Affixed to the bedroom walls of every young man in the Nielson household is a simple saying, but one they adhere to with utmost conviction.
“Success always looks easy to those who weren’t around when it was being earned.”
The success so far sustained by Cedar guard Keenan Nielson has been hard-won through his off-season conditioning and years of bruising one-on-one battles with brother Korden, three years his senior. These activities have, over time, helped position Nielson for a big senior season, a result which could soothe the pain of some Redmen fans.
Last season the 3A Tournament returned to SUU, yet Nielson and his teammates had to buy a ticket to attend. The Cedar Redmen, for the first time since 2006, failed to reach the postseason, despite Nielson averaging 17 points and 3 assists per game and being named second team all-state by several publications.
Keenan got a sample of the state-championship atmosphere even before last winter. In 2014 when Korden Nielson starred on the team, willing them to victory against Snow Canyon inside the Centrum, Keenan was a freshman and suited up for the game.
“The last season was very disappointing. It was hard to swallow, especially with (the state tournament) being at SUU. Our girls made it (to the championship game) and there were so many people there. There could have been so many people to watch us play. It was hard not being able to play there.”
Compare game film of Korden and Keenan and they appear nearly identical. They slice to rim with authority and finish with an ease more typical of a player several inches taller than his 6 feet, 1 inch. They can distribute the ball and also knock down 3-pointers as if they were free throws. Suggest this resemblance to their father Ken – who also played at Cedar High (class of 1986) – and he laughs. Other than genetics, he thinks there is a reason for this.
“Korden had no mercy on him,” Ken says. “He would never let his little brother beat him. So for a couple years, Keenan really took his lumps. It’s a trial through fire thing that you end up being better for it.”
To this day, things have a way of escalating. “It’s quite the one-on-one matchup with those two now,” Ken adds. “They are so ultra competitive that sometimes I have to step in. I try to remind them that they can play hard without the swinging and playing ugly. They are a quiet bunch off the court but when they get on the court they flip the switch.”
Keenan Nielson, combined with Mason Fakahua (10.8 ppg) and Parker Haynie (8.5 ppg), give new coach Russell Beck a solid foundation to work with. Beck takes over for Craig Cardon, who had been Cedar’s head coach for 11 years and spent a lifetime around the program.
“Knowing you have a player like Keenan in the program allows me to sleep at night,” Russell Beck said. “He is quick, strong and a lights-out playmaker. He is dangerous in transition and hates to lose. I love the way he approaches practice and I look forward to seeing how he approaches games.”
Nielson’s personal goals for this year are to improve his defense as well as shoot better from beyond the 3-point arc. His goal from long-range: 60 percent.
“My 3-point shot, I just didn’t shoot it as well as I thought I should have last year,” Nielson said. “I worked a lot on catching and shooting off the dribble – and in games shooting it when I was even remotely open. I spend as much time in the gym as possible and get in the weight room a lot.”
Ken says Keenan started displaying that type of dedication to his basketball game several years ago. Keenan had also played football and baseball and was having trouble managing his time among the sports. “You can be good at all three or try to be great at one,” Keenan remembers his dad advising him.
“He was one of the first guys to show up to help my family and I unload our moving boxes,” Beck says. “I see him in the gym getting up shots on his own, I see him giving everything he has daily in practice. When we hiked up to the “C” on Cedar mountain (recently) we made them carry a pack full of rocks. He was helping his teammates with the pack when that burden become heavy. Keenan is a guy you would want in your foxhole.”
Or in your classroom. Nielson has a GPA of 3.8, scored 21 on the ACT, has taken three college courses and has been on the honor roll for years. He plans to serve an LDS Church mission upon graduation and hopes to play college basketball somewhere upon his return. His brother Kyler, at 6-5, a Cedar High graduate of 2011, is a junior guard at Dixie State.
Keenan’s focus now, however, is getting his team back to the state tournament and making a deep run.
“I used to be the annoying little brother following them around,” Nielson says of growing up with Korden and Kyler, “now my motivation is to make my family proud and work toward being as good as my brothers were.” • HSSI