By CONOR NICHOLL
HAYS – Last winter, Topeka Seaman posted a 13-9 season. Seaman lost to league foe Topeka West in sub-state. West won at Hays High in the 5A state quarterfinals and eventually finished second in the classification.
Seaman had a high expectation 2021-22 with 11th-year coach Craig Cox. The Vikings returned four key starters: senior point guard Mateo Hyman, 6-foot-5 senior Ty Henry, 6-4 junior Aron Davis and junior Kaeden Bonner. Plus, 6-5 senior Gavin Wilhelm stepped into a bigger role.
Seaman established a high early ceiling with a 69-59 victory against Topeka West on Dec. 7. West has Elijah Brooks, the state’s second-leading scorer, and has not lost since. However, the Vikings were up and down. Davis was out until mid-January with injury. Cox believed Seaman “kind of struggled” without Davis. Hyman noted “mental errors” holding the team back.
On Feb. 4, the Vikings stood at 7-7. That included a 16-point rematch loss to Topeka West on Jan. 28. Plus, West were a collective 0-4 versus Centennial League rivals Highland Park and Junction City. Davis had recently returned.
“I will take the blame for a lot of that,” Cox said. “I am not going to make any excuses. Our league is tremendously competitive, got some outstanding teams that I think are going to show up in the state tournament.”
Since then, Seaman has not lost.
The Vikings have won eight straight, including a dominant 61-44 victory at Hays High in the Class 5A West sub-state championship game Friday night. No. 9 seed Seaman improved to 15-7. The Vikings’ last four prior state appearances came in ’05, ’07, ’08 and ’18, per historian Carol Swenson.
“We have so many factors,” Hyman said. “We have a lot of shooters. Once the shooters get hot, start knocking down shots, we have people that we can feed and get easy layups. We are all just unselfish.”
Friday marked a banner night for the Centennial League, primarily 5/6A schools in the Topeka area and known for big offensive numbers. For the boys, Seaman, Topeka West (21-1) and Highland Park (18-4) all qualified. Highland Park beat KC Piper, 89-52. West defeated Andover 73-59.
“It’s been a tough league, and it’s gotten us to where we are now,” Hyman said. “All the tough teams that we have played, put some pressure on us, got us ready for sub-state and now we are going to state.”
Piper had not allowed more than 73 points in any game this winter. Andover had not permitted more than 64 in a game. Seaman led 27-12 at halftime. Hays High had not allowed more than 50 points in any contest. HHS coach Alex Hutchins said Seaman has the “offensive firepower” to have a chance against any state team.
All three teams qualified for the 5A tournament. It marked the first time since 2005 that both Topeka Seaman and Topeka West reached state in the same year.
Both teams have enjoyed highly impressive turnarounds. In ’18-19, West was 6-15, followed by 14-8 and combined 42-4 the last two winters. Seaman dropped to 2-19, then 13 and 15 wins the last three winters.
Highland Park didn’t make state last season. The Scots have their third appearance in the last eight and 33 overall.
For the girls, favorites Topeka High and Washburn Rural both advanced to 6A state. As well, a bevy of Centennial League teams could qualify Saturday, in the second and final day of sub-state title games. Notably, 5A Emporia girls (16-5) has a great opportunity, along with 4A Hayden boys (8-13).
In 6A boys, Junction City (13-8), Washburn Rural (9-12) and Manhattan (8-13) are all in title games.
“Really proud of our guys,” Cox said. “And I love the momentum that we have right now.”
Hays High was the top seed in 5A West and ranked third in the classification by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association. HHS, with eight seniors, had its 18-game winning streak end and finished 20-2. The Indians were 17-6, 22-1 and 20-2 the last three winters, the first back-to-back 20-win seasons in school annals. HHS was known for superb defense this winter under third-year coach Alex Hutchins. Seaman shot over 60 percent from the field, easily the highest a team had shot versus the Indians.
Before the last two seasons, HHS had two 20-win seasons in school annals, per Indian broadcaster Dustin Armbruster. Among a litany of accomplishments, the senior class had the longest winning streak in school history and point guard Carson Kieffer became the school’s all-time leader in career assists. At first, Hutchins’ voice caught and he steadied his emotions when he discussed the group.
“What I will remember the most is how easy they make coming to work every day, and how unselfish they were, how much they love each other, and how much they bought into what we were doing as a coaching staff,” Hutchins said. “And I will never be able to express how grateful I am for that, and how much I appreciate and love this group. … It’s a group that I will cherish and remember forever, and I hope that these accomplishments that they have had and the success that they have had has set an example for the commitment and the work that it takes.”
Senior forward Jace Linenberger went over 900 career points and averaged just shy of 20 per game. Linenberger was banged up with lower back problems after he took hard falls twice in recent games. Last season, Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year Dalyn Schwarz rolled his ankle early in the Topeka West loss. This time, Linenberger, the expected WAC POY, wasn’t physically healthy. Plus, senior Jordan Dale was sick all Friday.
“He moved better tonight than we thought he would,” Hutchins said. “I still don’t know that he was right, and Seaman also did a really good job of making it hard to get him the ball. … Two years in a row that we have had some really, really unfortunate timing with some injuries.”
Seaman strongly collapsed on Linenberger and often triple-teamed him. The Vikings gave wide-open outside shots to other HHS players, especially early. Hays High briefly led at 4-2 before Seaman went on a 14-0 run.
“Our help defense was outstanding,” Cox said. “(Linenberger) is such a difficult player to guard. Nobody can do it by themselves. Aron Davis did a great job on him, getting around him, fronting him, but the backside help was the key, and being able to hold them to 12 points in the first half was just phenomenal.”
The balance showed for Seaman in the run when five different players scored in the run. First, Wilhelm hit a trey. Then, Hyman scored. Throughout the night, Hyman continually beat HHS players off the dribble on penetration.
“Every time somebody full court pressures me, I just think they can’t guard me,” Hyman said. “I go past them, try to get the ball to my teammates. I usually look at the rim, try to get there first, but if not, the only thing that is in my head is they can’t guard me.”
“He’s so quick and so skilled at finishing those shots around the basket,” Cox added.
Henry followed with a guarded jumper. Davis delivered a bank shot off a pick-and-roll. Then, he scored off an offensive rebound.
“That’s a big factor for us, especially for our offense and especially defense,” Hyman said of Davis. “He gets a lot of blocks, a lot of steals, so we feed him, we get him going, it gets all of us going, and it’s hard to stop us.”
Senior Dreighton Griess concluded the first quarter with a trey from a Hyman pass. Seaman made 7 of 13 shots in the first quarter, HHS 2 of 13.
Hyman and Henry finished with 15 points. Bonner tallied 12, Wilhelm nine. On Feb. 25, Hyman scored 20 versus Emporia. In the 73-65 win at Maize South in the No. 8/9 game, five players scored in double figures.
“They are not your typical 9 seed,” Hutchins said. “We also picked a really bad night to have a bad night, and really we kind of feel like it came down to that second half of the first quarter when we just went empty for awhile offensively, and they went on that run.”
In 5A West, Topeka Seaman and Topeka West tied for the lead with 67.95 points scored a contest during the regular season. In 5A East, Highland Park tallied 64.2, just behind Basehor-Linwood’s 64.6 for the top spot. In 6A East, Junction City ranked third at 61.3 points a game, per KSHSAA.
“They are just so skilled and so athletic, that once you are behind, it’s really hard to make up ground,” Hutchins said. “So putting ourselves behind the 8-ball there, it kind of made it a pretty steep uphill climb for the rest of the game. Yeah, credit to Seaman. They are a skilled team. They are hot right now, and there’s also something to not having a lot of pressure and kind of coming in as the underdog, and they made the most of that opportunity.”
Topeka High girls, after not qualifying for state for 17 years, have made four straight appearances. The Trojans have posted state runner-up, undefeated Forever Four and state runner-up the last three seasons. Washburn Rural is at state for the first time since it won the title in 2019, the school’s lone girls’ basketball crown. Each team is 20-2.
Both teams are loaded with talent for Topeka’s Hannah Alexander and Washburn Rural’s Kevin Bordewick. WR won state volleyball, too. Bordewick is the longtime coach in both sports. WR has Brooklyn DeLeye, the Gatorade volleyball player of the year and Kentucky commit. Plus, Zoe Canfield has generated high-level basketball interest and comes from an impressive sports family.
For Topeka, senior Tae Thomas has delivered 15 points a game and committed to Division II Northwestern Oklahoma State. Junior Adisyn Carl has emerged as a key player, especially rebounding, and has committed to Illinois softball. Junior Kiki Smith has averaged 18 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals a contest. She already has 1,227 career points. Topeka beat Washburn Rural in both conference games, 45-39 on Jan. 4 and 46-42 on Feb. 11.
Topeka High lost only to Topeka Seaman and 4A Bishop Miege, the defending state champion.
On Friday in 4A, Miege beat Centennial League’s Topeka Hayden, 67-31, to bump to 20-2 and return to the state tournament. Freshman Kirston Verhulst, along with seniors Gabi Artis (Washburn) have been key. Emajin McCallop (Alabama A&M) has been out with injury all season with a torn ACL. Verhulst has averaged 14.6, Henderson-Artis with 12.8 and Allie Burns at 11, per KC High School Hoops.
Class 4A girls are expected to be more wide-open this season, though Miege and defending runner-up McPherson are back again. Plus, Andale, a returning final four team, returned after the unexpected passing of coach Ted Anderson just after midseason. As well, Eudora (21-1), Wamego (20-2) and Labette County (18-4) all qualified from the East.
Eudora has Harper Schreiner, a Pittsburg State signee. Wamego has its bevy of key players, including Paige Donnelly and Maya Gallagher, who just committed to Division I Holy Cross softball. Eudora defeated Wamego to win the Tonganoxie tournament.
Labette County won the rubber match against southeast Kansas rival Fort Scott, 49-41. Also on the West, top-seeded Wellington (22-0), one of the state’s best storylines, dominated Circle, 58-29. Clay Center held off a quality Clearwater squad, 31-30. Wellington had a running clock in the game. Wellington’s accomplished senior duo of Ali Zeka and Airalyn Frame had never made a state tournament. Standout freshman Britt Zeka delivered 15 points.
In 6A East girls, senior-laden Olathe North continued a push for the best season in school history. The Eagles held off Olathe West, 48-39, and moved to 22-0. North had won the Sunflower League for the first time in 25 years. All five North starters have committed Division II or higher, including Sania Copeland, headed to Missouri State.
No. 10 Blue Valley North upset Shawnee Mission Northwest, 51-43. SMNW, the defending 6A state champion, finished 18-4. Blue Valley (19-3) and SM West (18-4) both qualified. Jadyn Wooten has averaged 19 points a game, while Sophie Deveney has 10.3.
Junior S’Mya Nichols, with multiple Division I offers, helped West qualify for the first time in six seasons. Blue Valley is at state back-to-back years.
Cox has won between 13-15 games in six of the last seven seasons. The only hiccup was the two-win year when the seniors were sophomores. The top-four scorers were all non-seniors, a group that included Bonner, Henry and Hyman. No one averaged double figures.
Ten losses came by single figures, including three by a combined four points and another in OT.
“We were trying to move them all up to varsity,” Cox said. “We had some injuries. That year, we had some other things that happened, and we were competitive, but we didn’t know how to win. And they learned. They came back and had a good season last year.”
In ’20-21, the Vikings had 85 percent of their scoring from non-seniors. Henry, Hyman and Bonner all averaged at least 11.7 points per game. Henry is multi-faceted with a solid outside shot, quality mid-range and inside finish. He normally guards a bigger player with his length inside.
“Just an all-around really good player,” Cox said. “And just our leader, our captain, and a real go-to guy.”
Early in the week, Hutchins noted Seaman was not a typical No. 9 seed. Hutchins believed Seaman matched up similarly to Lawrence Free State, ranked No. 1 in 6A. FS beat Hays High, 41-40, in overtime in November. Hutchins had watched multiple Seaman tapes and saw a different team as the year moved along.
“They just continued to get more comfortable offensively,” Hutchins said. “They can fill it up. They can shoot as well as any team we have seen. Really as the season progressed, they did a better job of taking care of the ball. We felt like some of the films that we watched from earlier in the year, they just had a lot of empty possessions, a lot of turnovers, and as the season went on, they eliminated those and got shots up, and when you have that much skill, a lot of those shots go in, and it translates to really good offense.”
After a 60-50 win versus Washburn Rural on Feb. 8, Seaman has scored 82, 79, 74, 78, 70 and 73 points.
“Night in and night out, a lot of teams will score pretty high,” Cox said of the Centennial. “And I have always been a defensive-minded coach, so it’s been kind of a new thing for me.”
The offensive efficiency continued against Hays High on a banner night for the Centennial League.
“It’s just been a process for these seniors,” Cox said. “And I am so happy for them to be able to come out here and play in a great environment against a really great team.”
Other Notes Around the State
Hesston girls upset Cheney 29-27 in a defensive battle of the defending 3A champion. It sets up a showdown with Nickerson on Saturday for a berth to the state tournament. To many, Nickerson may be the favorite to win 3A this season.
McKayla Miller of Cimarron went over 1,000 career points in the 53-28 win over Kingman last night. Only a junior and multiple DI offers at the next level. It sets up a huge matchup tonight against Hugton who also features a DI player in Mikyn Hamlin – a multiple time all-state pick that has committed to Wyoming. Also a junior. Some great basketball going on in Western Kansas. Goodland and Phillipsburg (also with a D1 player in Taryn Sides) will meet in another sub-state championship out West in 3A. All teams are more than capable of making a deep run in 3A.
EKL shows its strength of schedule. St. James Academy (5A) showed its strength of schedule in the EKL by beating two-loss Basheor Linwood 52-35 in the sub-state championship on Friday. Blue Valley Southwest also showed the power of the league as they beat four-loss Pittsburg, 70-42.
Blue Valley North knocked off defending 6A girls champion SM Northwest 51-43 on Friday. The Mustangs had nine losses during the regular season and knocked off the then 18-3 defending champs.
Clay Center (16-6) has been to the state tournament eight of the last nine years in 4A under HC Jeff Edwards as they knocked off Clearwater 31-30 on Friday evening.
St. Mary’s Colgan (2A) showed their strength of schedule in the CNC and by playing larger schools in their 62-35 victory over Erie on Friday. Erie had won this sub-state the last two seasons. Colgan advances to take on Southeast-Cherokee on Friday. SE has opened some eyes this season as a breakout team in the area but the Panthers are the favorite and could open a lot of eyes at the state tournament if they get there. Wayne Cichon, a Kansas coaching legend, has over 640 wins for the Panthers. SE is led by HC Dan Wall who is a state championship coach – winning the title at Coffeyville in 2001. Colgan is led by Jalen VanBecleare who had 16 points last night.
Plainville boys (2A) entered sub-state with a losing record and just eight wins. The Cardinals have won back to back games and are now in the sub-state championship game against Trego tonight. Plainvlle knocked off Hill City 48-36 in a huge upset on Friday.
St. Mary’s and Wabaunsee both have done similar things the last two seasons. Last year it was Wabaunsee that came out of nowhere to take state runner-up and the year before it was St. Mary’s that did it in 2020 by knocking off several ranked teams only to have their season cancelled to finish as a Forever Four team in 3A. The two are both in 2A now and have a huge showdown tonight for a berth in Manhattan at the 2A state touranment. Both are led by young coaches who are standout athletes – St. Mary’s HC Will Spradling (SM South) at Kansas State and Wabaunsee HC former Top 11/Mr. Kansas Basketball Christian Ulsaker (McPherson) at Washburn. Keller Hurla averages closes to 20 points per game for St. Marys and Fred Criqui is also a standout for the Bears. Brayden Meseke had 32 last night for Wabunsee along with 11 from Ryan Schutter and 10 for Eli Oliver. Wabaunsee also features multiple sport standout Cade Oliver.