KEARNEY — Kearney Catholic High School forward Brett Mahony flew slightly under the radar as a freshman last year.
He was able to use his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame to overpower defenders around the rim.
But this season, opposing teams game-planned for Mahony and regularly put two defenders, sometimes three, on him.
He knew that approach likely would be the case this season, resulting in him working on his perimeter shooting in the offseason.
Although he experienced some growing pains, Mahony was the Stars’ best player and go-to option offensively this season. He also led the Stars (18-8) to their first state tournament appearance since 2017.
Mahony averaged 16.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals in 26.1 minutes per game as a sophomore to earn the distinction as this year’s Kearney Hub Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
"Statistically, my numbers were better last year. But this year, I think I had to step up more and be more of a leader," Mahony said. "It was really nice to make it to state this year, especially since we were so close last year. I know a lot of guys wanted to make it this year."
Mahony’s success in his first two years hasn’t surprised coach Bob Langan.
Langan first heard about Mahony from former head coach Don Liess, who saw him play during junior high, and described him as the "real deal." Langan saw Mahony up close when he was in eighth grade and would attend high school basketball open gyms.
The Stars needed an extra player for an open gym scrimmage before the 2017-18 season. Langan asked Mahony to play, even though he was only in the eighth grade.
Despite being the youngest player on the court, Mahony held his own against the varsity players.
Mahony’s strength, ability to play under control and understanding of the game as an eighth grader were better than some individuals on the varsity roster, Langan said.
Mahony’s skill set was an encouraging sign for the future of the Stars, who posted a 6-19 record in 2017-18.
Although the Stars struggled on the court that season, Langan knew Mahony was just one year away from likely making an impact at the varsity level.
"It would have been interesting to see him as an eighth grader come out and play with our high school team," Langan said. "I think it would have helped us out."
Langan planned on easing Mahony into varsity play, starting him in a reserve role with the hope of moving him into the starting lineup as he gained more confidence.
In the Stars’ jamboree game last season against Cozad, a top-ranked Class C1 team, Langan started to see how Mahony would perform. The freshman forward battled some foul trouble but thrived in the exhibition contest, prompting Langan to put Mahony in the starting lineup for the Stars’ first regular season contest against North Platte last year.
Mahony was responsible for 23 points in the Stars’ 46-42 victory against North Platte in his first-career varsity game.
Mahony has started every game in his first two years with the Stars.
As a freshman, he averaged 17.4 points. 7.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 steals in 23 games.
In the offseason, Mahony focused on improving his jump shot. He made 14 shots from beyond the arc as a freshman.
With his success around the rim as a freshman, Mahony knew he had to develop more on the offensive end for his sophomore year.
Mahony was a better shooter this season, displaying an ability to score from anywhere on the court. He finished this season with 34 made 3-pointers.
"This summer, coach (Tim) Thiele would always open up the gym," Mahony said. "It would be two or three times a week we were playing summer ball and he’d open the gym and help me with my shot."
Although Mahony has been the Stars’ top player the last two seasons, leading them to the district finals last year and the first round of the state tournament this season, he’s kept a team-first mindset and a humble approach on the basketball court.
His willingness to get other players involved caused him to lose some of his aggressiveness late in the season. He scored a combined 13 points in the Stars’ postseason victories over Holdrege and Bishop Neumann.
In the Stars’ first-round state tournament game against Ogallala got off to a rocky start for Mahony.
The first time Mahony touched the ball against Ogallala, he traveled. He then passed up a shot attempt and kicked the ball out to junior Blake Thiele that resulted in a turnover.
The second misstep resulted in Langan sitting Mahony in favor of sophomore Dylan Merz.
Mahony’s stay on the bench was short. He talked with Langan and returned to the game almost immediately, scoring a team-high 20 points in the Stars’ 65-62 loss.
"I think he was surprised how quick he went back in, " Langan said. "I talked to him and then told him to go check-in and he kind of sat there. I think it was coach (AJ) Landon who was sitting next to him and said, ‘That’s all he has, go check in.’ It was a very short period. We just made it clear to be aggressive and he took care of business after that."
Mahony has handled the pressure of being the Stars’ go-to player well despite being an underclassman. He isn’t a selfish player and admits there are times he needs to take over the game and shoot more instead of looking to pass the ball to help the Stars experience even more success.
"Just the way I am, I don’t see myself as the top guy all the time," Mahony said. "It’s kind of hard to just have the mindset that you need to go out there and score however many points per game. It was hard for me to realize. Towards the end of the year, Coach Langan was yelling at me for passing the ball too much. I should be used to it by now, but it’s just the way I am."
With two years left in his prep career, Mahony hopes to win a state championship and earn an opportunity to play basketball in college.
He has talked to "a couple of college coaches," and hopes to receive more exposure this summer when he plays for Lincoln Supreme, a club basketball team.
Mahony knows expectations will be even higher for him next season.
In the offseason, he wants to improve his explosiveness and aggressiveness around the rim in hopes of earning more trips to the free-throw line while refining his shot to be a well-rounded offensive player.
The Stars return all but two players from this season’s state tournament team. Mahony’s priority is carrying the Stars deeper into postseason play next year.
"We have a great group of guys coming back, so we will be back next year," he said.