By CONOR NICHOLL
DODGE CITY – Last season, Jetmore-Hodgeman County enjoyed a nine-win turnaround and became of Kansas’ biggest surprises. The Longhorns finished 21-5 in the second season with coach Trent Bright. HC earned a Class 1A, Division I final four appearance and the school district went to state for the first time since 2005.
However, two losses stayed with the Longhorns, both at Dodge City’s United Wireless Arena. On Jan. 30, the Longhorns lost by eight to Bucklin in the Southern Plains Iroquois tournament championship game. At state, Hodgeman County committed 34 turnovers and fell by 17 to Olpe, which delivered a dominant undefeated year. Olpe set a state record for fewest points allowed in three state contests. Bright said the team called it “unfinished business.”
“They made us turn the ball over,” Bright said of Olpe. “That’s the game we look to.”
Hodgeman County has not lost since Olpe – and have again significantly exceeded outside expectations. HC, paced by another elite defense and an improved offense, has climbed to No. 1 in the poll and remained undefeated Saturday with a 52-48 victory versus Coldwater-South Central in the SPIAA tournament championship at UWA.
The Longhorns, which returned 72 percent of its scoring from last winter, were not ranked in the preseason top-10 in Class 1A, Division I by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association. That served an early source of motivation.
Bright has served on staff for 13 years with Hodgeman County. He said HC girls have not captured a conference tournament in his tenure. Junior Malynn Beil said winning SPIAA meant “a lot” and was “one of our big goals” after the loss to Bucklin.
“We really wanted this one after that last time we were here,” Beil said. “So it was really good getting that back.”
HC led 42-33 early in the fourth quarter after back-to-back fast break scores from Beil, the team’s leading scorer each of the past two years. Beil and sophomore Morgan Ruff tied for a team-high 13 points.
SC paced by its star duo of senior Sierra Jellison and junior Kodie Herd, tied the game at 46. Jellison, who cleared 1,000 career points earlier this month, delivered a game-best 16 points. Herd finished with 14 points and six rebounds. Plus, senior Kirstin Hackney, who has signed with Southwestern College cross country, is an experienced point guard.
Hodgeman County led 49-48 with under two minutes left. SC had three good looks, including some wide-open, but couldn’t convert. HC, led by six rebounds from senior Grace Shiew, finished plus-9 on the glass. The Longhorns have outrebounded 12 of 14 opponents this winter.
South Central shot 45 percent from the field, the best any team has against the Longhorns’ defense this season, although was 1 of 8 from beyond the arc. South Central missed its last four shots. Afterward, a red-faced Jellison sat quietly on a chair. Jellison finished first, third, fourth and second in her four seasons at the SPIAA tournament.
“We made too many unforced errors, especially defensively,” South Central coach Tim Rietzke said. “And I thought they were a little bit more physical in our man defense than we were, and over the course of the game, that added up. And having said that, we had plenty of chances at the end to turn the game our way, and just couldn’t get a goal. Hodgeman has got a really good team.
“They play really good man defense, they are well-coached,” he added. “I was just a little bit disappointed in our communication on defense tonight, and I was a little bit disappointed in our toughness away from the ball, cutting, screening, and I thought that’s what hurt us in the end. But it was a good ballgame.”
Beil drew fouls with 17 seconds and 3.8 seconds left and converted 3 of 4 for the victory. In the boys’ contest, Bucklin defeated Hodgeman County, 53-47. Bucklin, enjoying its best season in more than 15 years, is ranked sixth in 1A, Division II. HC boys are ninth in 1A-I. (More on Bucklin during the week on SIK).
“I was just trying to get them in,” Beil said. “Take my time. Be smart about it. Got a little adrenaline rush during all that.”
Hodgeman County improved to 14-0. That includes a pair of victories against South Central and Rietzke, who has exceeded 800 career wins. The Timberwolves, ranked ninth in Class 1A, Division I, dropped to 11-3. South Central has played the entire year without senior Hadley Lohrding, a key three-year player and the squad’s top defender. Lohrding, Jellison’s best friend, had suffered injury.
“It’s always good when you face a tough opponent like South Central,” Bright said. “They are established. Coach Rietzke is established.”
On Jan. 7, the Longhorns defeated SC, 53-47, at home. Jetmore is 3-0 against SC in the last two seasons. Before then, the Longhorns had lost 14 in a row to the T-Wolves.
“It’s really good for our team,” Beil said. “Just knowing that we compete, like we are up there.”
Hodgeman County is now 5-0 in games decided by eight points or fewer, including four wins against opponents ranked higher than the Longhorns when the season started.
Class 1A, Division I girls might be Kansas’ deepest classification – and HC is a legitimate state contender with its depth, athleticism and defense.
HC, St. Paul, Centralia and defending state runner-up Norwich are the lone perfect teams in the classification. Plus, Burlingame (13-2) won the Lyon County League tournament for the first time in school history Saturday.
Overall, the Longhorns are holding teams to 30.5 percent shooting and 22.5 percent from beyond the arc, per SIK research and Digital Scout data logs.
“I am just really proud of our team,” Bright said.
Hodgeman County, the defending regular season SPIAA champions, will look to complete another regular season crown in February. The Longhorns have won 15 straight versus league teams. Bright has not mentioned the No. 1 ranking to the girls.
“It’s a testament to how hard they have played,” Bright said. “The ranking is what it is. It doesn’t mean much until you get that final ranking, and that’s what our sights are, is we are looking that direction. Trying to be there at the end. That’s more important to us than having it right now.”
Hodgeman County has multiple girls that led the Longhorns to a state runner-up in 1A track last spring, including senior Kaylee James. She won a 300 hurdle state title and was second in three other events.
“Kaylee James is our best defender,” Bright said. “She is a really good defender.”
Bright has turned around the program with his We over Me mantra that has stressed team, chemistry and staying accountable. At times Saturday, HC fought through adversity. In the second quarter, Ruff received a talking from Bright on the bench.
When she entered, Ruff swished two treys from the right side in a minute span. Ruff, who rarely played as a freshman, has delivered a breakout season. That helped HC take a 23-20 halftime lead. The Longhorns led 38-33 entering the fourth quarter.
“We kind of switched to zone there a little bit in the second half, and they don’t like it honestly,” Bright said. “…It’s in their minds. They want to play man, and from Day 1, I have always told them, the best teams play man-to-man defense.”
Additionally, James had 17 points in the first meeting and struggled some with fouls and emotions Saturday. Still, she battled through for 11 points, including a key basket and steal in the final three minutes.
“Knowing that working together just helps everybody click,” Beil said. “And being hyped up about everything, it just helps everybody out. …This is a team sport, and just knowing that we have to work together to be able to get that win.”
Last season, HC allowed just .57 points per possession, which is state championship-caliber. However, the Longhorns scored .72 points per possession and collected 32 percent of available offensive rebounds with a 27 percent turnover ratio.
This season, the Longhorns had allowed just .51 points a possession after the first 12 contests. The offense has drastically improved to .87 points a possession.
“On the defensive end, we are always pretty solid,” Bright said.
HC, helped by junior Jessie Ruff, has become a strong offensive rebounding team. The Longhorns have grabbed 41 percent of available offensive rebounds and turned it over just 23 percent. Hodgeman County has a goal to hold teams under 40 points.
HC is a collective plus-10.8 in rebounding margin this winter, an astronomical difference.
“No. 1, obviously their talent level has improved,” Rietzke said. “Two, Trent has got them playing really good, physical, man defense, and when you play good, physical man, people are really going to have to work to score against you.”
The defense held South Central scoreless for the final 2:40. Beil, easily the team leader in free throws made this season, provided the final separation.
“I am comfortable when she steps to the line, yeah, she is a solid shooter,” Bright said. “She works at it, works a lot. She puts a lot of time in on it, so I don’t have to worry that much.”