It’s not easy being a high school athlete.

Nowadays, specialization has parents in a frenzy, driving kids all over the state and perhaps the country in pursuit of a college scholarship, or even just a spot, or more simply minutes, on the varsity team.

Basketball is no different.

Whether it’s club basketball year-round, summer camps, pick-up games at the local YMCA or games during the high school season, it’s a demanding game on the body and mind, with constant pivoting, starting and stopping.

Currently, the two best boys basketball players in the city of Burlington, Catholic Central senior Frank Koehnke and Burlington senior Nick Klug, are dealing with serious injuries.

While their teams have been affected in different ways, each star athlete has dealt with the mental anguish of losing something he loves.

With Koehnke, it started with a devastating concussion during football season, something that not only ended his season but caused lingering headaches most of the fall. He says he’s better now, but his fate recently changed when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

Miraculously, Koehnke is able to keep playing, despite an injury that sidelines most athletes for at least a year.

Klug wasn’t that lucky.

The 6-foot-1 Division 2 Winona State University hoops commit suffered a foot injury during football season, when he played quarterback and led the Demons to a 6-4 record and their first playoff appearance since 2014 and best record since 2006.

The nagging foot injury, coupled with an ankle injury, forced Klug to miss a few games early in the season.

Fast forward to basketball season, and after helping Burlington to a 3-1 record, Klug hurt his left ankle against Waterford and needed crutches. Just as that began to heal, Klug’s pain in his right foot wouldn’t go away.

His highlight this season was breaking the BHS all-time scoring record against Lake Geneva Badger in December, a mark held by former NFL star and Burlington legend Tony Romo.

So he got X-rays and several expert opinions, and a doctor determined Klug would have to miss the rest of the season because any further aggravation could end his career, derailing his promising college basketball future.

Two teenagers, dedicated to the game they love, dealing with major injuries. For now, one’s lucky enough to play, and the other must sit and watch.

“It was really tough,” said Klug, a first team All-Area selection as a junior and three-time all-conference selection. “I’ve been training and doing lots of work during football and other sports to prepare for this upcoming season and to see it come to an end is kind of disappointing. But I know this isn’t the end for me because I got years ahead of me for this game, and I’ve been trying to carry myself with a positive attitude.”

Koehnke, a 6-foot-2 inside-outside threat that can play bully ball down low and show touch in the mid-range game, is thankful he still gets to play the game he loves.

“I am feeling a lot better physically,” he said. “I have a torn ACL but I try not to think about it.”

Koehnke is leading the area with 19 points per game this season. The Wheatland native recently scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Toppers’ second win of the season. The senior leader has had to take over games at times, as evidenced by his buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer early in the season. With a fresh, but talented group of sophomores seeing a ton of playing time, Koehnke has shown experience and has led by example on the court.

Frank and Chad (Zirbel) are probably my two best players, certainly with lots of experience,” said Toppers coach Kyle Scott. “Chad is likely out for the season, and Frank has a partially torn ACL, with a big brace. Tough blow. Jon Pum is back now but missed several practices earlier in the year with a back issue. We seem to be settling into our roles now, hopefully nothing more (with injuries).”

Now on the sidelines utilizing a scooter to get around, Klug is slowly getting better. It was an emotional moment Jan. 11 when he and coach Steve Berezowitz informed teammates of his fate.

“The foot has been feeling good,” Klug said. “I’ve been on crutches and a scooter for about a month now so I’ve stayed off of it a lot to give it time to heal.”

Klug, who plays club basketball for an elite squad in Madison, has known nothing but basketball since 2014, when the wide-eyed freshman started at point guard from day one. From the moment he stepped on the court, Klug was an impact player, and all it took was seeing him once with the ball in his hands to know he would be special.

While his story is far from over, Klug appreciates all the support he’s received from an unforgettable high school career.

“My journey through these four years has been the most fun years of my life,” he said. “Being called up as a freshman was a dream of mine since my early childhood. Playing with guys like Frankie Hozeska, Brad Burling, my brother (Nathan Klug), Cal Tully, Bryan Sturdevant, Luke Geiger and many other guys over the years have made me so much better by teaching me things about getting better and drive to be the best player and person I can be.”

“My journey has been crazy and I loved every second of it. I could not have accomplished any accolades over the years if it wasn’t for my coaches, teammates, and family. As of now I am going to stick by my team every day and push them to get better and strive to win conference and make a run in playoffs.”

Klug averaged 16.8 points this season and finished with nearly 1,100 for his career.

Klug averaged 15 points per game for his Demon career, hit 129 3-pointers, and dazzled with a career-high 33 points against Wilmot as a junior.

In my 10 years of covering high school basketball, few if any players have shown the quick-twitch explosiveness, ball-handling and scoring ability of Klug.

Burlington is 3-3 without Klug in the lineup, but sits 7-4 overall and 4-2 in the SLC, only two games behind first-place Westosha Central. However, a 58-25 loss against the Falcons showed the effects of a Klug-less squad, especially on offense.

But with three players 6-foot-6 or taller, Brock Halbach, Dylan Runkel and Trent Turzenski, along with perimeter scoring threats like Grant Tully, Sean Safar and Nick Webley, along with Trey Krause, conference title hopes aren’t over.

Berezowitz said the team will explore as many offensive options as possible to increase scoring options without the team’s best player and facilitator.

Klug will do his part from the bench.

“Every day I go to practice, and I see guys hustling and improving,” Klug said. “Whether we win the night before or we lose, everyone comes back the next day and works hard and pushes themselves.”

“I still think we have a chance at the SLC crown, we can match up well with any team and we got a bunch of athletic kids in all positions. We just need to continue to get better day by day and focus each game.”

Koehnke reminds me of Ben Heiligenthal in 2015-16. Though an inch shorter, Koehnke possesses Heiligenthal’s ability to take over games and pound the glass.

He is becoming a walking double-double for a team that has enough outside shooting to compete in a stacked Metro Classic Conference (4 state-ranked teams) and make a postseason push in Division 5. He’s averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds his last two games.

Can Koehnke conjure up the ghost of Heiligenthal and take an underdog Toppers squad back to Madison?

One thing’s for sure – he’s motivated. They’re young and chemistry can still be improved, but Koehnke says the team’s strength is everyone has bought into their roles.

With almost two months left to play, that’s a good start.

Injuries have plagued Koehnke for five months now, so he won’t hold anything back moving forward.

“The injuries made me realize how every game isn’t guaranteed,” Koehnke said. “This gave me motivation to give 100 percent and enjoy playing at all times because my sports career could be taken away from me at any point.”

You have to admire Klug and Koehnke for keeping positive attitudes. It would’ve been easy to get discouraged or even give up.

But the superstar players emulate the embodiment of sports – hard work, perseverance and confidence.

God willing, Koehnke gets to keep playing and should heal up after the season, while Klug’s dreams of playing college basketball are still alive.

Keep your heads up, boys, and keep giving the game you love everything you have.

 

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