable really. I’ve never seen anyone give so much to help someone else get better. It’s a tribute to his character and a testament to his family."
Krenk commits himself to whatever he does. "We’ve had a lot of great discussions about philosophy, politics, religion and basketball," Velander said. "Nick fights hard for truth just like he fights hard for everything on the floor."
Paul Velander "is absolutely unbelievable," Dagunduro said. "I don’t know if I’ve ever met or seen a greater guy than Paul. Man, he’s so genuine, he’s just out of this world. He’s the ultimate team guy, if you will – the living example of what you want your kids to be . . . the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry. He’s an absolute joy to be around – a great leader with great character. He’s positive, intelligent and genuinely cares about everyone around him."
It’s hard to top that for sainthood, but Krenk still tries. "There’s not a nicer person in the world than Paul Velander," he said. "He would give you the shirt off his back and do absolutely anything for you. He will do anything for his teammates, anything for his friends and anything for his family. Talk to him for one minute, and you’ll see how straight his head is on."
A Firefighter, a Social Worker, a Coach and a P.A.
Doc Sadler doesn’t need character references for any of his four 2009 seniors. “They’re all going to be very productive people,” he said.
Harley wants to return to the Washington, D.C., area and become a firefighter like his mother.
Dagunduro wants to get his master’s degree and return to Los Angeles as a counselor or social worker.
A high school valedictorian, a member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and a soon-to-be first-team Academic All-Big 12 player, Krenk will pursue a master’s degree in psychology. Most likely, he will end up in coaching, although that’s not a certainty.
A soon-to-be three-time, first-team Academic All-Big 12 player, Velander also will pursue graduate school at Nebraska to become a physician’s assistant.
Whatever happens in their post-graduate pursuits, Sadler knows all four seniors have the tenacity to handle it.
“The beauty of athletics is it teaches you how to deal with heartaches and disappointments,” he said. “In today’s society, I’m not sure you see many parents who want to see their kids hurt. One of the areas that’s still real is athletics. There’s always going to be a winner and a loser, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t need to be protected from that.
“Some say it, but don’t really understand it – sometimes, losing can prepare you better for life than anything because it teaches you how to deal with it,” Sadler said. “If you deal with losing the way these guys have – by not complaining and not feeling sorry for yourself and getting back out there and working as hard as you can – well, I think that means good things are going to happen for all of them for a long, long time.”
Parting Shots From MLK to a Favorite Motto
Last week, we asked the four basketball seniors about their fondest memories while at Nebraska, and here’s what they had to say:
Steve Harley: "The thing that sticks out most for me was going to Ole Miss to play in the NIT last year. On the way, we ended up stopping at the hotel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Doc didn’t tell us where we were going, so I was little shocked when we first pulled up, thinking we might be staying there. Then we saw all the plaques and everything and realized where we were. All the old cars were still shining out in front, and it was set up just like it was in 1968 when Dr. King was shot (in the neck as he stood on the hotel balcony next to Jesse Jackson). It gave me chills, knowing MLK was there in that same place. It was an off-the-court highlight, but one that I’ll never forget."
Ade Dagunduro: "There have been so many fond memories, but my favorite was beating Oregon at the Qwest Center my junior year because no one expected us to win. Oregon came in ranked 15th in the nation, and our fans traveled through all that snow to get to Omaha. It was the first time our fans rushed the court, just like they did for the Texas game this year on Jack Moore Day. That was great, too. Our fans are so great, and I’m so glad I came to Nebraska. It was the perfect choice for me. I love the atmosphere and how much a player can grow here. When you can mesh with the coaches and play as hard as we do, it’s only a matter of time before we become as well known in basketball as we are in football."
Nick Krenk: "I’ve been with Paul for three years and with Ade and Steve for two years, and we’ve made bonds that will never be broken. I’m sure we’ll all go our separate ways, but I’ll do everything I can to stay in touch with every one of these guys. This whole team is close. I’ll never forget the memories we’ve shared and the experiences we’ve been through. My dad (former Husker walk-on tight end Mitch Krenk) always told me that the experiences are amazing and the relationships are forever. So this is really as much of a beginning as it is an end. I’m going to miss these guys like crazy, but we have some unfinished work to do first. We all think we have another run left in us, and it starts against Iowa State."
Paul Velander: "Senior Night is a culmination of everything, giving us the chance to look back where we’ve been and look ahead to the places we can still go. It’s a snapshot in time, where we can appreciate, give thanks and be a little emotional, but it’s still about giving everything we have to compete. Ultimately, this game really is all about energy, enthusiasm and encouragement, and so much of that comes together in a place like Nebraska. I hope people realize it’s not about stats, and it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about competing. When you can block out everything and focus on just competing, you’re in a special place with special people. I got my motto from Nick Krenk’s dad – ‘Do your best and forget the rest.’ I’m a walk-on, and the most special moment I have every game is competing with everything I have in me and putting everything else aside."
No wonder Doc Sadler and Jim Miller hold this team in such high regard. The head coach and the senior pastor see how the players have an implicit trust in each other, no matter what happens, and they know that that is, indeed, the ultimate test of character, now and in all the years ahead.