Packer Hoops: Four paths for four seniors

From left: Austin seniors Nate Schwab, Ryan Larson, Zach Vierkandt and Goliath Oboyo have all made contributions for the Packers this season after not seeing much, if any, varsity playing time last season. -- Rocky Hulne/

To know the four seniors on the Austin boys basketball team is to know the path they took to get where they are today.

While they’ve clicked throughout the season for the No. 5 ranked Packers (22-5 overall), who are playing for Austin’s first state tournament berth in 30 years against New Prague this Friday, some of them weren’t even on the basketball radar in Austin a few years ago.

The biggest thing to know is that Goliath Oboyo, Nate Schwab, Zach Vierkandt and Ryan Larson combined for about five minutes of varsity playing time before this season and now they’re all playing key roles on Austin’s best team in 30 years.

Oboyo, who is now a menace on the defensive end of the court and a capable finisher at the basket, was wondering if basketball was even the sport for him just two years ago.

Then he hit his growth spurt. But even after that, Oboyo had to play a standout role for the JV team last season before getting his first varsity minutes this season.

“From ninth to tenth grade I would always get made fun of because I was a little chubby, but then I just sprouted out of nowhere and I always stayed skinny,” Oboyo said. “To play together (with three other seniors) on varsity with everyone watching, we feel like we finally deserve it.”

Austin head coach Kris Fadness said that he wasn’t sure where Oboyo would fit in during his early years with the basketball program.

“As a sophomore, I really didn’t know if Oboyo would ever play for us,” Fadness said. “But he thinned up, grew and he worked hard. His passion for basketball, determination and hard work has paid off. To see him where he is now, I think it’s pretty special.”

Now Oboyo is the one who is telling the jokes, although sometimes it backfires on him a little.

“I try to tell a lot of jokes, but sometimes they don’t laugh and it makes me look stupid,” Oboyo said. “I get made fun of it and I end up in a bad mood, but for the most part it’s good.”

Fadness recalled that Schwab, who also starts at guard, may have had some early doubts about his place in the basketball program as a freshman but his hard work put him in a place where he could contribute.

Schwab was also a standout on the JV team last year, before earning his first significant time on varsity this season.

“There wasn’t any doubt (that I would play varsity),” said Schwab, who helps Oboyo harass opposing guards on the perimeter and has a nice shooting touch. “They had a lot of seniors last year and they had an all-around solid team. More playing time on JV made us better and got us ready to go this year.”

Now that Schwab has earned his varsity playing time, it’s even sweeter than he may have imagined as the Packers went unbeaten at home and won their first Big Nine title since 1999.

“It’s been a good reward this year (for us seniors),” Schwab said. “It’s nice to get back together and play with the guys I’ve played with all of my life. I’ve always had a passion for the sport and it’s kept me going as we’ve all pushed each other.”

While Schwab and Oboyo were making names for themselves on the JV team last season, Vierkandt, who brings a good mix of defense and a shooting touch to go with a quick first step, was stuck watching — not just the varsity games, but every game.

A knee injury ended his season before it even got going and he was forced to sit out his entire junior season.

“Zach is a very gifted, natural athlete and you can see that when he’s on the soccer field,” Fadness said. “He might have been in our rotation last year had it not been for injury issues. We were just thankful to get him back this year. The fact that he’s contributing to the level he is after missing a year speaks volumes for him.”

Vierkandt said he felt a year behind on defense at times early in the season, but it didn’t take him long to catch up to speed. He said it helped to be around three fellow seniors that he played with since he was in sixth grade.

“It brings your confidence level up because you know you can trust the other person,” Vierkandt said. “Everyone really knows their role and they know what their job is on the court. Everyone’s doing what’s best for the team.”

Larson receives the least minutes on game nights of the four seniors, but he’s probably gotten more chants and cheers from the crowd than anyone else on the team.

He quickly became a fan favorite with his late game hustle and work ethic.

“Everybody tells me the crowd lights up when I come in and it’s been quite an experience,” Larson said. “It’s been fun.”

But Larson’s impact on the team goes well beyond his late game playing time in blowouts. He serves as the enforcer in practice and makes it his goal to toughen up the hole team.

“I’m kind of the rough guy on the team and I turn them into men (in practice),” Larson said. “I go against Joe (Aase) all of the time and I push him around, because he’s going to go against some tough stuff in games. If he can handle me, I’m pretty sure he can handle any kind of defense.”

Fadness said the presence of Larson is priceless for the team. Not only does he deliver in practice, but he’s the primary force on the bench who keeps the players who might not be playing into the game and encouraging their teammates.

“I think every good team needs a Ryan Larson,” Fadness said. “He’s a blue collar guy in practice and he’s not afraid to mix it up a little. He understands he’s not gonna get a ton of varsity minutes, but he’s gonna give it all he’s got when he’s out there. If you’ve got someone as unselfish as (Ryan), it makes a big difference for your ball club.”

As the four Austin seniors prepare for their last run together, they hope it takes them to the state tournament. But they’re also willing to look back and appreciate what they’ve overcome to get where they are now.

“It’s been a great ride. I’ve never seen fan support like this before,” Vierkandt said. “All of the people from the community that I don’t even know are talking about the game. It’s great to have our senior year on such a good year like this.”

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