By CONOR NICHOLL
Josh Gooch coached at Salina Central from 2008-15. In that stretch, Gooch was on the Mustang girls’ basketball staff for a program that reached state for the first time in 27 years in 2012.
Two years later, SC delivered a state runner-up, still tied for the top showing in program history. Gooch coached Cale Sharp and Shaelyn Martin, among others, in the hurdles for track. Martin set multiple school basketball records and went onto a great career with Kansas State basketball.
Gooch learned from Rick O’Neill, who coached 43 years at Salina Central before he retired last summer from the Mustangs. Gooch called Salina Central a “very memorable experience” and learned valuable coaching lessons, especially with mentality.
“Teaching kids confidence or just trying to get them to believe in themselves was 75 percent of the battle of any type of sporting event, and the ones that are really good or really great are the ones that believe in themselves might be faster or earlier than other people,” Gooch said.
Gooch, a Tribune-Greeley County graduate, was on the ’01 and ’02 Greeley County boys’ basketball teams. The ’01 squad lost to Brewster in triple overtime in the state semifinals. The ’02 team fell to Centralia in state title. Gooch set the GC record for career fouls, played college basketball at Bethany and met his wife in Salina.
Their first child was born in 2013. The Goochs were going to have a second child and elected to move back to Tribune. After a year off coaching, Gooch returned in 2016.
He took over as Greeley County’s boys’ basketball coach in ’16-17, a team that lost its first 12 games.
Seven years later, Gooch looked back on his career and foundations that led to back-to-back Class 1A, Division II state championships for the Jackrabbits.
“The ups and downs that created them or molded them into where they are at now, it’s fun,” Gooch told SIK a few days after state.
GC finished 24-2 last winter when it upset Hanover in the title on a last-second 3-pointer from then-freshman Lincoln Shafer.
This winter, the Jackrabbits’ seven-member senior class, including generational talent Jaxson Brandl, was the classification favorite all season. The preseason No. 1, the Jackrabbits finished 25-1 and held off Lebo, 49-43, in the March 11 title game at Great Bend’s Barton County Community College. The championship was predicted to be Greeley County against Axtell, though Lebo upset Axtell in the semifinals.
“A little different having the target on our back this year, but I also tried to use last year’s storyline as Hanover was the favorite, and then we beat them,” Gooch said. “Let’s not be the Hanover of last year. Let’s finish our story. Let’s be on top, and when Lebo beat Axtell, we said, ‘OK, Lebo is for real guys. It might be a Cinderella story, but they are pretty good.’”
Before 2022, Greeley County had two all-time state titles, in 1968 and 2011. Among many other records, Brandl is the school’s all-time scoring leader with 2,162 points. He is No. 16 all-time in Kansas history, per historian Kyle Taylor.
“I was hoping for at least one state tournament run,” Gooch said. “I never dreamed of having two state titles, let alone two state championship game appearances.”
GC had six seniors on the state roster: Brandl, Titus Sherer (Southwestern College offer), Isaac Schneider, Valentin Villalobos, Jariath Yanez and Carson Luebbers. Shafer returned as the sophomore starting point guard.
“They bring out the best in each other,” Gooch said.
Brandl repeated as 1A, Division II Player of the Year in awards announced this week by Sports in Kansas. Gooch repeated as classification Coach of the Year. Brandl finished with 25.5 points, 61 percent shooting, and 10.2 rebounds, all team-bests.
Villalobos was known for his athleticism and competitiveness. Sherer and Villalobos paced with 3.7 assists a contest. Villalobos was multiple inches shorter than some opposing star players, though held them in check. Gooch called Yanez a great shooter and ball handler who can play lock down defense. Gooch labeled Sherer “the Energizer Bunny.” Shafer improved defensively. Shafer averaged 10.6 points a game, Yanez at 10.1.
“His defense has gotten so much better and that became a great asset or strength to him and to our team,” Gooch said. “And then Isaac and Carson, they have been able to defend a big, and then score when the drivers have been getting double teamed, and they have been great at crashing the boards, that’s been their strength.”
When Gooch took over Greeley County, the current seniors were in sixth grade. The group had played together since third grade and had shown early talent. Brandl comes from a longtime Greeley County family.
His uncle was the assistant on the ’11 state title team. His mother, Lori, played college basketball at Pratt Community College. Her teammate was Tessa Bevan (Lickiss), mother of current Macksville senior Lance Lickiss. Macksville won the 1A-I state title, and Lickiss was the most outstanding player at that state tournament.
Gooch thought back to his first team and losses in his first 12 games as a head coach. Gooch’s team was “right there several times” for a win. Defensively, he only taught the Jackrabbits a man defense.
“I had a very young group of kids,” Gooch said. “I had a lot of sophomores and a couple juniors, and I had no seniors, so we were learning from each other, trying to figure out what was the best offense for these kids.”
The 12th loss came on Jan. 21, 2017 to Oberlin in a 43-42 defeat.
“We made a shot to take the lead with about four, five seconds left, and the other team, Oberlin, inbounded it and took it the whole length of the court and scored,” Gooch said. “And I was kicking myself for not calling a timeout to set up our defense, but I didn’t want them to set anything up either. Our kids were a little early to celebrate.”
Three days later, Greeley County defeated Leoti-Wichita County, 46-38, a win that Gooch said “got the monkey off my back.” That kickstarted three straight victories, including an 11-point win in a rematch against Oberlin. GC finished 6-4 and went 6-16.
Gooch steadily built with 12-10 and 8-14 records. In 2019-20, the current seniors entered high school. In eighth grade, the GC senior class had finally defeated Hoxie and won the first league title in basketball.
“These guys could do something special,” Gooch said.
As freshman, GC went 16-9 with 1A was all one class in COVID year of 2019-20. Brandl had a huge season with 21.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. He and Sherer (2.8 assists a game) both earned some version of all-conference honors as freshmen.
Greeley County defeated St. Francis three times, including for league; SF eventually went to state. Greeley County lost by 18 to Stockton in the sub-state championship game. Stockton was eventually a COVID Forever Four squad.
The next season, GC finished 13-9 and lost by 10 to Wheatland-Grinnell in sub-state. Shortly after, Gooch knew the veteran group was ready for a big ’21-22. Plus, Shafer coming in as a freshman provided, in Gooch’s eyes, another guard, shooter, ball handler and eventual lock down defender.
“Their work ethic after that showed me that they were ready to get that monkey off their back and prove to the state that they weren’t just a decent class,” Gooch said. “They were ready to play. It wasn’t just getting shots up. Jaxson spent a lot of time in the weight room. He got a lot stronger, and all these kids did.”
Greeley County held off Northern Valley in the state semifinals in the final minute and delivered the still-remembered Shafer trey to beat Hanover. This season, Greeley County won, 82-67, in a Dec. 6 game against McClave, then a No. 1-ranked team in his Colorado class. McClave eventually finished 19-7. On Jan. 6, GC lost, 56-49, at Northern Valley in the rematch from ’22 state.
“A bad shooting night and the ball didn’t bounce our way,” Gooch said.
Since then, Gooch preached if the 3-pointer wasn’t falling, the Jackrabbits needed to find other ways to score. GC needed to execute the offense and get a paint touch. Gooch estimated 75 percent of the Jackrabbits’ shots come from underneath the basket.
On Feb. 7, Greeley County came back to win at Syracuse, 73-64. GC trailed by five entering the fourth and outscored the Bulldogs, 27-13, in the final quarter. Greeley County focused on defense and on Syracuse’s Kyler Keller, a career 1,000-point scorer.
Offensively, GC honed on passing, cutting and paint touches and swung the game in the fourth. Gooch continued to call each contest Game 23, Game 24, Game 25 as opposed to “state quarterfinal,” semifinal and final.
“If you stop focusing on the shot or making or missing your shot and focus on your defense, the offense will fall into place,” Gooch said. “We have had to rely on that several times.”
After two controlled state wins, Greeley County played Lebo in the final. With the game tied at 39, Sherer took a charge. Brandl made two free throws, and Sherer added a huge 3-pointer. GC came back from eight down in the third quarter. The shot came because Villalobos drove to the paint and kicked it out. Sherer caught it in rhythm and stepped into the shot.
“That’s what I have been preaching to these kids for a long time,” Gooch said.
Greeley County set a team record with 57.1 percent shooting on 2-point shots and the most 3s made in a year at 173. Brandl broke three team season marks: most points (637), field goals made (261) and 2-point field goal shooting (66.2 percent). Brandl set nine career school records, including most points, most field goals made and attempted, most free throws made and attempted, most rebounds and most steals (317).
Yanez set the career charges record with 30. Sherer broke Gooch’s career record for fouls at 210.