By CONOR NICHOLL
QUINTER – All game, the Castle Rock Classic girls’ championship between rivals Wheatland-Grinnell and Quinter had a frenetic, aggressive and highly intense pace. High school teams average around 60 possessions. The Gove County rivals like to play man-to-man pressure and tallied an astronomical 89 possessions.
Both teams entered with 3-0 records. W-G was ranked sixth in Class 1A, Division II and returned its entire team. Quinter went 17-6 last winter. In Saturday’s contest, the squads combined for 71 turnovers, 41 from Quinter. They tallied 45-plus fouls.
Five players fouled out, three by Quinter and two from Wheatland-Grinnell. W-G junior Kerri Heier fouled out for the first time in her career. Plus, Quinter’s gym is significantly smaller than many fieldhouses, and the Bulldogs always have a loud home crowd. The noise continually resonates.
“It was just so fun coming in here on their home court, their crowd is really intense, it’s a phenomenal environment to play in,” W-G senior Livia Schultz said.
On one play, Quinter’s leading scorer, senior Ava Gillespie, drew a hard foul against Wheatland-Grinnell’s strong and talented sophomore post Karoline Schroeder. The contact yielded a cut and blood from Schroeder’s knee, and she had to briefly leave the game. She played with a bandage the rest of the contest and finished with a near triple-double: 12 points, 20 rebounds and seven steals, per W-G’s official statistics.
“She gives everything on the court no matter what,” Schultz said.
With 3 minutes, 56 seconds left, Schultz was involved in a hard foul. She fell backwards on the court and hit her head. The game briefly stopped as Schultz slowly came to her feet. W-G led 50-43. Schultz told Thunderhawk coach Marlin Beougher, “you are not pulling me.” Beougher replied: “I knew you were going to say that.”
Schultz missed 31 seconds. She finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and helped W-G to a 56-50 victory and Castle Rock championship.
“I have got to finish this game,” Schultz said. “…And I ended up being fine. It was just a pretty hard hit on my head. So it was good, though. No (pain). I fell so hard I snapped my ponytail. Other than that, we are good.”
The emotion showed on both squads. After team photos, Schultz was walking off the court with the commemorative plaque. She smiled and let out a breath.
“That girl has so many bumps and bruises, she has hip problems and knee problems and back problems and everything else, but she guts it out every week,” Beougher said of Schultz.
Multiple Quinter players were red-faced with tears. Veteran Quinter coach Matt Havlas believed his team “lost our composure” and “kind of had the deer in the headlight look.” The teams are separated by 13 miles and are in different conferences and classifications. They meet again on Feb. 8.
“We just didn’t have our best game tonight,” Havlas said. “I know we can do better. I am glad that we play them again. I want to play them again.”
Later Saturday, the Wheatland-Grinnell boys delivered a remarkable comeback against Pawnee Heights for the boys’ crown. W-G trailed by 10 at halftime, and by 10 midway through the third quarter. The Thunderhawks, led by 3-point shooting from senior Trey Vincent, came back and took the lead.
Then, PH led by 10 again midway through the fourth quarter. W-G ended on a 13-2 run and won 56-53. Wheatland-Grinnell is ranked fourth in 1A, Division II.
“First half, I was all spun up and out of whack,” Trey said. “So second half, I came out, and I was more calm, and had more confidence shooting the ball, that’s what was the difference. My heart was beating so fast, and I was too excited. I just needed to calm down and play basketball.”
Pawnee Heights, a state final four team last season, features high-flying 6-foot-2 junior Alec Carlson. PH is ranked sixth in Division II. Thunderhawk senior Isaac Mendez slowed Carlson to 14 points, just three in the second half. Carlson averaged 22.8 points a game in his last 26 contests.
“Alec Carlson is just a stud,” W-G coach Will Bixenman said.
This marked the 38th annual Castle Rock Classic. It yielded the first W-G had won both the boys and girls in the same season. Before Wheatland and Grinnell consolidated in the mid-2000s, Wheatland won both titles last in 1989-90. Wheatland and Quinter are the only programs to compete in every Castle Rock.
“They moved a lot better than us,” Pawnee Heights boys’ coach Rick Carlson said. “They passed better than us. They outcoached us. They outplayed us. They outhustled us. I made some wrong decisions on defense, and they hit a lot of 3s, and they were shooting very well, and all power to them.
“They hit the shots, and then they were playing us tight on defense, and it made it really hard to get shots inside or out, and we just kind of got out of our game on offense,” he added. “We started trying to go on the outside, instead of getting on the inside, and it kind of cost us tonight.”
The girls had not won at Castle Rock title since ’91-92. The boys’ only title since ’89-90 came in ’15-16. Bixenman, a former W-G all-state quarterback and graduate, also serves as the school’s athletic director.
He was instrumental in hiring Beougher in late spring. Beougher had coached football in Wheatland in the mid-80s and lives in Hoxie. He had coached basketball more than 25 years at various levels and served as an assistant for most of then-Hoxie girls’ coach Shelly Hoyt’s 107-game winning streak. Beougher retired from teaching five years ago. He makes the 18-mile trip down one-lane KS-23 from Hoxie to Grainfield each day.
“I am really glad, and really thankful we have him, because he is good. Girls are playing hard obviously. How ‘bout those Thunderhawks? Two Castle Rock champions, baby,” Bixenman said with a smile and laugh.
Quinter and Grainfield (which houses Wheatland-Grinnell) have long had a rivalry, though the stakes have increased in recent years. Sisters Shannon Foster and Allison Polifka coached W-G and Quinter volleyball. Polifka used to coach W-G volleyball.
Quinter cross country coach Ed Mense led the Bulldogs to a girls’ state cross country title and boys’ state runner-up this fall. He graduated from Wheatland and formerly coached at W-G.
This year marked the consensus biggest Gove County rivalry football game ever. W-G pulled away in the second half for a 58-26 home win.
Quinter went 8-2 and reached the state quarterfinals, its best season in more than a decade. The Thunderhawks finished 11-2 for its top all-time season, an Eight-Man, Division II runner-up showing to Axtell. Many generations on both sides know each other well and are related.
Beougher has known the current W-G girls for a long time. He went to school with some of their parents. Beougher also taught some of their parents when he started back in 1984. Beougher first received a call in late April. He took around a week to make his choice. He had taken a year off coaching and missed it.
“See what I can do, and I am loving every second of it,” he said.
The rivalry is especially close in girls’ basketball. W-G holds a 15-12 advantage in the last 27 meetings. The teams have split the last six contests. Under Havlas, Quinter went to state in ’17 and won its only girls’ crown in ’18. W-G, with former coach Cheryl Martin, took third in ’14 and second in ’17. W-G is a longtime state volleyball power, including a final four finish this fall.
“They are our rivals,” Schultz said. “Probably our biggest rivals that we have, and it’s a competition every time we show up to the court.”
This fall, the 5-foot-10 Schultz was first team all-state. She cleared 1,000 career kills and has signed with Colby Community College volleyball. Senior setter Anna Godek, also a four-year starter in basketball and the point guard, was second team. Schroeder collected honorable mention.
“I wouldn’t trade anything playing with Anna on the court,” Schultz said. “We have been playing since fourth and fifth grade. She is my best friend. We go through every sport together, and super fun playing by her.”
Last season, W-G had zero seniors. The Thunderhawks had eight total players. W-G started 0-3 and 1-5 and finished 10-10. That included a 50-24 loss to Quinter on Feb. 9. Schultz and the team were aware that W-G brought everyone back under Beougher. He ran the girls’ summer weights. Numbers have increased.
“Honestly, it’s been super good, super positive, I guess,” Schultz said. “The environment is the locker room or on the court, it’s super positive, and we appreciate – he has put in so much time, effort, everything into this new team he has. He has given us a chance, so we appreciate it.”
Havlas and veteran assistant Scott Crist, a former Quinter point guard, have consistently delivered quality seasons since they took over a long struggling program. Last season, Quinter was an excellent offensive rebounding team with Kayler Getz and Anna Briggs. Getz graduated, and Briggs moved to Nebraska.
Quinter has no player above 5-8. The highly athletic Bulldogs have elected to play fast behind Gillespie, sophomore Kennedy Werth and freshman Bryn Gillespie. In the 3-0 start, Ava averaged 23.7 points per game, Werth 17. That included a 76-72 win against Atwood in Friday’s semifinals.
Earlier Saturday, Quinter honored Merle Hargitt, who passed away at the age of 91 on Nov. 22. Hargitt’s service was Saturday morning and concluded a few hours before the championship games. Hargitt, a Quinter graduate, was a fixture at Castle Rock Classics since the beginning and served in a variety of capacities. Hargitt handled tickets for decades in football and basketball. He was known for his handyman work and calm, positive spirit.
“Before today’s game, I’d like to recognize the passing of Merle Hargitt, who was laid to rest today,” the PA announcer said. “Merle was a bus driver, custodian, he took tickets at ball games as part of the Quinter Community Club. Let’s have a moment of silence in his memory.”
In the girls’ final, W-G took a 21-20 lead early second quarter and never trailed again.
“They did a great job slowing us down,” Havlas said.
Quinter closed to 50-49 when Schroeder flew in for an offensive rebound, collected the ball off the bounce on the right and made a basket with just over two minutes left.
“It was pretty exciting, and I knew it would be close, and I knew it would be very competitive, because we both pretty much do the same thing,” Beougher said. “Run man to man, and fast break and press. It was really exciting.
“Of course, it is always exciting to beat the rival, 13 miles away,” he added with a smile and wink. “Yeah, it was awesome.”
Quinter is 3-1, and Wheatland-Grinnell improved to 4-0.
“It feels so good to have a good season, start off 4-0, so I am super pumped to see how far we are going to go and what we are going to accomplish,” Schultz said.
On the boys’ side, W-G had just seven practices because of the late start from football. The Thunderhawks have not put in a sideline out of bounds play.
Head football coach Jesse Vincent is Bixenman’s basketball assistant coach. Mendez and the Vincent brothers, Trey and junior Jett, were all SIK Player of the Year finalists on one side of the ball. Jett was the classification Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged a team-high 13.4 points and 6.5 rebounds as a sophomore.
W-G lost, 52-49, to Logan-Palco in a key season-opening contest. However, the Thunderhawks improved during Castle Rock week and beat Central Christian Academy and Rawlins County before the finals. Trey had a career-high 25 versus Rawlins County. Bixenman was thankful for the new field at Castle Rock. Four teams played for the first time, including Natoma and Pawnee Heights.
“Not much fundamentals, because we don’t have time, so we put our offense in, got our defense in, and press, and press break,” Trey said. “…. We do a lot of shooting, though, to get our shots down in the game.”
Pawnee Heights led 29-19 at halftime. Vincent had one field goal. W-G was 1 of 11 from beyond the arc. Bixenman believed PH’s length “affected us a little bit” and that the Thunderhawks were “timid” to finish.
“I told them at halftime that we are a great shooting team,” Bixenman said. “The averages kind of even out. We were terrible shooting the ball in the first half. We got it going a little bit in the third quarter.”
Vincent took advantage of PH’s 2-3 zone that left the middle of the court open. He made three 3s in just over two minutes in the third quarter. In the fourth, PH had climbed back to a 51-41 lead. Then, W-G scored 12 straight points, highlighted by a Vincent fast break, a Vincent assist to junior Nathan Vollbracht, and a Vincent trey to tie the game with 2:57 left.
After a PH turnover with 1:20 left, W-G junior Treven Humphries missed a trey. Vincent grabbed the offensive rebound. Humphries eventually found him for a 3 at the top again. PH had a chance to tie in the closing seconds, but the Tigers couldn’t handle an inbounds pass to cap an historic night for the Thunderhawks.
“We just kept our heads down and fighting through it,” Trey said. “Through the adversity, fought through it, stuck together as a team, and we just made baskets, made a comeback.”