YANKTON, S.D. — Proudly displayed in Ryan Mors’ office at Yankton High School is a 240-word essay written by his oldest son.
Matthew Mors gets straight to the point in a three-paragraph piece he wrote six years ago as a fifth grader. “I love,” he says in the first sentence, “to play basketball.”
By the end of “Determination,” Mors has revealed that his goal is to play for a Division I college program and everything he’s doing to make sure that happens. He says he spends a lot of time in the gym; not because anybody forces him to, but because it’s a place where he feels comfortable. He says his father is his biggest supporter and is constantly offering guidance and words of encouragement.
He concludes the essay with a promise. “I intend to keep going to the gym,” he says, “and make my dreams become a reality.”
That mission was well underway the following year when the Mors were gathered at the home of a family friend to watch the 2015 Final Four. After the Badgers finished off a stunning victory over Kentucky in a semifinal, Mors turned to his father. “I would love,” he said, “to play at Wisconsin.”
As he sat in his office last fall, Ryan Mors admitted this was all a bit surreal. A little over a month earlier, Matthew had orally committed to play for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program. The 6-foot-7 forward is part of a 2021 class that includes Chucky Hepburn, a point guard from Nebraska; and Chris Hodges, a forward from Illinois.
For Matthew, whose list of scholarship offers included Creighton, Iowa, Iowa State and Colorado, this wasn’t the first time he’d figured out what he wanted and worked his tail off to get it. A year before he wrote the essay, the Mors family arrived after Ryan, who had been the girls basketball and boys and girls golf coach up the road in Freeman, took a job as Yankton’s activities director.
As they were touring the school, Matthew was eyeing the banners hanging in Yankton’s gym and noticed the boys basketball program hadn’t won a state title since 1978. “Before I go,” he told his father, “I’m going to help us get one.”
Sure enough. After spending his seventh grade season as a reserve on the varsity team, Matthew moved into a starting role the following season and averaged more than 20 points per game. As a freshman, he earned first-team All-State honors in South Dakota’s biggest division by leading the Bucks to their first championship in four decades. He had, as promised years earlier, helped Yankton get one.
The Bucks might have gotten another this past season if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. They were 17-4 and the No. 1 seed in the Class AA tournament when the season was called off in March.
Along the way, Mors had become the state’s all-time leading scorer among Class AA players. He’ll enter his senior season with 2,127 career points.
Yankton always had been a football town, but there’s been a shift to hoops the past few years thanks to the success of Mors and the Bucks on the court. The gym holds 3,000 fans and is so packed on a regular basis that Drew Lawrence, the high school and legion baseball coach in town, has stopped bringing his two young children because there’s no room to roam.
That Mors has become a three-sport star — he also competes in track and field and baseball — is no surprise to people such as Lawrence. Some of it is in the genes: Both of Matthew’s parents were college athletes at Division II Northern State, where Ryan played football and Aimee played soccer.
But it’s more than good bloodlines. What Lawrence and others in the community noticed upon Matthew’s arrival in fourth grade went beyond the fact he was bigger than his classmates.
“Everyone kind of knew when he came in,” Lawrence said, “that we had something special.”
As big of a star as he’s become, to say Matthew Mors put Yankton on the map is hyperbole.
The city, located across the Missouri River from Nebraska in the southeast corner of South Dakota, is no stranger to fame. Television journalist Tom Brokaw went to high school in Yankton, while NFL kicker Adam Vinatieri was born there before moving to Rapid City. Another NFL player, Lyle Alzado, played at now-defunct Yankton College. Before hitting it big, Lawrence Welk and his bandmates were en route from North Dakota to New Orleans when a blizzard hit and they took shelter in Yankton; the band auditioned at WNAX and became a fixture on the town’s radio for the next six years before leaving for a bigger market.
Mors isn’t even the first Bucks standout to pledge his allegiance to the Badgers. Ray Hamann was a star at Yankton before ending up in Madison, where he helped UW become Big Ten Conference co-champs during his senior season in 1934-35. Another Yankton star, Colton Iverson, spent three seasons at Minnesota, one at Colorado State and is now playing overseas.
Where Mors ends up in Yankton lore remains to be seen, but those who have been around him believe the sky is the limit because of his desire.
“You want to talk about the one thing that sets him apart, it’s his competitive edge,” said Luke Youmans, Mors’ track and field coach. “He wants to win in everything.”
Youmans — and Lawrence, for that matter — understand that basketball is Mors’ top sport and are flexible when it comes to AAU tournaments and practices in the spring and basketball camps in the summer.
They’ve also discovered that there’s no such thing as Mors letting up or treating a sport as if it’s not a priority. He finished second at state in the high jump (6-5) as a sophomore and is good enough in baseball that he caught the eye of a college scout during South Dakota’s state legion tournament last summer.
An assistant from Utah was there watching an opposing pitcher and was impressed by the big first baseman who fielded well and batted No. 3 in Yankton’s lineup. When he inquired, the coach was told to google Mors’ name.
Finding out Mors future was in basketball didn’t end the chase, however. The following week, Utah called and wondered if Mors would consider playing basketball and baseball in college.
“When he’s in with you, whatever sport it is, it’s his (No.) 1,” Youmans said. “He makes you feel as a coach like it’s his 1.
“From the outside looking in, you wouldn’t know. When you watch him compete, the way he trains, he competes like this is his bread-and-butter-sport.”
Case in point: Mors had a decision to make last summer when he was invited to one of the NCAA’s new developmental basketball camps and assigned a date that conflicted with the state legion tournament.
Uncommitted at the time, it made sense for Mors to attend the prestigious event and attempt to raise his recruiting profile. One big problem: He refused to turn his back on his baseball teammates.
As it turned out, Mors requested a change from the NCAA and was placed in a session a week earlier. Even still, Mors and his father landed back in Omaha at midnight after a flight from Phoenix and began the 2½-hour drive back to Yankton. After what amounted to a nap, they were back on the road the next morning for a 90-minute journey to Mitchell, South Dakota, which was hosting the legion finals.
At times, Lawrence has essentially refused to let Mors practice just so he could get some rest.
“If it were up to him,” Lawrence said, “he would just keep going.”
Mors earned state player of the year honors as a junior, averaging 19.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game despite injuring his ankle leading up to the season opener and being slowed by a bout of influenza for two weeks during the season.
There also was the matter of opponents going out of their way to contain Mors. Facing junk defenses had begun the previous season, but it only intensified in 2019-20. Mors typically brings the ball up court, and one trick was to send two defenders at him the moment he crossed halfcourt.
When he got the ball in the post, he’d often be double- or triple-teamed.
Mors views it as a challenge more than a reason to complain. That he’s found a way to continually fine-tune his skills is a testimony to the hours he spends on his game off the court, according to Yankton coach Chris Haynes.
“He’s never plateaued,” Haynes said. “He continues to work and get better.”
During normal times, Mors would have easy access to the Yankton gym because of his father’s role at the school. “His happy place,” Ryan said.
Mors longs for the day when he can get back in a normal routine. For now, he’s lifting weights six days a week in his home and continuing work on his ball-handling.