There were great duos in Class A before Hunter Sallis and Chucky Hepburn.
Kerry Trotter and Ron Kellogg in 1982 were a decade ahead of Andre Woolridge and Erick Strickland. They battled in high school. All four had stellar college careers. Strickland had a long stay in the NBA.
Hepburn and Sallis, however, have taken the state to new levels nationally with classic games, college attention and team rankings.
They gave us a Class A final for the ages, Millard North prevailing in overtime. Such a matchup in the title game didn’t happen for Kellogg and Trotter (theirs was a semifinal) or Woolridge and Strickland.
They will be the faces of an era that ranks as one of the state’s best.
For those reasons and more, in a break from tradition, the 107th All-Nebraska boys team has honorary co-captains.
Sallis was the state’s highest ranked college prospect ever, was on the Naismith All-America second team and selected for three national all-star events. He committed to Gonzaga in an event that made ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
Hepburn was the first three-time All-Nebraska first-teamer since Omaha Central’s Akoy Agau in 2013, and was considered the state’s best clutch player by many coaches. He committed to Wisconsin before his junior season.
How did an opposing coach, Omaha Westside’s Jim Simons, view them at season’s end?
“(Sallis is) the most talented player in the 2021 class,” Simons said. “(Hepburn is) a winner. Impacts winning in so many ways. Had the best high school career in the 2021 class.”
Two ways of measuring. Most talented player. Best high school career. So little to separate them.
And to think they could have been on the same team.
They played for Buffett Middle School but went separate ways for high school. They remain friends. When Sallis made his Gonzaga announcement last month in Millard North’s gym, Hepburn was in the audience.
“We have a great relationship,” Hepburn said. “We’ve known each other since like third grade, and we’ve always been close since we started playing basketball with each other. When we broke up around eighth grade and split to different teams, we kind of heard about it but we had to do what we had to do.
“But we didn’t allow that to affect our relationship.”
Another first for this All-Nebraska team (since coaches nominations of players began in 1939) is having two schools with pairs of first-team selections. Those are Millard North with Sallis and Saint Thomas and Bellevue West with Hepburn and Frankie Fidler. Thomas will announce his college decision April 10. Fidler signed with UNO.
The fifth member of the first team is most likely the face of next season, Grand Island’s Isaac Traudt. Blue-blood programs like Kansas have offered or are interested in the 6-foot-9 junior with seemingly unlimited shooting range.
“That’s an incredible group,” Millard North’s Tim Cannon said. “There’s a common thread here. Fidler’s improvement from junior to senior year. Saint’s improvement from junior to senior year. Traudt’s improvement.
“Hunter’s improvement is in areas other than scoring, that’s exactly the same (644 points each of the past two seasons), it’s rebounding, offensive rebounding, passing. And I think Chucky was a better player his senior year. That’s a huge credit to those two guys because it’s hard to get better when you’re already good.”
There was separation between the first team and the rest of the state. And on the three highest honor teams, only one player cracked Class A’s dominance.
On the second team are Carter Glenn of Lincoln East, Jasen Green of Millard North (the only other junior in the top 15), Denim Johnson of Omaha Central, Justin Sitti of Omaha Creighton Prep and Daniel Brocaille of Papillion-La Vista South.
Third-team selections are Pierce Bazil of Lincoln Northeast, Jadin Johnson of Millard North, Kallan Herman of Norfolk, Kwat Abdelkarim of Lincoln North Star and Cam Binder of three-time Class C-1 champion Auburn.
Nominations of coaches and observations of The World-Herald sports staff determine the All-Nebraska and all-state teams. All coaches were emailed nomination forms.
* * *
*denotes honorary captain
Millard North, 6-5, Sr., 22.2
After a reserve role as a freshman, Sallis grew several inches and became the Mustangs’ headliner. His 1,819 points rank third on the Class A career chart behind only Woolridge (1,911) and Strickland (1,907).
“Last year I felt like I matured a lot," Sallis said. “This year Saint was a big part of our team. Really the improvement was just how both of us played well with each other. A lot of teams don't play that good with two players, but I feel like we complemented each other perfectly. I feel that's a big reason why we won state.”
Sallis, 6-foot-5, was the first McDonald’s All-American from Nebraska since Trotter, and the first from the state to be considered among the country's top 10 players with the Naismith honor. He will play in the Iverson Roundball Classic next month after the McDonald’s and Nike Hoop Summit games were canceled.
He shot 58% from the field and 81% from the foul line as a senior.
*denotes honorary captain
Bellevue West, 6-2, Sr., 15.9
What couldn’t the 6-1 senior do well? He had seven double-doubles (of points and assists) this season and a triple-double at the most opportune time in the regular season, 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in an 81-69 win at Millard North in January when the Mustangs were undefeated and in the nation’s top 15.
“He’s the most impactful player I have coached," said Thunderbird coach Doug Woodard, who sent Creighton two starting point guards in Josh Dotzler and Antoine Young.
Hepburn finished as the school’s second leading scorer with 1,706 points, 20 behind Young, and is fifth on the Class A all-time list. Averaging 15.9 a game, his season high of 32 was timely again — it lifted West to an overtime win at Omaha Creighton Prep the night after his team’s win at Millard North.
Besides his record assist rate, helped by a stretch of 10 or more assists in eight of nine games midseason, Hepburn averaged 3.8 steals and 5.1 rebounds.
His best memories this season are of playing a loaded schedule that included beating Iowa large-school champion Waukee; giving national power Sunrise Christian a game before losing; and playing a combined five games against Millard North and Prep.
“It was just about going out, competing and leaving it all on the floor,” Hepburn said. “That’s probably the best I’ve ever played basketball my whole life.”
Millard North, 6-7, Sr., 21.2
Thomas, a 6-7 senior after growing seven inches in high school, beefed up his numbers from last season — 5.8 points a game to 21.2, 6.6 rebounds to 7.9, assists from 4.2 to 5.2 and 3-pointers from 36 to 82 — his accuracy on 3s improved from 33% to 45%.
Thomas had seven double-doubles and a triple-double against Omaha South. He set the school record with 48 points in a double-overtime win over Bellevue West for the Metro Conference tournament title.
“This year he just had incredible productivity with his scoring, and leading us in rebounds and assists. A lot of nights he had eight or nine assists and double-figure rebounds," Cannon said. “He just played so well. He’s just gotten taller, stronger, got into the lane so strong.
“This came from a guy who just played a few minutes as a sophomore. He had a good junior year, but he always kept working. He took advantage of COVID very well. As soon as he could, he was working out in the gym and he got straight A's the rest of the way and he’s always been a good student.”
All but 21 of Thomas’ 1,094 points were tallied in the past two seasons.