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Players, colleagues mourn loss of former St. Mary's coach

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St. Mary's head basketball coach Brent DeKok coaches during a January 2020 game at the Bismarck Event Center. DeKok, the former Saints head coach, passed away on Wednesday following a long battle with cancer.

No matter what the challenges, Brent DeKok was always positive.

The former St. Mary’s boys basketball coach died Wednesday morning after a five-year battle with cancer.

“It was a tough day,” St. Mary’s Athletic Director Bruce Schumacher said. “You could see some long faces, some sadness … it was a hard day to come. You knew it was coming but it’s always hard when it does.

“We’ll always remember the legacy he left. It was a tough day for Brent’s family, for our St. Mary’s family and the North Dakota basketball community.”

The news spread quickly on social media, with former players and coaching colleagues offering tributes to DeKok, a 1996 Century graduate.

“It’s kind of a day you were regretting would come,” said Legacy boys basketball coach Jason Horner, who was a childhood friend of Brent and his brother Jon. “You knew it was coming but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

The way DeKok approached his battle with cancer stood out.

“He handled it better than I would,” Horner said. “One thing about Brent was he was always positive with it. It was never, why me? He never once complained. He made you believe he was going to beat it.

“Even until the last few weeks – he had the oxygen machine, he couldn’t stand, you could hear him struggling to breathe and he’d say I feel good. We’re going to try this treatment, it’s just the next step in the process to get better.”

“For me, I’ve only been in Bismarck for just over three years, so I came at a time when Brent had had three surgeries, he was in the first process of recovery,” said B.J. Etzold, who coached the St. Mary’s girls basketball team the past two seasons and was named the Saints boys head coach in April. “Things were going well, it was exciting. Then it took a turn for the worse out of nowhere. It was hard to see him in and out, feeling weak, tired. But even if he was, he was always full of energy.

“He never felt sorry for himself. He put the glory on God. It was awesome to be around him every day. I cherished every second of it.”

“The courage he had, how he fought – he really showed me what faith looked like,” Schumacher said. “Always a positive attitude, always upbeat no matter what kind of day he was having.”

“Even before he had cancer, that’s who he was,” Etzold said. “Always positive, always a smile on his face. That was the only way he knew to attack it every single day. He tried to use that cancer to be a light to others.”

“He had a remarkable faith throughout the whole journey,” Horner said. “He just taught all of us how to handle personal adversity with dignity and courage and still treat others remarkably. He’s just one of the best people I’ve ever gotten to know.”

DeKok always had his team prepared and he led the Saints, often underdogs in the tough West Region, to some big victories.

“He won some big games in the West Region tournament,” Schumacher said. “One year, they knocked off Dickinson as the No. 6 seed. He got teams to state tournaments when no one thought we would get there.”

“What he got out of his kids and how hard he got his kids to play says a lot about how he affected his team,” Horner said. “He ran some of the best stuff I’ve seen. I felt outcoached. If you didn’t have days to prepare, you were going to get beat. And even if you did, you still might get beat. He had a personal connection with his players. That’s a good combination.

“He had his kids believing in what they did and you could see it.”

“Kids wanted to play for him and he had a passion for basketball and the athletes that played for him,” Schumacher said. “He truly cared about those guys.”

The loss was sudden to so many people.

“It still hasn’t hit my yet,” Horner said. “It’s so surreal to all of us. But I think it’s really going to hit during basketball season. I’m so used to talking to him so often. It’s hard for me to accept.

“He was one of a kind. Nobody like him. A remarkable soul. As a friend and as a peer, there was nobody better.”

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