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Weskan (Pop. 393) Knows a Winner

Little Kansas town is home to 6-foot, 165-pound Okeson, one of the reasons Nevada is a big surprise.

March 23, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

There won't be thousands cheering on Todd Okeson from Weskan, Kan., Friday as the local farm boy tries to take Nevada deeper into the NCAA tournament.

That's because Weskan's population is only 393.

The enrollment at Weskan High School is a mere 42, and folks say it might have been 38 or 39 when Okeson was there.

Is it any wonder the 6-foot, 165-pound guard didn't get a single NCAA Division I scholarship offer out of high school?

"I was from too small a town. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't big enough," said Okeson, a senior who spent two seasons at Dodge City Community College in Kansas before he got out of Dodge and landed in Reno.

He might have been one of the last players picked in the recruiting wars, but Okeson is still playing after 49 other starting point guards have gone home.

Among them is Blake Stepp, the Gonzaga star Okeson thoroughly outplayed in a second-round upset, scoring 19 points with three three-pointers, seven assists, four rebounds and only one turnover.

Back in Weskan, the phone at Darrel and Connie Okeson's house keeps ringing.

"We went to church and got home and there were three messages," said Todd's father, Darrel, who grows wheat, corn and sunflowers on the family farm.

"Then we went to the closest place to shop, about 45 miles away, to go to Wal-Mart, and we came back and there were three more."

You would think they'd praise young Todd's success from the pulpit at Bethany Lutheran, but Darrel said there was no need.

"They're only 10 people in our church, but they're all family and we'd already talked about it," he said. "I guess there are two people who aren't related, but our pastor who lives 45 miles away had already called.

"There are a lot of people really excited about the town of Weskan being mentioned on CBS and ESPN."

Todd, one of three children, grew up passionate about Jayhawk basketball, even though Lawrence is 378 miles away. When Nevada played Kansas in December in a holiday tournament in Reno, he could hardly contain himself.

"That was a dream come true," Okeson said. "I told my teammates before the game to come get me if I started warming up with them."

Talk about dreams come true. The Wolf Pack upset the Jayhawks, 75-61.

Playing in the NCAA tournament once seemed a dream Okeson couldn't hope to achieve.

His junior and senior years in high school, he was the leading scorer in the state and had several 40-point games, but few recruiters came calling in his west Kansas town, a few miles from the Colorado line.

"Me and my high school coach sat down and made a list and sent tapes out," Okeson said. "I couldn't even say how many. Over 25 probably. It was a big list."

Still, nothing.

"I took the juco route," he said

At Dodge City, he averaged 14 points a game, shot 49% from three-point range and got lucky: Chris Tifft, a Dodge City assistant coach who was a former Nevada player and assistant, thought he had a future and told Nevada about him.

Coach Trent Johnson knew he had found a player.

"In the Midwest, there's so much basketball being played. Kids play all the time," he said.

"I think, sometimes as coaches, we recruit kids with too much emphasis on who's big, who's strong, who can run and jump. But it's not track, it's basketball. Trust me, I was one of the guys who could run and jump and couldn't shoot. I don't want a bunch of those guys on my team."

What he has in Okeson is a gamer of a point guard. Like a lot of guys who have played for Kansas and Indiana over the years, he looks for all the world as if he can't play -- until the game starts.

"I'm a tough guy. I'm from western Kansas. I can take a beating," Okeson said.

He remains a Jayhawk fan -- and if both teams were to win their next games, they'd meet in a rematch for a trip to the Final Four -- but he attended only one game in Lawrence.

"It was a while back," Okeson said. "It's a long ways away from us. It's like 5 1/2, six hours from where I live. It's KU all the way where we live, in basketball, anyway.

Then he grinned.

"I don't think they're too interested in KU right now."

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