Longtime West Central Area boys basketball coach Kraig Hunter gathered his players in the locker room with tears in some of their eyes after the season came to an end in an overtime loss at Hancock during the subsection championship game on March 24.
Hunter wanted to let his guys know how proud he was of them. There were 42 wins in 50 games played the last two years. This group in particular had successfully reloaded after losing three senior starters to graduation the prior year and went 15-5 this winter.
Hunter wrapped up his speech when Nathaniel Junker, one of five seniors on the team, stood up to say something. He wanted to make sure that in their last moment together, his teammates knew how much they meant to him.
“Let’s just say that I love basketball, I love my team,” Nathaniel said. “I couldn’t ask to be on a better team than West Central Area.”
Nathaniel was not a regular in the rotation for the Knights. He did not show up in the stats each game, but in many ways he was the heart and soul of this West Central Area group that accomplished so much the last two years.
Nathaniel was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 4, two years after being diagnosed with epilepsy -- a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of seizures.
“He had status epilepticus where they have multiple seizures over and over again,” Nathaniel’s mother, Jeanine said. “It was about a year or two and then it was controlled with medication. He usually would only have one seizure a year after that.”
‘It really scared us all’
The Knights beat second-ranked and previously undefeated Ashby in the Section 6A quarterfinals on March 20. Late that same night with the family back at their home in Elbow Lake, Nathaniel had an episode of multiple seizures -- more than 15, Jeanine said -- that lasted into early Sunday morning.
Jeanine said it’s always scary to watch your child go through a seizure, but the family has gotten familiar with how Nathaniel’s body generally reacts to them. It had been a long time since he had multiple seizures in a short period of time.
Nathaniel was airlifted to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis on March 21 where he spent the night. Word traveled fast throughout the West Central Area community.
“It really scared us all right away when we heard the news,” Knights’ senior center Brady Reeve said. “Nate Man, we love him. He’s a huge part of our team. He always keeps us up even when we’re all feeling down after a loss or something.”
One seizure is enough to drain a person’s energy, so the multiple seizures Nathaniel endured were tough on him as he returned home.
“I feel way more better than I was before,” Nathaniel said on March 24. “Before it was just awful. I was puking. It was not fun, but I feel much more active than I was before.”
A game he couldn’t miss
Players and coaches did not know if Nathaniel was going to have the energy to be at the subsection championship in Hancock on March 24 in the days leading up to the game.
Nathaniel had no doubt. He couldn’t miss it. Not when any game could be the last with his teammates during his senior year.
“They’re not just my team. They’re also my family,” Nathaniel said. “Even if I wasn’t feeling better, I would still come here because it means a lot to me. My team means everything to me. I love supporting both the teams, and I love supporting my team.”
It is not just WCA players who gravitate towards Nathaniel. Hancock senior Preston Rohloff -- one of the Owls’ top players -- came up to him before the game to give Nathaniel a high five and chat with him for a few seconds during warmups.
"He’s taught us more about human compassion than anybody ever could. Just the way he lives his life is incredible. They thank us for letting him be on the team. We’re the ones who should thank him, and the kids know it."
- Kraig Hunter, WCA head coach on senior Nathaniel Junker
Nathaniel came out of the locker room after the loss with the rest of his teammates almost 15 minutes after the final buzzer sounded. There were hugs and tears shared between him and the WCA community. A few Hancock players who were still on the court came over to talk with Nathaniel and his teammates.
“It’s unreal. I love that kid,” WCA head coach Kraig Hunter said of having him on the bench that night. “He’s taught us more about human compassion than anybody ever could. Just the way he lives his life is incredible. They thank us for letting him be on the team. We’re the ones who should thank him, and the kids know it. He just brings a joy to everybody. Everyone loves him."
A part of the team
Teammates and coaches talk of that love for Nathaniel, but it’s the way they have shown it over the years that has meant so much to the Junker family.
Nathaniel went out for track and field later in high school, but basketball is where his heart is as it pertains to sports. He has played since middle school.
During warmups, Nathaniel is one of the most active WCA players in gathering rebounds and getting the ball back to his teammates who he knows are regulars in the lineup.
“He does whatever he can. I especially love it when he gets into games and gets a bucket,” Reeve said. “That’s just great. He’s a great guy.”
West Central Area played the same Hancock program during the 2020 subsection championship game on March 9. The final seconds were ticking off the clock in a 68-47 win for the Knights when Nathaniel made a basket that sent his teammates and fans into a frenzy.
It was the first-ever subsection title for the WCA boys basketball program. Instead of any of the starters who combined to score 59 points that night, it was Nathaniel who got the championship trophy and hoisted it high above his head as his teammates smiled around him.
“He always says, ‘I’m not the best shooter. I may not make the basket, but I’m part of that team.’ That’s so important to him,” Jeanine said. “They always let him do that type of stuff. They let him be the center of attention for a little bit. They’re just a really unselfish team and very giving.”
The Knights fed off Nathaniel’s energy through an historic two-year stretch of winning, and vice versa. Just like in the subsection championship game in 2020, Nathaniel also came into the game in the Knights’ win at second-ranked Ashby this year and hit a jump shot from near the free throw line to finish off the scoring.
“It feels good. The fans like it. I love it,” Nathaniel said. “Mainly, it’s not just all about me. It’s all about my team. My saying is there is no ‘I’ in team, which means I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without my team.”
The tears that Nathaniel had in his eyes were eventually replaced by a smile as friends and family chatted with him and took pictures after the final game in Hancock last week.
Nathaniel has big goals after graduation. He loves animals and wants to be a zoologist someday. He said he would love to be a college basketball player too. His teammates and coaches will tell you any program would be lucky to have him.
“He’s always, always happy. He’s a ray of sunshine,” Reeve said. “He’s always telling us what we need to work on. He’s always happy for us, and it’s just been great to have him around.”