After being teammates for the past four seasons at Harrisburg High School, seniors Jacob Rudkin and Blake Berry will continue their playing careers just down the road from each other.
On May 16, the two signed National Letters of Intent to play college basketball next season at the NAIA level. Rudkin will play for Hannibal-LaGrange University in Hannibal, while Berry will continue his career at Culver-Stockton College in Canton. The two northeast Missouri schools are located just 30 minutes apart.
“I think both of their games translate well to the next level,” Harrisburg boys basketball head coach Steve Combs said. “Both are going to be threes or stretch-fours, where they can pull a big man away from the basket and shoot the three over them. They both can dribble well and put the ball on the ground. But their both probably going to be completely different players by the end of next year.”
Both players helped guide Harrisburg to a 19-8 record during a season in which the Bulldogs held a top-10 state ranking for much of the year. Harrisburg played in the championship games of the Glasgow Tournament and South Callaway Tournament, as well as the Class 2 District 7 tournament. The Bulldogs ended their season with a 73-51 loss to Tolton in the district championship game.
Both players were Harrisburg’s top-two leading scorers, but they share a lot more in common than just that.
“They’re really two similar stories,” Combs said. “Both kids bloomed late in their careers and came up through the junior high and JV systems and paid their dues. They kept working on their games. To see them now, at the pinnacle of their basketball careers, it’s a pretty good feeling for a coach.”
Rudkin was Harrisburg’s leading scorer this past season, averaging 17.5 points per game to lead the area in that department. He was also the Howard County area leading rebounder, averaging 7.2 boards per game.
The 6-foot-4-inch senior also made 64 3-pointers this season in 184 attempts. His head coach also noted that he led his team in dunks in 2013-14, slamming the ball through the hoop whenever he got the chance.
Rudkin sprang into the spotlight early in his junior season. He grew six inches during the offseason after his sophomore year and his game grew just as much. In just his third game that year, he made the winning shot against Cairo to propel Harrisburg into the Glasgow Tournament championship game. After that game, Combs could no longer keep his star a secret.
“Growing that many inches in one year was a big surprise,” Rudkin said. “It was weird, going from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-4, but I was able to score pretty easily.”
Had Rudkin not been surrounded by a talented team, his numbers would likely have been even higher. Four Harrisburg players this winter averaged at least 9.5 points per game. Still, Rudkin would prefer to have the success the Bulldogs garnered on the court this season, winning their most games since the 2008-09 campaign.
“This year was an amazing year,” Rudkin said. “I really felt like we had a lot of success at the beginning of the season and toward the end. It was the best year I had at Harrisburg. It just made me want to keep playing basketball.”
Rudkin said one of his favorite moments this season came at the start of the district championship game against Tolton. He made two early 3-pointers and scored eight of Harrisburg’s first 10 points to take an early lead against the Trailblazers.
The game may have ended in a loss, but it was the furthest Harrisburg had advanced in the state playoffs since its state semifinal run in 2008-09, when Rudkin was only in the seventh grade. The Bulldogs hosted districts this past season and even received the No. 1 seed, having defeated the Trailblazers in the regular season.
“I just feel like we’re getting Harrisburg basketball back to where it should be,” Rudkin said.
Hannibal-LaGrange head coach Jason Durst said one area he needs to fill next season is scoring, and he’s looking for Rudkin to be one of the players to take that role for the Trojans, who finished 4-25 last season.
“His ability to score, along with his size and length coming out of high school, is going to give him a chance to make a big impact right away,” Durst said. “In his case, growing late and playing a guard spot at a younger age was to his advantage.”
Berry joins a program that has enjoyed recent success at the NAIA level. Culver-Stockton has made the national tournament in each of the past two seasons under head coach Jack Schrader.
However, the Wildcats lose several key players from last year’s team. With plenty of roster spots to fill, it allured Berry to want to play basketball in Canton next year.
“It’s all a competition,” Berry said. “With all of the seniors leaving, I thought there was more chance of me playing for a better team if I went there. If I work hard, I’ll be on the varsity.”
Berry was the second-leading scorer for the Bulldogs this past year, averaging 11.4 points per game. He led the team, and the area, with 2.7 steals per game and also averaged 4.8 rebounds per game. Like Rudkin, he was balanced in many areas of his game and also shot well from 3-point range for a 6-foot-1 guard.
“One thing very few people have is an all-around game,” Berry said. “I want to focus on defense a lot more when I go to college because I know I’m undersized. I’ll take pride in my defense a lot more (than my offense).”
Schrader said he likes Berry because he has been a proven winner at Harrisburg, but he also wanted to bring him to Culver-Stockton because he is “a player who can do more than one thing.”
“That makes him more valuable,” Schrader said. “I think he can play either of the wing positions and he also handles the ball well. He was their quarterback in football. He’s just a leader.”
Berry said his favorite game was Harrisburg’s 57-56 win earlier this season at Southern Boone. Although it was the third time the Bulldogs had beaten the Eagles during the season, Berry hit a shot in the lane just before the buzzer to win the game.
Hannibal-LaGrange is in the American Midwest Conference and Culver-Stockton resides in the Heart of America Athletic Conference, so although the two schools are close, they’re not really rivals.
However, the two teams will face each other on Nov. 3 in Hannibal, then on Nov. 25 in Canton next season.
So, when they’re going head-to-head on the basketball court, who would win: Rudkin or Berry? Their former basketball coach wouldn’t give a definitive answer.
“You know, I’d say they’ve worked that out several times on the basketball floor,” Combs said. “Some shots would get put up, let’s put it that way. They’re going to go at each other.”