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03/10/2015 - From The Press Box: Northeast's Success Continues After More Than 65 Years

 Lincoln Northeast has and will forever always be known as a basketball school, period.

I've watched, lived and experienced the tradition of Rocket basketball.  Even though I was a contributor as a player (a backup role in four years), the thrill of wearing the jersey and being apart of a big ride is fulfilling enough.

I thought about my involvement of Northeast basketball when I saw Facebook posts over the weekend of former players posting pictures and old newspaper articles about the Rockets' run of success over the years.

We don't know much about the early days of Northeast basketball, other than in 1942 (the first year the school was open) they played Lincoln High in the Class A State Championship and lost 35-27.  

Dawdy Hawkins was coach from 1945 to 1949 and guided the Rockets to a runner-up finish in 1948 and the first state title in 1949.  Both happened in the middle of a 9-year run of appearing in the state tourney.

Hawkins, who was an All-American in football at Nebraska Wesleyan, left for a coaching job in Illinois and in comes the man who is forever linked to Northeast basketball.....Ed Johnson.

Born in 1921 in Brownington, Missouri, Johnson would go on and earn his undergraduate degree at Northwest Missouri State and his masters from the University of Missouri.  His first coaching stop was in Corning, Iowa before he accepted a teaching position and the head basketball coaching job at Northeast in 1949.

With a lot of talent left over from the 1949 state championship team, Northeast seemed destined to win again.  In Johnson's first year, the Rockets captured their second straight state title.  It was just the beginning.

In 38 years, Johnson would win seven total state championships, with three runner-up teams and 18 state tournament appearances.  When he retired in 1986, Johnson accumulated 505 wins.

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In the summer of 1986, the search was on to find Coach Johnson's successor. The man who was hired had played for Johnson at Northeast just 20 years before and had spent 12 seasons as an assistant at Omaha Westside and three seasons as a grad assistant Creighton University.

Rick Collura returned to Northeast to continue the winning tradition.  The style of play was slightly different, but more uptempo.  In his first season, Collura led the Rockets to the 1987 Class A State Championship game.  But the end result was Northeast losing to Norfolk 62-61.  Still, it was a sign of better things to come.

After finishing as runner-up in 1990 and 1994, with two missed trip to state in between, Collura coached Northeast to four-straight state titles between 1995 and 1998, capping off a 12-year run of what was a remarkable run by any program in the state at that time.

A change at the top came when Collura decided to step down and become an administrator at Northeast after the 1998 season.  Chip Bahe, a former Fremont High star athlete and football player at Nebraska, took over and had a team that went 16-7 and ended in the state semifinals, with a 97-89 double overtime loss to Bellevue West.

Bahe took the boys basketball job at Millard North in 2002, allowing Steve Bartek to take over the Northeast program.  His teams would make state tourney appearances in 2004, 2005 and 2006.  The Rockets would not make another return trip until 2014, when former Northeast guard and current coach David Mercer helped them to the district title.

Now at 20-5 and in Coach Mercer's 5th season, Northeast seems poised to make a statement in the loaded field of eight in Class A.

Norfolk, at 25-0, is the first round match up Thursday at 3:45pm, a team Northeast nearly knocked off three weeks ago (67-66 Panther win at Norfolk).

Two good coaching minds (Mercer and Norfolk coach Ben Ries) will go head to head.  The game should be a big draw.  

Regardless of the outcome, the 2014-15 season is a fine example of how Northeast basketball has come full circle since the days of Dawdy Hawkins and Ed Johnson.  Hardworking, blue-collar attitude can carry you a long way.  The Rocket boys basketball program is a fine example.

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