By CONOR NICHOLL
GREAT BEND – On March 3, 2022, Lebo junior Grayson Shoemaker tore his ACL in a five-point win against Hartford in the sub-state semifinal. Shoemaker couldn’t participate in track or football.
“That just motivated him,” Lebo boys’ basketball coach Dennis Becker said. “And he wanted to show people that he was coming back, what kind of player he was at the state level, and show people what he could do, and that just motivated him all year.”
Becker, in his tenth year at Lebo, had previously served as an assistant for four seasons. This marked his first winter as head coach. Becker installed a dribble-drive offense to match his team’s strength of “attack mentality kids.” Lebo played a difficult schedule in the Lyon County League, including three losses by 10 points or less to Olpe, a two-time defending state champion.
Grimmett and Shoemaker combined for more than 32 points a game. Lebo upped its scoring average from 52.1 points a contest last season to 62.6 this year. The Wolves qualified for the state tournament. Lebo had lost its last five state quarterfinal games dating back to 2005. When Becker took over as head coach, he uttered a phrase.
“The sky is our limit,” Becker said. “And they bought into that goal.”
On Thursday, Shoemaker delivered a vintage performance in his first ever state tournament game. He finished with 30 points in a 67-45 victory against Beloit-St. John’s/Tipton in the Class 1A, Division II state quarterfinals at Barton County Community College.
“Teams can’t simulate the type of pressure that we want to play, so it makes it tough when we get to these games,” Becker said. “We took our lumps early. We have great teams in the Lyon County League – Olpe. We play 2A Lyndon, we play 3A Osage, and those games made us better. It made us be who we want to be.”
Shoemaker finished 13 of 16 shooting, along with eight rebounds, four assists and four steals. It marked one of the state’s most complete lines in the two days of quarterfinal action.
“There was a lot of motivation from that, trying to come back, and prove that I was still able to play where I was before I tore it,” Shoemaker said. “And just proving to people that I can play basketball at a high level.”
Grimmett tallied 18 points and four assists. Lebo often slung 30-foot plus passes for transition baskets and finished with 65 possessions – an incredibly high number.
“I made shots,” Shoemaker said. “My teammates got me the ball, and we worked the ball in the offense to get open shots, and we kept on getting it to the guys that were hot, and we just played really good team ball, which I think helped. Me scoring, other people scoring, we worked really well as a team tonight.”
The Lebo fan base, including the undefeated girls’ team, sat opposite the boys’ bench. As the game ended, the Lebo boys ran down the first row of fans, slapping hands and celebrating. Becker was the last one to come over. He ran and threw his hands in the air several times, asking for more noise. The joy punctuated an historic two days for Lebo basketball.
It marked the first time Lebo boys and girls had ever qualified for the state basketball final four in the same year. Lebo girls are 24-0 and in its first final four since 2001, per Kansas historian Carol Swenson.
“It’s pretty exciting for both teams,” Becker said.
Notably, 4A Bishop Miege, 4A Hugoton and 5A Andover had both teams in the state final four. Andover girls qualified for the final four for the first time in 27 years.
While the usual collection of traditional powers advanced (5A St. Thomas Aquinas, 4A Bishop Miege, 4A McPherson boys, 4A Andale girls, 1A-I Olpe and South Gray boys, 1A-II Hanover girls), the quarterfinals also belonged to plenty of teams with big improvements and/or school history.
Last year, seven of the 28 combined boys’ and girls’ teams made a 2022 final with a wins improvement of at least plus-seven from 2021.
Three were double digits: 1A-2 Greeley County boys (plus-11), 4A Eudora girls (plus-14) and 1A-I Centralia (plus-15). Eudora won the first two state games in school history en route to a state runner-up.
This season, there could more than seven with such wins jumps and school history.
“It’s amazing,” Shoemaker said. “The atmosphere is crazy, and it was really fun to play in this kind of atmosphere. We focused on, since the beginning of the season, making it to state – and not just making it to state, but trying to win it all.”
Before Lebo’s win, Axtell boys improved to 21-4 with a 59-44 win against Bucklin. The Eagles have a plus-nine improvement off last season.
Axtell defeated rival Hanover twice. The first came in a 52-51 win on Jan. 10, a huge pivot point in the season. The second was a 56-52 win in the sub-state title game. Axtell was 2-31 in its last 33 games against Hanover, including nine straight losses. Hanover was first and second at state the last two years.
Like Lebo, Axtell used a superb transition game behind six core players: senior point guard Isaac Detweiler, junior Grady Buessing, sophomores Brandon Schmelzle and Eli Broxterman and freshmen Colin Shaughnessy and Landon Schmitz. Shaughnessy didn’t start until around the midseason tournament. Since the midseason tournament, he has averaged around double figures.
“He has hit some big shots for us,” Axtell coach Jason Tynon said. “It’s a credit, Eli Broxterman takes a lot of the attention away from him, and so Colin gets open a lot, and he has stepped up.”
Many of the same players have helped Axtell boys win back-to-back undefeated eight-man football titles. Axtell knew it was going to be better in basketball after zero seniors last winter. The sophomore group won back-to-back junior high league titles. In Thursday’s pep rally, Tynon brought up the sub-state semifinal game last year against Wetmore. Axtell was down 14 in the third quarter and came back to win by four. Axtell lost to Hanover in the sub-state title game.
“Just right then I knew they were going to be a great group,” Tynon said. “And their hard work over the summer time, and what they put in, and they just have blossomed together.”
Axtell has played all of basketball without 6-foot-4 post Owen Strathman, who was hurt at the end of football. Strathman protected the middle, and Tynon said Axtell misses him the most on defense.
“Offensively, we are allowed to get out and run more a little bit and push the tempo,” Tynon said.
Like Lebo, Axtell has enjoyed a sizable scoring jump from 47 points last season to 54 this year.
“They are a fun group all the time,” Tynon said. “They work hard, they bring it everyday in practice, and they do it one through 16 guys and even Owen everyday comes to practice.”
The top-six can all dribble and tries to go as fast as they can; Detweiler called the pace the team’s strength. Axtell has no star. The unselfish play has multiple players around eight to 13 points per game.
“We have a bunch of smaller guys that can run,” Detweiler said. “So we are very well-skilled. Everybody on the court, one through five.”
Versus Bucklin, Buessing and Detweiler each had 13, while Schmelzle delivered 11, including a big third quarter dunk. Axtell had 16 steals in a game that had a remarkable 72 possessions. Early in the third quarter, Buessing stole the ball, and beat Bucklin’s defense down the floor.
He missed the layup off the middle of the rim, but the uber athletic and fast Schmelzle grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. Later in the quarter, Detweiler fed Schmelzle, who nearly dunked before a layup. A short time later, Schmitz deflected a pass. Detweiler passed to Schmelzle who delivered the dunk and a 41-19 lead.
“Ton of athletes,” Bucklin coach Derek Bevan said of Axtell. “A lot of quickness at every position, and that definitely makes it easier for them.”
As well, 5A St. James girls (20-3) won the first state game in school history Wednesday with a slight upset of No. 1 Topeka Seaman.
SJA has a plus-seven improvement, Andover girls plus-eight.
In 3A, No. 1 Phillipsburg (24-0) had its first-ever state win. In 1A-I, No. 2 Quinter girls are 21-3 and have a 13-win improvement over last season. The Bulldogs will play Frankfort, which has a plus-seven win jump from last season.
In 2A, Riverside (21-3) won its first-ever state tournament game since the current school was formed. The Cyclones beat Wichita Independent and are plus-11 win improvement over last season. In 1A-II, Bucklin girls, helped by a mix of multi-year starters and freshmen, are a plus-nine win improvement.
In 1A-I, Wichita Classical boys won its first-ever state tournament game. South Central boys won in 1A-II and are in its second-ever state semifinals. In 5A, Hutchinson is possibly the boys’ biggest turnaround. After 39 wins in the last eight seasons, the Salthawks are 22-1 after a 84-51 win in the 5A quarterfinals against Pittsburg.
Shoemaker trusted in his physical therapist during the recovery process.
“I had a really good physical therapist so he helped me stay confident,” Shoemaker said. “So I never really got down on myself. I knew I was going to be able to come back strong, and I have my family and my friends and the Lebo community supporting me throughout the whole process, so I think that just helped too, not just me, but the whole community.”
“As he got more and more trust, we’ve seen him come to a different level,” Becker added.
No. 6 seed Lebo capped the quarterfinals with its impressive win against No. 3 Beloit St. John’s/Tipton. BSJT entered as a slight favorite, per MaxPreps statistical rankings. The game was tied at 19 midway through the second quarter before an 8-2 run to end the half. Another 8-2 burst in the third quarter bumped the lead to 13 points.
Lebo finished plus-8 on the glass. The defense helped BSJT to 31 percent shooting and just 3 of 24 from 3-point range. Becker was very pleased with the defensive performance. Zach Oswald had nine points and 10 rebounds. Austin Bailey, an excellent lineman for the Lebo football team, delivered five points and six rebounds.
“We have to defend,” Becker said. “It has to come from that defensive end, and that’s where it starts. That’s a great team, and to hold them to those numbers.”
Lebo emptied the bench late and soaked up the win. Becker stood near one end of Lebo’s celebration, next to a black mat by one of the baskets.
“I can’t explain how excited I am right now for this community,” Becker said. “For these boys.”