By CONOR NICHOLL
GREAT BEND – Claflin-Central Plains junior Brynna Hammeke and senior Kassidy Nixon are best friends. The two first battled in rec basketball when they were six years old. Both were first team all-state players last winter. Central Plains won state titles from ’14-19, was undefeated Forever Four in 2020 and captured the title last winter.
On Friday, Hammeke immediately started crying when she thought about the end of the basketball pairing.
“I hate to see it end tomorrow,” Hammeke said through tears. “But I guess it happens.”
Hammeke and Nixon can end their careers with another state championship. In Friday’s semifinals, Central Plains delivered an incredibly gritty effort in a 49-44 victory against Hanover at Barton County Community College.
Central Plains set another Kansas record with its 24th straight state tournament victory. Hammeke, affected by a lingering back injury and significant cramps, delivered a game-high 18 points, along with six assists and three steals.
Nixon, long known for her defense, finished with eight points, six steals and three assists. Hanover had 29 turnovers, nine more than Central Plains. Nixon picked up her fourth foul with 4:08 left in the third quarter and exited.
“We had to have her,” coach Pat Stiles said. “If she would have fouled out, we would have struggled.”
She played the final 10 seconds of the third, and then did not return until midway through the fourth.
“Very concerning,” Hammeke said of Nixon’s fouls. “She is a big, big, big part of our team, and we need her in there in order to do a lot of our offense, and she is a great defender, and she is a great asset to our team.”
Afterward, Stiles emerged from the locker room and delivered a small smile. Stiles twice said, “That was a game.”
No. 2 Central Plains (24-1) will play No. 1 Rexford-Golden Plains (24-0) in the Class 1A, Division II state championship game at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday. CP defeated Golden Plains in the 2021 Final Four. Central Plains’ only loss this winter came against 2A defending champion Sterling, which has won a state-best 39 games and will face Garden Plain for the 2A final.
“I just told them how proud I was of them,” Stiles said. “And how they were warriors. They just do not quit. The defense tonight was amazing, and just couldn’t be more proud of (Hammeke), and proud of them. They are just way too good to me, that’s for sure.”
GP has tied a school record for single season victories. Stiles’ daughter, Jackie, a Kansas sports legend, will be presenting the game balls for Saturday’s final in recognition of 50 years of Title IX.
“It’s cool that she is here, and it’s going to be fun,” coach Stiles said.
The Bulldogs are into their third all-time final, first since ’14. GP has not won a championship in school history, though has three losses in the last four winters under 28th-year coach Parker Christensen.
Golden Plains outscored Central Christian by 10 in the second half and won 33-23. Breanna Rath delivered terrific defense on Central Christian standout Kaylee Kauffman, who finished 3 of 13 for eight points.
“She doesn’t get enough credit,” Christensen said. “Everybody looks at stats and scoring and all that. She is one of the best defenders in the state of Kansas. I think she showed it tonight. Because we told her, ‘you are going to get challenged by that girl, but that girl hasn’t seen somebody like you all season.’”
Kauffman scored 26 in the quarterfinals. Central Christian had seven second half points. Kauffman rarely had an open look.
“I was just told to shut her down and to stay on her,” Rath said. “And that’s what I tried to do. I like to go fast, and I like to just kind of be a pest for them. I don’t give them a lot of space, just kind of be in their face. I always kind of just keep them right at arm’s length – almost holding onto them, but not quite. I kind of never really let my girl out of sight.”
In 1A-II boys, defending champion Hanover (24-1) held off a massive Bucklin comeback and won 61-54. Hanover received 23 points on 10 of 16 shooting from Philip Doebele. Emmitt Jueneman finished with 16 points, seven assists and five steals, including a dunk on the first basket. He is the reigning 1A-II Player of the Year.
Hanover led by 18 with 4:07 left in the first half. Bucklin, which finished 10 of 25 on treys, closed to within five. Bucklin has attempted more than 650 treys this winter.
“Emmitt is a great leader,” Hanover coach Cory Jensen said. “And the thing about Emmitt is he doesn’t have to score to control a game. He has always been poised, like he would get into that lane and he would have a great dish-off to Philip or whoever, just even a kick out. But he controls the game so well with his vision, with his ball handling and his playmaking. He did a terrific job tonight.”
Senior Nathan Bowman missed a try with 4:16 left that would have cut the deficit to two. Bucklin’s Scott Price and Andrew Bowman both tallied 18 points for the Red Aces, which will still finish with the best season in school history.
“We just took care of the ball a little bit better,” Bucklin coach Derek Bevan said. “That first half, real uncharacteristic of us.”
Hanover will face Tribune-Greeley County (23-2) in the 4 p.m. final. Greeley County and Northern Valley were tied at 38 after three quarters before GC won 59-54. GC has made 19 treys in two games. Freshman Lincoln Shafer and junior Titus Sherer each tallied 14. Star Jaxson Brandl scored 21.
Greeley County coach Josh Gooch was on the GC state teams in ’01 and ’02. The ’01 squad lost in three overtimes to Brewster in the state semifinals. The ’02 team fell to Centralia via overtime in the final.
“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.”
Kansas has four counties in Mountain Time Zone, five high schools. Two of those qualified for a state final with Greeley County and 3A Goodland girls. Greeley County is into its first final since winning in 2011. Goodland qualified for its first final since 1992 and will have a rematch against GWAC rival Hugoton.
Hugoton beat Goodland for the conference championship, 42-38, in overtime on Jan. 14. Hugoton star Mikyn Hamlin hit an off-balanced buzzer-beater 3 to send the game to OT.
Hammeke, the team’s leading scorer and point guard, has battled lower back right side pain since September. She hurt her back in weights class. Hammeke missed some of the tennis season because of the back. Now, she has a back brace and a compression shirt to keep her healthy. Hammeke has powered through the pain all season. She has rarely practiced.
In the semifinals, Hammeke had the chronic back issue and fought cramps for the first time in an aggressive, highly emotional game. Hammeke’s cramps started in the late third quarter.
“I kind of panicked,” Nixon said. “But I knew I was going to have to step up to be the one – and one of our girls on the bench to have to come in. I’ve just got to say I am very proud of Brynna. She is my best friend, and I can’t believe that she actually fought through all of that, and I knew she could do it.”
During the game, Stiles burned timeouts to allow Hammeke fresh and keep her healthy.
“She played so hard for so many minutes,” Stiles said. “We just had to get her re-hydrated and some electrolytes put in her, and good to go for (Saturday).”
Central Plains led 43-37 with 3 minutes, 43 seconds left when Hammeke went in for a layup, fell and came off the court with cramps.
“They weren’t too noticeable,” Hammeke said. “Until my calf started locking up, and then my feet started locking up, and that’s when I obviously fell over.”
At times, Hammeke left the bench to tend to the cramps. Assistant coach Jim Ryan told Stiles that he didn’t think she was going to return. She came back with 1:51 left.
“Thank goodness,” Stiles said.
Hanover junior standout Ceegan Atkins also missed a brief time with a hyperextended knee.
“I was in quite a bit of pain, but I don’t know, we needed to do what we needed to in order to get the win and go to the championship,” Hammeke said. “The crowd and my teammates, they fought to the end, and I really appreciate that.”
Central Plains, led by its longtime coaching duo of Stiles and Ryan, received strong play from its supporting cast.
“They amaze me everyday in practice,” Hammeke said. “The work ethic my team has is just amazing, and I appreciate it so much. … We two great coaches, and they make us better players every single day.”
Senior Madison and junior Reese McGuire, first-year transfers from Cunningham, finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight steals.
“What a Godsend those girls were,” Stiles said. “To come to Claflin. Maddie is such a warrior on the boards, and Reese is such a good shooter. It was awesome.”
Junior Kyla Metro hit an early 3-pointer. Sophomore Mollie Steiner had two points and three rebounds in eight key minutes. Freshman Marilyn Soeken gave eight minutes.
“Mollie Steiner, she is a great player,” Nixon said. “I am so proud of her for stepping up and filling in those roles when me and Brynna were struggling, when Brynna was cramping, and I was in foul trouble. So just really proud of our girls for really stepping up and facing some adversity.”
Central Plains never trailed. The Oilers opened the game on an 8-0 run and was up 13-4 after the first quarter. Hanover outscored Central Plains in the last three quarters. Hanover had won state titles in ’17 and ’18 and took second to CP in ’19.
“They are smart,” coach Chris Beikmann said of Central Plains. “Coached well. Hard working all the time, and that got to us early, and then late, we started figuring it out, ‘Hey, we have got to attack them,’ and then time ran out. Not enough time left. I felt like our girls battled. We forced some things.”
In 2020, the teams would have met in the 1A Final Four in Dodge City before the tournament was cancelled from COVID. Last season, Hanover lost in the sub-state championship game on a buzzer-beater 3, motivation for the Wildcats this season.
“So long and athletic,” Stiles said. “They are just tough.”
No. 6 seed Hanover (20-5) will play Hutchinson Central Christian for third place at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Hanover received 15 points and seven steals from Atkins. Senior Avery Behrends contributed 11. Hanover shot a slightly higher percentage (39 to 37.5) and was plus-2 on the glass.
“We didn’t play as a team quite as much as I wanted us to,” Beikmann said. “Especially early, I think we tried to force into the post too much instead of just working the offense, but big moment, big games, and kind of got up in it for a minute there, and it cost us at the end.”
CP led 26-15 at halftime and 33-29 late third. Hammeke was in noticeable pain. She grabbed her side, bent over and was wore a look of pain on her face. However, she opened the fourth quarter with an assist, and then a steal that led to a pair of free throws and a 37-29 lead.
“Definitely just reading their eyes,” Nixon said. “Watching them where they were going to go. You could tell if they were going to step into a bounce pass or not, just being able to read their offense. Going over their plays this morning before we came really helped us, too.”
Hanover cut the margin to 39-37 when Nixon returned.
“Coach Ryan said, ‘It’s time,’” Stiles said. “So I put her back in.”
She quickly scored a pair of baskets for a 43-37 advantage with 4:08 left. Twenty-five seconds later, Hammeke fell. Nixon saw her best friend walk off the court with the athletic trainer. Nixon, like Ryan, thought Hammeke might not come back. A few minutes later, Hammeke ran over and was able to finish the game. She made two key free throws down the stretch. Afterward, she let the emotions come, knowing she had one more game with her best friend.
6A Girls: Washburn Rural (22-2) vs. Derby (23-1) – Rural beat undefeated Olathe North, 38-37. Derby won state in 2018. In ’19, Rural upset undefeated Derby in the semifinals and won its first-ever title. Rural beat Derby, 54-37, on Jan. 28.
6A Boys: Blue Valley Northwest (21-3) vs. Wichita Heights (22-2) – Northwest beat top-seeded Lawrence Free State. These two teams have combined for 11 state titles, six from Heights.
5A Girls: Salina Central (24-0) vs. St. Thomas Aquinas (22-2) – SC, on course to break the state record for team 3-point field goal percentage, has been Kansas’ top team all season. Aquinas is the defending state champion. This was an expected 1 vs. 2 matchup against probably the state’s best seniors in SC’s Aubrie Kierscht and Aquinas’ Beatrice Culliton.
5A Boys: Topeka Seaman (17-7) vs. De Soto (20-4) – Upset watch. Topeka Seaman, the No. 8 seed, has won 10 in a row. De Soto won its semifinal on a buzzer-beater. Seaman is into the first final in school history. De Soto’s best showing was second place in 1994.
4A Girls: Bishop Miege (22-2) vs. Eudora (23-1) – Miege beat undefeated Wellington, 82-42. Eudora beat Wamego for the second time this season. Miege has 22 titles, including 2021. Eudora’s first two state wins have come this winter.
4A Boys: Bishop Miege (18-6) vs. Andale (18-6) – Miege is the defending state champion. Andale is into its second all-time final, after 1997. Miege has six titles under coach Rick Zych.
3A Boys: Royal Valley (24-1) vs. Hesston (24-1) – RV has its first two state wins ever this year. Hesston is the defending champion.
2A Girls: Sterling (25-0) vs. Garden Plain (19-6) – GP beat Smith Center, 40-38, on a buzzer-beater. Sterling held off Berean Academy, 42-35, in a regular season rematch. In 2019, Garden Plain beat Sterling in the regular season, and then for the title. In 2020, GP beat Sterling in the state quarterfinals. Last season, Sterling won against the Owls in the state semifinals.
2A Boys: St. Marys (22-3) vs. Hillsboro (24-1) – This was the expected final. St. Marys has put up 149 points in two games. Lyndon significantly slowed the game down and beat Hillsboro, 37-28, in double overtime.
1A-I Girls: Pretty Prairie (24-1) vs. Centralia (25-0) – PP was state runner-up in volleyball. They beat undefeated Hodgeman County, 37-32, in the state semifinals. Bulldogs have held last nine opponents under 35 points, including three teams that qualified for state and another Norwich that won 20 contests. Centralia came back to defeat Burlingame, 53-45.
1A-I Boys: Olpe (24-1) vs. Montezuma-South Gray (23-2) – This is a rematch of last year’s final that Olpe won. SG coach Mark Applegate is Kansas all-time winningest coach who has primarily coached boys. Both teams won by at least 30 in the semifinals.