SIOUX CITY -- A veteran coach getting his first crack at a head coaching job in his native Sioux City, Joe Burkhart had plenty of reasons to be excited about taking over the Stars at North High.

A member of Bishop Heelan's first state tournament team in 1966, Burkhart had spent the last eight years as an assistant at North.

When John Vanderloo elected to step down after five seasons last spring, the promotion was purely a logical move.

Burkhart looked forward to working with 6-2 seniors Damek Tomscha and Danny Rudeen, a pair of third-year varsity veterans who averaged 10.5 points apiece last season.

He also knew he had 6-6 Dylan Ohl and 6-7 Ryan Fraley returning from the bench of a team that finished 11-11 after losing a 71-66 substate semifinal to state tournament-bound East.

However, the big bonus, in more ways than one, has been 6-8, 248-pound senior center Patrick Kurth, who basically missed his entire junior season with a back injury.

Last Thursday, as North improved to 2-0 with a 66-54 win over arch-rival West, Kurth connected on eight of 10 shots and totaled 20 points.

"He played in one game last year and then was gone for the rest of the season,'' said Burkhart. "Now, he's playing like we had always hoped that he would. I'd say the sky's the limit for him.''

The same may be true for Burkhart's team, which has been saddled with a rather challenging schedule.

After a game tonight at Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln, fresh off a shocking Saturday win over defending Class 3A state champion Bishop Heelan, North makes an ambitious weekend road trip to visit Cedar Rapids Kennedy and Linn-Mar, the state's third- and fifth-ranked 4A teams, on Friday and Saturday.

After that, a visit next Tuesday to Hull Western Christian, No. 1 in Class 2A, completes the pre-Christmas slate.

"This will be a good way for us to find out what we can actually do this year,'' said Kurth, who spent four months in a back brace last winter and spring due to a stress fracture to his L3 vertebra (lower back).

"It's not 100 percent,'' he said of his back. "But I'm still working on it. I have to keep it loose all the time with heat and stretching exercises.''

It has helped, no doubt, that he's trimmed down from 275 at the start of last season. At 248, of course, he's still an imposing presence in the paint.

"Fraley's certainly a factor, too,'' said Burkhart. "He does a good job defensively and he's a very good offensive rebounder. And, Ohl is making a difference, too. He's improved a lot on defense.''

Rudeen is operating at the point while Tomscha, a third-year starter, plays the second guard position. Burkhart has also been starting 6-1 junior guard Jawad Najdawi and his bench has included 6-3 junior forward Jared Evers and 6-1 senior guard J.B. Kalin, returning to North after a year at an East Coast prep school.

"I was pretty relieved actually to be able to play this year due to my circumstances,'' said Kurth, whose parents, Brian and Kay, also have a daughter, Kayte, a sophomore on the North girls team.

Patrick, a 3.8 student, has appreciated the support of his teammates.

"I know most of them wanted me to be there, but for me to get there I had to work at it really hard,'' he said.

"He wants to play college basketball and being young for his class (he turned 17 in June), people are going to be enthused about that,'' said Burkhart, who embarked on the North job with a 120-79 career head coaching record, serving five seasons each at Jefferson, S.D., and Sergeant Bluff-Luton.

SPECIAL MENTION:

Basketball

Michael Gesell, SSC.... Outstanding 6-1 sophomore guard, who averaged 16.6 points as a freshman last winter, collected 24 points as the Cardinals posted an impressive 80-52 victory over Dakota Valley.

Wrestling

Rulin Pederson, East.... Senior who was 42-4 before two state tournament losses last winter, won 145-pound title at Jackson County (Minn.) Invitational, winning a 3-2 final over a returning Minnesota state meet medalist.

NOTE: Nominations (by coaches only) can be made by calling the Journal's sports department at 1-800-397-9820.