In sports, athletes form a bond with their teammates and coaches that is as strong as family. For the Bellevue West boys basketball team, that phrase is a bit more literal.
Of the five starters for the Thunderbirds, four of them make up two sets of siblings. Senior Louis Fidler and junior Frankie Fidler are brothers and senior Trey Hepburn and junior Chucky Hepburn are brothers.
The four of them and senior John Shanklin make up the starting lineup for the 21-3 Thunderbirds, who enter tomorrows state tournament as the No. 1 overall seed for the second straight season.
Shockingly enough, the two sets of brothers have known each other long before West.
“I was in third grade and we were recruiting him (Frankie) to come play with us,” Chucky said.
“I met Louis at Benson,” Trey said. “That was when he first played with us.”
As for starting in basketball, that was a family thing for all of them.
“I think (Louis) started a year before me and then I saw him go and I started playing too,” Frankie said.
“For us, we have always been around basketball,” Chucky said. “Our dad would play YMCA pick up ball and we would just go there and watch him and ever since then we just start playing YMCA.”
With these guys all having known each other since the early days, it makes playing together every game that much easier.
“It has helped us because we can talk and communicate with each other because we have already built that friendship for a while so we can communicate with each other and talk to each other about things we need to fix,” Chucky said.
“It’s chemistry too,” Frankie added. “Me and (Louis) both played with (Chucky and Trey) when we were younger, so we all know how to play with each other.”
John Shanklin is the fifth starter on the Thunderbirds team and even though he isn’t blood related to the other four, he might as well be.
“All of us are family,” Frankie said.
For head coach Doug Woodard, coaching siblings can provide its own set of advantages and challenges.
“There are some unique positives, but they probably quarrel a little more than your normal teammates which I’m sure is a carry over to what goes on at home,” Woodard said.
Woodard added “It’s fun. It’s a unique deal and I’m sure it’s a great experience for the families.”
“They’ve played together and been together for a long time and they tend to know what the other is going to do, when the other is going to cut and where they like the ball and those kind of things. Those are definitely positives,” Woodard said.
“They are obviously a close group off the court as well as on the court. It’s a positive and sometimes it can almost be a negative because when you know each other so well it can be harder to hold each other accountable.
“You don’t even think you need to communicate because you know each other so well but you still need to communicate so there are some challenges that go with it too.”
All of these starters have also been to the state tournament before and that experience is invaluable when looking to make a run at a state championship.
“Everybody is hungry to win a state championship so we can’t come out and expect to win,” Chucky said. “We have to come out and play four quarters and compete in every game we play.”
“Yeah since this is our last year, moving up to it sophomore and junior year and this year were all really close to winning a championship and we really feel like this could be the year,” Louis added.
Louis Fidler is headed to Morningside College, while Chucky is headed to Wisconsin. Frankie holds an offer from University of Nebraska-Omaha. In general, all four of these guys thinks that this area is highly under recruited.
“We are really under recruited as far as everything goes,” Trey said. “If this class right now and even football, if we were in a state like Florida or California we would be highly recruited.”
“I have always thought we were under recruited,” Chucky said. “Now that social media is becoming a bigger thing I think kids are starting to be more highly recruited. So, I definitely think that Nebraska will at the top one year.”
“I think Nebraska is starting to break out this year with all the big talent really getting noticed,” Louis said.
“Before in years past there were only a few D1 players and now there are a lot and people are giving them attention,” Frankie said.
For the older brothers, it can be hard to turn that switch off on the court. Louis Fidler admits he does it sometimes.
“I feel like I find myself doing it a lot,” Louis said. “I feel like I talk too much on the court.”
And is he harder on his brother than the rest of his teammates?
“I kind of feel like I am,” Louis said.
Frankie added quickly “yeah, he’s way harder on me.”
Trey takes a different approach with Chucky.
“Not really,” Trey said about if he is harder on Chucky. “We just mutually respect each other out there.”
For the younger brothers, it can calm their nerves and give them ease knowing their older brothers are out there with them.
“It does but I also respect everyone on my team and I treat them all as my brothers so everyone gets the same amount of respect,” Chucky said.
Frankie added “If (Louis) is calm in a close game it definitely makes me more ready and comfortable.”
For all of these athletes, the common factor for them is head coach Doug Woodard. They all recognize him as a huge factor in their growth and maturity as players.
“He is really supportive outside of basketball even so we have built that bond over time,” Trey said.
“He is really hard on the starters but that is good because he makes us all better and as a team he brings us together and we pick each other up,” Frankie said.
“I feel like he’s really molded us into the players we are and without him we wouldn’t be as closely connected in how we play,” Louis said.
“Personally, coming into this program I wasn’t as much of a point guard, but he helped me develop into that point guard position so he played a lot of a role into developing me as a point guard,” Chucky said.
Statistically, these brothers hold much of the weight for the Thunderbirds. Chucky and Louis are first and second on the team in scoring, Frankie is second in rebounding behind Shanklin and Chucky and Trey are first and second on the team in assists.
Last season, the Thunderbirds fell in the semifinals to Omaha Central and two years ago, fell to Creighton Prep in the finals. This year, they want to write the history books differently.
“We have a chance to do what only two other schools have done in 45 years and win a state championship in football and basketball and we want that to be talked about,” Louis said.
“Outside of the Bellevue city, I just want to be known around the state of Nebraska and be known as one of the best teams to come out of the state of Nebraska,” Chucky said.
“I just feel like with this team, I just want coach Woodard to in the future be able to talk about this team and how good we were in practice and relate that team to this year,” Frankie said.
Woodard recognizes the legacy that Fidlers, Hepburn and John Shanklin will leave as starters.
“In the last three years, I don’t know what the exact number is but it’s over 60 games they’ve won,” Woodard said. “They played in a state championship and made a state semifinal so I think getting back in that and getting in the mix and being really relevant and hopefully writing a new chapter this weekend.”
West begins their quest for a state championship on Thursday, March 12th at 2 p.m. against the No. 8 seed Elkhorn.