By CONOR NICHOLL
GREAT BEND – Tribune-Greeley County coach Josh Gooch still vividly remembers his sophomore and junior experiences in the Class 1A state tournament at Fort Hays State University. In 2001, Greeley County defeated Hanover by 17 in the state quarterfinals.
For the semifinals, GC faced Brewster, a team located just 81 miles a way from Tribune. Brewster was a high-octane offensive team that was the defending state champions. Brewster won 66-64 in triple overtime. Gooch remembers GC not playing well in a three-point third place loss to White City. Greeley County’s Shea Stewart set the 1A record with 13 treys made at a state tournament.
The following year, Greeley County defeated Argonia and Ashland by large margins. In the finals, the Jackrabbits fell in overtime to Centralia of the Twin Valley League. Last Friday, Gooch still quickly recalled the opponents and scores as he stood outside the locker room at Barton County Community College.
“I was in this same position 20, 21 years ago, and it’s exciting,” Gooch said.
On Friday, Greeley County outscored Almena-Northern Valley by five in the fourth quarter and delivered a 59-54 state semifinal victory. GC’s defense limited NV standouts Bailey Sides and Eric Loya to 16 combined points. The pair averaged 27.
“I have to give credit to our defense,” Gooch said. “That’s been our staple all year long. We did a good job on their shooters. They live and die by the 3, so we tried to get a hand on Loya and Sides’ face all the time. …Shooters need a friend, so we just need to stay by them all the time, so that was our strategy going into the game was stay with those two.”
Plus, GC made 10 of 29 treys, including four from freshman Lincoln Shafer. Junior Jaxson Brandl, a returning first team all-state player, tallied 21.
“They made some plays at the end, and we didn’t, that’s about all I can say,” Northern Valley coach Kevin Sides said. “And they made their free throws down the stretch. They shot the ball really well first half.”
Greeley County went 16-9 two seasons ago. Last season, GC finished 13-9 with just one senior. GC returned all five starters for 2021-22, though Shafer moved into the starting lineup.
“Honestly, he’s relieved some of my stress as a point guard,” junior Titus Sherer said. “Just having another guy to lean on and make big plays like he’s stepped up in this state championship tournament. He’s a good player, there’s nothing you can do about it when he is shooting 3s. He will pump fake, drive, get a layup, find the open guy on the drive.”
On Saturday, Greeley County had multiple parallels with the ’01 and ’02 squads. The Jackrabbits faced a defending champion. Greeley County again played Hanover, the first time the teams had matched up since ’01. Hanover, like Centralia, is from the Twin Valley League.
This time, Greeley County didn’t end state with an overtime loss. Shafer hit a state championship-winning 3-pointer from the corner in the last seconds for a 56-55 victory against favored Hanover. It marked one of three state title games that came to a 3-pointer on essentially the game’s final play.
Shafer finished the state tournament with 11 treys, two off the state record. GC sank 27 of 71 treys (38 percent).
No. 2 seed Greeley County went 24-2. The Jackrabbits were not ranked in the preseason top-10 by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association. Greeley County finished with 12 straight victories. Hanover went 24-2 after 24-1 last season. GC became the first non-Centralia team to defeat the Wildcats since Feb. 27, 2020.
In 1A-I girls, Pretty Prairie beat Centralia, 37-35, when the Panthers’ 3 at the buzzer bounced out. In 3A girls, Goodland beat GWAC rival Hugoton, 48-47. Hugoton junior Mikyn Hamlin’s desperation trey at the buzzer nearly went in. In the regular season matchup, Hamlin, a Wyoming commit, hit an off-balance trey at the buzzer to send the game to OT. Hugoton eventually won.
Kansas has four counties in Mountain Time Zone, including Sherman County, which has Goodland, and Greeley County. Five high schools play in Mountain. Greeley County won its third ever title, joining 1968 and 2011. Buddy Brandl, Jaxson’s uncle, served as an assistant on the ’11 squad, per KSHSAA records.
Goodland girls, at state for the first time in 16 seasons, won its third title after 1975 and ’80. It marked the first time in Kansas history that two Mountain Time Zone schools won state basketball championships in the same year. Goodland won its three state games by a combined eight points.
Gooch had served as an assistant at Salina Central for seven seasons and was head cross country coach for a time. He is in his sixth year with Greeley County. He finished 26-40 in his first three, and 53-20 in his last three. Brandl has averaged at least 19.6 points each season. Overall, he has 1,525 career points. Brandl earned SIK Most Outstanding Player of the 1A-II state tournament.
Last year, GC scored .74 points a possession, allowed .70 and turned the ball over on 29 percent of possessions, according to game logs and SIK research. The Jackrabbits made 121 treys and shot 26 percent from beyond the arc.
Gooch expected his team to reach state with all the experience back. The returning starters were Brandl, senior Cade Mangan, senior Jesus Martinez, Sherer, and junior Jariath Yanez.
Yanez became a key reserve – and even played more than starters – when Shafer earned a top-five spot. Plus, junior Valentin Villalobos played big minutes off the bench.
“There is no selfishness with any of them,” Gooch said. “They make the right decision. They’ve all got a high basketball IQ.”
He didn’t “put a label” on games, such as sub-state championship or semifinals. Instead, he called everything Game 24, Game 25, etc.
In the sub-state title game, the Jackrabbits defeated Wheatland-Grinnell, the same team that ended their season a year prior. After the W-G win, Gooch was muted.
“Guys we expected this, there is nothing to celebrate,” Gooch said. “Let’s get ready for Wednesday.”
In the quarterfinals Wednesday, Greeley County defeated Pawnee Heights, 63-34. PH junior Alec Carlson averaged 21 points a game. He finished with seven, all in the fourth quarter.
Northern Valley averaged 68 points a game. GC held them 14 points below season average. Hanover had tallied 64 a contest. Greeley County limited Hanover’s Emmitt Jueneman, the reigning 1A Player of the Year, to 11 points, five below his average.
For the season, GC significantly improved across the board. Greeley County jumped to .96 points per possession scored and allowed just .62. The turnover rate dropped to 22 percent.
“Honestly, it’s our defense. We come together when we play defense, we play as a family,” Sherer said. “Honestly, our chemistry, it’s incredible. We have playing since first (grade) to kindergarten. I mean, there’s nothing else you can do with that group of guys. Our defense is amazing.”
Greeley County made 164 treys for 29 percent. GC had a six-game stretch where he shot under 25 percent from beyond the arc. In its last four games, Greeley County made 39 treys and connected on 39.7 percent of 3s.
Shafer became the team’s second leading scorer at 8.4 points a game. He finished with a team-high 44 treys and 34 percent from long range.
Villalbos was 16 of 45 (36 percent) from beyond the arc after 5 of 41 in his first two seasons. He tallied 12 points, including two treys at state.
On Sunday afternoon, the Northwest Kansas League released its all-conference teams. Brandl was first team, while Sherer and Shafer earned second.
“We got to the point of the season where you don’t really want to go live in practice, so we just got shots up,” Gooch said Friday. “And that’s all we did for an hour, hour and a half, and it’s paying off. It’s showing right now at the right time, how well we are shooting.”
Brandl paced with 22.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.6 steals, 2.8 assists and 1.2 blocks. He led his team in all five categories, a big rarity. For perspective, in NBA history, just five players since ’73-74 have led their teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks for a single season.
At state, he delivered 24 points and 10 rebounds against Pawnee Heights. He had 21 points and seven rebounds versus Northern Valley. In the finals, he finished with 31 points and eight rebounds for 25.3 points a game.
In critical junctures, other players stepped up. Gooch said Sherer had a “great idea” versus NV. Greeley County struggled with getting the ball from the 3-point line and driving inside. GC used motion and put Brandl on the inside. The Jackrabbits got Brandl touches and worked through him.
“The confidence we have in each other,” Sherer said. “The trust, I mean, last year, we did more of 1 on 1 stuff, and this year, we are confident with the guys that we have that we trust that we can make big plays for each other.”
Versus NV, Brandl picked up his fourth foul with 4:15 left and his team down 47-45. Brandl made two free throws to tie the game. Then, Shafer made a trey, Sherer scored a basket and Shafer tallied another 3 on a kick out from Brandl. On the game-winner against Hanover, Greeley County elected to have Shafer take the shot, a now legendary 3-pointer.
“Obviously, Jackson, he is averaging 20-plus points a game,” Sherer said. “He’s our best player. But I mean, he attracts so much attention from other defenders that he is a smart IQ player that he can just find the open guy.”