By CONOR NICHOLL
HAYS – The one-loss Hays High boys’ basketball team played host to Arkansas City in the first round of the 5A sub-state bracket Tuesday. This marked the second time in three years the Indians faced AC to open postseason. Just like 2020, AC tried to significantly slow the tempo.
The Bulldogs pulled out to an early 4-3 lead with 2 minutes, 56 seconds left in the first quarter. At that point, AC had run off 1:45 on one possession and 54 seconds on another. However, senior point guard Carson Kieffer, known for his calmness and poise, quickly pivoted the game to the Indians.
First, Kieffer fired one of his well-known no-look passes inside for senior post Jace Linenberger. Kieffer stood on the left side of the arc, and AC guarded Linenberger with two defenders. Still, Linenberger received the pass in the middle and scored for a 5-4 advantage.
“His passing ability,” Hays High senior Jordan Dale said. “He has eyes everywhere, I don’t understand how he does it. He will be on the opposite side of the court, and he will see Jace in the back corner, short corner, and he will find him, and Jace will get an easy bucket.”
After an Indian trey, Kieffer ended the first quarter with a 3 from the left corner on a kick-out pass. Hays High led 11-4. In the second, AC, a three-win team, made its first five shots. One of the 3s later in the quarter came when Kieffer was out of the game.
However, when Kieffer was in early, he helped on seven points. He drove by defenders for a basket. Then, he dribbled into the teeth of the defense just inside the arc and kicked a pass back to senior Noah Weimer for a trey. He received a pass back from senior Garrett Wellbrock, went straight down the left side, drew a foul and made both free throws.
Arkansas City tried to play zone, but Kieffer forced them to change the look. Early in the third quarter, he delivered a great feed to Linenberger for a layup.
“I just love playing with Carson, and we just feed off each other really great,” Linenberger said.
Halfway through the third quarter, Kieffer put back an offensive rebound for a score. Thirty-five seconds later, he stole the ball and passed to Dale at midcourt, who flew in for a layup.
“We know he can score the ball as well, but he’s just a playmaker, and that’s what hurt us down the stretch,” AC coach C.J. Jennings said. “We had to switch up and go to man on them.”
The coup de grace came with 3 minutes, 5 seconds left. Kieffer had helped Hays High extend the lead once Linenberger, who averages 20 points and nine rebounds a game, exited with a lower back injury after a hard fall.
HHS ran its spread offense with players positioned in the four corners. Dale, a Washburn University high jump signee, was positioned alongside the baseline. They had talked about trying the alley-oop.
Kieffer drove middle, and Dale went to the basket. He threw up a perfect alley-oop pass. Dale had delivered several dunks this season, none off an alley-oop. This time, he dunked, which elicited a big celebration from the Hays High fanbase.
“Jordan saw his man step up to help, and made a cut to the basket,” HHS coach Alex Hutchins said. “And Carson put it right where it needed to be for Jordan to use his athleticism and finish it. We have seen both of those guys make a bunch of plays, but I don’t know that we have seen any prettier than that.”
Hays High, with its eight seniors, won 48-35 and improved 20-1. Ranked third in 5A and seeded first in 5A West, the Indians bumped into Friday’s sub-state championship game at home versus No. 9 seed Topeka Seaman (14-7). The Indians have won 18 straight contests with only an overtime defeat versus 6A No. 1 Lawrence Free State. HHS is 50-2 in its last 52 games, Kansas’ best record in that span. The Indians have made one state title game ever, a crown in 1944.
“Seaman’s record and seed is probably pretty deceiving,” Hutchins said. “They are as talented and as skilled as any team we have seen on film all year, and I am not exaggerating. There’s probably people out there that would say ‘Well, what about Lawrence Free State?’ I think this team is just as talented as they are, so they are going to present some challenges.”
Additionally, the much-improved Indian girls won a thriller, 37-35, at home versus Maize South on Wednesday and improved to 13-8. Freshman Molly Martin hit game-winning free throws with 2.5 seconds left. HHS will be at No. 1 Salina Central (21-0) in Saturday’s sub-state championship game.
Against Ark City, Kieffer finished with 11 points, seven assists and five rebounds. HHS had just one turnover all game.
Jennings and Hutchins, in separate conversations, both used the same word to describe Kieffer.
“Carson does a really good job of being poised,” Hutchins said. “And seeing the floor.”
“His poise,” Jennings added. “He is just so strong and controlled with the ball. He never seems rattled.”
The game and demeanor served as a microcosm for Kieffer’s career. The stat line wasn’t much different for the senior point guard and three-year starter.
“More often than not, I am trying to learn from him,” Hutchins said.
In the regular season, he averaged 12.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds. He has posted a 2.1/1 assist to turnover ratio. Last season, he led Kansas in assists per game. This year, he is top-eight. Hutchins said Kieffer’s goal is to lead every assist category “imaginable.”
“Carson sees things differently than most kids do,” Hutchins said. “And honestly, he does. He sees things differently than a lot of coaches do, adults. And so, it’s the work that he puts in.”
“He puts in time on film, he has put himself in position to play in a lot of different scenarios and at different levels in the offseason, and so he’s a really smart kid, and he uses it out on the court,” Hutchins added. “So yeah, more often than not, it’s not a whole lot of Coach Hutchins telling Carson stuff. It’s more so Coach Hutchins asking Carson what he wants to do or what he sees.”
Usually, Kieffer wears the same calm expression throughout the game, his brain whirring every possession and finding holes in the defense. On Feb. 22, Hays High came back from an early deficit to beat Dodge City, 59-43, and win its third straight Western Athletic Conference title, a program record. DC is ranked third in 6A.
During a game break, Hays High announced that Kieffer broke Marcus Watts’ long-standing Indian record for career assists. Kieffer smiled and acknowledged the student section and crowd, which provided a standing ovation. Entering the AC game, the 6-foot-1 Kieffer officially had 379 career assists. Watts, who played football at Kansas State, recorded 368.
“That was an awesome moment,” Kieffer said. “Have all my family here, have the friends here, it was a great night.”
Dodge City is currently 18-3 with two losses to Hays High. Kieffer delivered 15 points, eight assists, five rebounds and four steals in the record-breaking win against the Red Demons’ unique defense that forces teams left. DC coach Shane Traughber echoed similar thoughts of other coaches.
“It’s tough,” Traughber said. “Man, you just can’t speed him up, no matter pressure, trap, he has seen it all, and just keeps an even keel, poised, and gets his guys in their stuff, and runs it, and has got a deceptively really quick first step, and wide shoulders, big body when he gets in there and can bang around and make the right reads. Excellent, excellent point guard.”
Two years ago, Arkansas City was a .500 squad with six juniors and seniors in its top-seven. They went to Hays for the 5A West first round contest. At that point, HHS had finished the regular season with five straight wins and shared the WAC title with Great Bend. Just one senior played for the Indians in the 42-26 win on March 3, 2020. Four sophomores saw time: Kieffer, Linenberger, Dale and Wesley Oakley.
“We saw this kind of coming out of this group,” Jennings said. “They were very disciplined when they were even young, and there was tons of talent.”
After the Ark City win, Hays High won a highly anticipated sub-state title game at rival Great Bend, 43-36. HHS trailed Topeka Highland Park by 10 after the first quarter of the state quarterfinals before the Indians roared back for a 46-43 victory. Kieffer was brilliant with 19 points on 7 of 9 shooting, along with six rebounds and three assists. The point total is still one off his career high.
Then, COVID-19 cancelled the rest of the state tournament. Hays High remained a Forever Four team, its fifth Final Four since 1990.
Hays High opened last season with 22 straight victories and recorded the state’s longest winning streak at 30. However, COVID-19 again wreaked havoc on the Indians’ postseason chances. HHS would have had a weaker state quarterfinal opponent in normal years. Instead, state quarterfinal games were played at home sites against the closest geographic sub-state. For HHS that yielded Topeka West.
Early in the contest, standout Indian post Dalyn Schwarz suffered injury. West won 52-49 and finished as state runner-up. Kieffer delivered nine assists.
This winter, HHS is again a state contender. Again, they are fighting through injury troubles. Linenberger has taken two hard falls to his lower back. The second one against AC caused noticeable pain. Per veteran Hays High broadcaster Dustin Armbruster, Linenberger is one of six players in school history to have 900 points and 400 rebounds. He and Kieffer are on the short list for 5A Player of the Year.
“Kind of landed on hip, lower back area, and so anytime you have got pain there, just kind of makes it hard to move,” Hutchins said. “So he wanted to back out, and we tried to give him a go, and you could tell pretty quick that he just wasn’t going to be able to move without it hurting pretty significantly.”
Throughout the season, Hutchins has continually mentioned the special bond of this senior group. The high majority have played together since third grade. Kieffer, Linenberger, Weimer, Oakley and Dale are the starters. Ashton Hernandez and Wellbrock, a Fort Hays baseball signing, are the first two off the bench. Nate Brooks is a reserve. Hernandez leads the Indians with 36 steals, rare for a non-starter. Wellbrock has been an offensive sparkplug.
Hays High leads 5A West in scoring defense, which enabled the Indians to earn a tiebreaker for the top seed. Hutchins, in his third season with the program and fourth at Hays High, shies away from mentioning winning streaks, margins of victory. Instead, he has discussed the seniors appreciating basketball – things like the dwindling time together, opponents, the student section.
On Feb. 18, the Hays High seniors played Garden City for the final time and won 56-37. Hutchins told the group to “make the most of it.” The Indians held GC more than 20 points under its season average.
“If there is a 5A team better than them, I would like to see them,” GC coach Jeff Williamson said. “Because again, they rotate really well, they talk to each other real well, they communicate really well, and whenever they do rotate, they help and recover so quickly, and again whenever a shot goes up, they converge to the glass, they gang rebound. Even though they have a big guy (Linenberger), they all go get the ball, they all go rebound.”
Hutchins echoed a similar “make the most of it” refrain before the Senior Night 59-43 win versus Dodge City when Kieffer set the assist mark.
“Kind of feels weird not having to drive all the way to Liberal again, and go to Garden and Dodge again, but it’s an awesome experience,” Kieffer said.
In a coaches’ decision, all eight seniors were announced as seniors before the game. Kieffer and Linenberger took control of the contest.
“I have a lot of trust in my teammates,” Kieffer said. “And we all move the ball pretty well, and we all have a lot of confidence in each other, and a lot of chemistry, so it’s pretty easy to find open teammates, and trust them to make plays.”
Kieffer, who sometimes spends more time working on his left (off-hand) than his right, was ready for Dodge City’s defense. Normally, he watches film two to three times a week. He was aware and prepared for DC’s traps.
“The defense that Dodge City runs, it takes away a lot of scheme. You can’t run a whole lot of plays against it,” Hutchins said. “There is not really any silver bullet that gives you an answer. … So both times we have played them this year, we have really just tried to get out of the way, and let those guys go to work.”
Dodge City owns a win against Maize, ranked ninth in 5A and the defending champion. Traughber has seen Wichita Heights, No. 2 in 6A.
“Hays can play with anybody,” Traughber said. “….They have got a great chance of going a long way and doing whatever they want to do, reaching those goals, because they are a good team.”
On Wednesday, the Hays High girls played their last home game of 2021-22 with its thrilling win versus Maize South. HHS’ 13 victories exceeded the last two years’ combined total. Last week, Hays High lost two games in the final seconds to Dodge City and Great Bend to slip to the No. 8 seed.
HHS and Maize South had never played, though the two teams overlapped in several ways. Maize South coach Ben Hamilton’s dad is Dennis Hamilton, who coached Dodge City boys for 30 years and was known for its zone. Hamilton, DC’s all-time winningest coach, had six final fours. Ben runs his dad’s zone.
Dennis coached for decades against then-Hays High boys’ coach Rick Keltner and assistant Mark Watts. Currently, Watts is an Indian girls’ assistant. When Ben Hamilton found out, he suspected Hays High girls would run similar aspects to the boys under Keltner. He was right. Hamilton called his dad earlier this week.
“He drew some things up, and sent it to me,” Ben said. “And sure enough, they came out, and they were posting up our wings, trying to get the ball right there, right first possession, so I kind of got a chuckle out of that.”
Plus, Maize South senior Jenna Uehling’s dad is Dr. Brennan Uehling, a well-known chiropractor in Hays. Melvin remembered Uehling from youth summer basketball when she was in Hays. Uehling, a Tabor College signing, paced the Mavericks with 13 points.
“It was a really cool experience for her,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy for her. I felt she played a really, really nice game tonight. She has talked about, she has gone to the Fort Hays basketball camps with some of these girls, and she knows them from that. Whenever we found out we drew them, she smiled really big, and she was really excited for it.”
Hays High was plus-11 on the glass in a back-and-forth contest. Indian 6-foot-2 sophomore forward Jillyan Sheldon limited Maize South 6-3 junior forward Avery Lowe to eight points. Lowe has committed to Kearney basketball. Lowe scored the game’s first basket, and the HHS coaching staff challenged Sheldon when they took her out.
“She answered the bell,” Melvin said. “She played a heckuva game.”
Sheldon had a critical 3-point play with 3:14 left to break a 32 tie. With 11 seconds left, Martin drew a foul on a drive and sank both free throws. Martin, known for her shooting work on her own, is the team’s leading scorer with 11 points a contest. She has sunk 77 percent of her free throws. Martin also sank clutch free throws late against Dodge City last week. Senior Aleyia Ruder led HHS with 11 points and blocked Maize South’s final desperation heave.
“This was really big for our kids, winning a close game,” coach Melvin said.
Hays High receives more than 70 percent of its points from non-seniors. The Indians lost, 68-43, on Jan. 28 at Salina Central, widely considered Kansas’ best team. SC and senior Aubrie Kierscht should break multiple team/individual state 3-point shooting records this winter. Melvin reminded his girls they are in the Sweet 16, a win away from the program’s first state berth since 1996.
“They have a great collection of young players,” Hamilton said. “…Hays is going to be a team here that’s going to give Salina Central everything that they have got, but they are going to be a team here in the next two years that you are going to be hearing about, and they are definitely making some trips to Emporia (for state) if I had to guess.”
Dale thought of the finality of this season before Tuesday’s Ark City contest, a game HHS need to move closer to a trip to Emporia for state. The Indians have widely considered the most talented senior boy class in school history. Dylan Dreiling signed with Tennessee baseball, Jaren Kanak with Oklahoma football. Gavin Meyers is the 5A Defensive Player of the Year in football and undefeated state wrestling champion. Baseball had its best finish since 2000, football best since 1995.
Basketball has the opportunity for the best in school history.
“It’s definitely been sad, and kind of nerve-wracking,” Dale said. “I was kind of nervous for this game, because there is always that possibility that it’s going to be the last one. I don’t want it to be. I really want a ring. I want to win a state championship, so I want to keep playing as long as I can, because we have been playing for so long. As I keep saying, ‘I don’t really want to be done playing with all these guys.’”
Outside of Linenberger’s health, another key question comes with Hays High’s pace. HHS’ efficiency numbers are excellent with 1.10 points scored per possession and .70 allowed, per SIK research. The Indians have turnovers just 19.1 percent of the time and collect steals on 19.2 percent of possessions, also elite marks. Hays High has averaged 55.4 possessions a contest.
“I don’t know that I would call us an up tempo team,” Hutchins said. “But I don’t know that we are super methodical either. We are kind of an average-paced team.”
The Indians are ranked third in the MaxPreps all-class statistical rankings that account for strength of schedule. HHS is behind only two 6A teams, Free State and Blue Valley Northwest. Class 5A’s HHS, Kapaun Mt. Carmel, Topeka West, Maize and Andover Central are all in the top-16.
“Very similar to probably your Andover, Andover Central,” Jennings said of Hays High. “In that the talent is there, they shoot the ball extremely well with size. It’s going to be a really good matchup to see them against some of those teams. Those groups look to push the tempo a little more. They want to play a little more slow.”
No. 7-ranked Andover is at 57.3 possessions a contest with 1.05 points per possession and .82 allowed. No. 4 Andover Central has 52.1 possessions with 1.05 points a possession and .80 allowed. No. 2 Topeka West has 57.6 possessions with 1.17 points and .92 allowed. Maize has 57.8 possessions a game with 1.02 points a possession.
Still, none of the teams have a point guard like Kieffer, especially in terms of career assist numbers.
“If they can control tempo and play a little slower like they like to, it might cause some problems for those teams over there,” Jennings said. “But if they are able to pressure and get up and down the floor, who knows? So it will be interesting to see how the rest of this thing plays out when they run into some of those teams.”