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Basketball: Olson happy to be home

by Joe Santoro

Keith Olson is glad to be back home.

“It’s been a long couple years,” the 2007 Douglas High graduate said.

The 6-foot-9 Olson uttered those simple words with a smile before a recent Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball practice. Yes, Cary and Nonie’s son is smiling again.

“I’m just real excited to be back and healthy,” said Olson, who red shirted his freshman year at Northern Arizona in 2007-08, injured his left foot and left the Big Sky Conference school last December to return home to Gardnerville.

Smiling. Excited. Healthy. You can also add motivated, determined, energized and invigorated when describing the Wolf Pack sophomore. Olson won’t be in the lineup Tuesday night when the Wolf Pack makes its season debut with an exhibition game against Chico State (7:05 p.m.) because he must sit out this first semester because of the NCAA’s transfer rules.

“December 19,” he quickly answers when asked when he’s eligible to play. “I can’t wait.”

Please excuse Olson for counting the seconds, minutes, hours, days and weeks until he can play for the Wolf Pack gainst Wagner at Lawlor Events Center in the middle of December. You see, it’s been a while since he played in a real game.

“I remember that game a little,” smiled Wolf Pack sophomore Luke Babbitt. “But it’s kind of hazy now.”

That’s how long it has been since Olson played in a game that mattered.

It was February 2007 in the Northern 4A regional championship game.

Babbitt’s Galena Grizzlies were taking on Olson’s Douglas Tigers for the right to represent northern Nevada in the state tournament in Las Vegas the following week.

“All I remember is that we had to come back to beat them,” Babbitt said. “I was just glad to get out of there alive.”

Douglas, which shocked the defending 4A state champion Reno Huskies (86-59) the day before, led Babbitt’s Grizzlies 45-38 going into the fourth quarter. Galena, though, went on to beat the Tigers 56-55 and also won a state title the following week in Las Vegas.

The thinking, especially in the North, was that if the score in the regional title game would have been reversed, it would have been the Tigers celebrating a state title. That’s how good Olson and the Tigers were that year.

“They probably would have,” Babbitt said.

Olson, though, is at a pivotal point in his basketball life where he is only looking forward. The last two years taught him that.

“I feel great now,” Olson said. “I can’t even tell I had surgery on the foot.”

The foot, to be sure, has played tricks on him before.

“There were times before when I thought the pain was going away,” said Olson, whose grandfather, Karl Olson, played major league baseball from 1951-57. “Like right after I got the screws taken out, the pain started to go away. But after a while it would come back. I didn’t really know if I would play again because the pain kept coming back.”

That’s why he left Northern Arizona after one year.

“The main reason I came home (before the 2008-09 basketball season started) was to get healthy,” Olson said.

Home will always be Gardnerville and the orange-and-black Douglas High gym for the Olson family. His father Cary and mother Nonie (Hemsath), after all, are former Douglas High standout basketball players. Both are in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. His uncles Rob Hemsath, Jerry Gray, Scott Hemsath and Terry Olson are also in the Tigers Hall of Fame. His brother Eric, a three-sport star at Douglas earlier this decade, was also recently inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

His aunt Pam (Hemsath) also was a standout basketball player for the Tigers and his uncle Jerry Olson also excelled in three sports for the Tigers.

So, when it came time for healing, Olson knew he had to be around all things orange and black. It worked. And now he is focusing on silver and blue.

“He walked in last year and told us he wanted to play again,” Pack coach David Carter said. “At that time, though, he was out of shape so we just told him, ‘Get back in shape and let’s see where you’re at.'”

It didn’t take long.

“By the spring we could tell that he would be able to help us,” Carter said.

Olson’s role with the Wolf Pack will be a work in progress once he’s able to get back on the floor in a game.

“We are going to have to monitor how his foot feels very closely,” Carter said. “He hasn’t played in a while so we’re going to have to be careful.”

But at 6-9 and 240 pounds Olson is clearly in the Pack’s plans this season.

“Play defense, rebounding,” said Carter, when asked what he sees Olson doing this year. “He’s a big body that we can use. The things he can do for us might be the things that players don’t get credit for, like setting screens for Luke and Armon (Johnson), getting our players easier shots. We hope to use Keith in games where last year we might have had some matchup problems against bigger teams. We think Keith can do all the things that a guy like Chad Bell used to do for us.”

Babbitt is excited to play with Olson.

“I really think he’s going to be a good addition,” Babbitt said. “He’s tough and big and he can really help us with matchups. He’s definitely going to be a big plus for us.”

Babbitt is happy to finally have Olson as a teammate. The two battled each other as Little League pitching stars and then for three years as high school basketball players.

“I’ve known him for a long time,” Babbitt said. “I think I first got to know him when I was 10-years-old and we played him in a Little League tournament. I didn’t really know him then. All I can remember is that he seemed like he was about 8-feet tall when he was in the fifth grade.”

That size will be a welcome addition to the Pack.

“I just want to go out there on the court and bang, play defense and rebound,” Olson said. “I just need to use my big body and do anything I can to help this team win.”

There’s no place Olson would rather be than on a basketball court. His two-and-a-half-year journey is almost over.

“It’s just fun to be out there again,” Olson said. “This is what I love to do.”