Part I of III: “That’s what he loves to do” – 20 stories on how Hill City’s Keith Riley moved past John Locke’s legendary 731 victories

Hill City coach Keith Riley with his two boys, Geoff and Brian. All photos from the Riley family.

By CONOR NICHOLL

Hill City coach Keith Riley and Montezuma-South Gray coach Mark Applegate have achieved Kansas history for boys’ basketball victories. Riley, a Dighton graduate, came to Hill City in 1967. He served one season as the Ringneck assistant and took over as head boys’ basketball coach the following year. Riley is among the country’s longest tenured coaches and has been inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He served as Hill City head track coach every year until this season.

Riley is 733-439 after Tuesday’s win versus Quinter, with three state titles in basketball (’70, ’78, ’98) and six in track.

Applegate has coached since ’82-83 with the Montezuma school district. He has 730 career victories, including four state titles in ’97, ’07, ’08, and ‘18. South Gray is 6-0 this winter. Applegate has won 90 percent of his games since ’05-06.

Both coaches have two boys. Their youngest, Geoff Riley and Eli Applegate, were consensus first team all-state players and won at least one state title playing for dad.

Riley and Applegate are moving past Hall of Fame coach John Locke, who won 731 career games, mainly at Natoma. Locke held the all-time Kansas basketball wins record from 1979-2012.

Two girls’ coaches, Olpe’s Jesse Nelson and Bishop Miege’s Terry English, have already surpassed Locke’s win total. Nelson first broke Locke’s record in 2012. They finished with 951 and 910 wins, respectively. Both retired after last season. Coldwater-South Central coach Tim Rietzke, who has coached primarily girls, is still active with more than 810 career wins.

Riley and Applegate are 1-2 all-time in Kansas history for most wins by a primarily boys’ basketball coach. Together, they have served a collective 90-plus years as head boys’ basketball coaches. During the last several weeks, SIK spent significant time with both coaches, families and many people, including players, coaches, friends, opposing coaches and officials who know the duo.

Even though Hill City and Montezuma are generally one classification apart, have played some common teams and are located 146 miles away on US-283, the coaches have never met each other.

SIK has collected stories regarding Mindy Applegate, Mark’s wife and a longtime teacher in the Montezuma school district. Mindy passed away on Nov. 21, 2021 at the age of 59. During the next several days, SIK will have multiple stories on Riley and Applegate.

First, though, 20 stories, anecdotes and history on coach Riley. Why 20? That was the number worn by each of his two sons, Brian and Geoff.

1. Coach Riley has perpetual energy

Keith Riley is 78 years old. However, he constantly has energy in all life endeavors.  

“Seems boundless,” Brian, a 1994 Hill City graduate, said. “And sometimes a trait I kind of wish I had at times, his energy level. For as long as he has been doing this, whether it’s farming or coaching and teaching, just in a lot of ways, he has never worked a day in his life. Because it’s just his life, that’s what he loves to do. There has never been a Sunday night where he wasn’t ready to go to work on Monday morning.”

Geoff, a multi-sport star at Hill City and consensus first team all-state basketball player in 1998, is currently a dentist in the Kansas City area. Geoff has told his wife and friends that his dad has more energy and drive than anyone he knows.

“He always has,” Geoff told SIK. “Honestly, I really didn’t realize until I grew up and became an adult that to go ‘Wow, what he does is kind of unbelievable.’” I mean, he gets out of bed, he is going. And he takes a quick catnap in the middle of the day, and he is busy and dedicated. To this day, I don’t know anybody that works harder than him. He’s 78 years old, and he’s still like he’s 30.”

Riley mainly taught woods and drafting at Hill City for 50 years before he retired from teaching three years ago.

Farming is a major part of Riley’s life. The Riley family lives in Dighton for the three summer months. Even in the fall, Riley would teach a full day at Hill City and drive 90 miles to Dighton. Then, he would drive the tractor from 5 p.m. until 9:30-10, drive back to Hill City and teach the following day. That was Keith’s routine for many years, including when Geoff was in high school and college.

Keith and Merriel would routinely drive eight-plus hours to El Dorado when Geoff played college basketball at Butler County Community College. Hill City principal Alan Stein, at HC since ’03, is one of Riley’s closest friends.

“It’s just the passion he has for it, the passion that he has for the game, and the passion he has for life,” Stein said. “He’s always doing something. He’s always on the move. If you could ever get him to sit still, it’s not going to be for very long.”

2. The Rileys made life-long connections through the farm

In Hill City, the Rileys lived two blocks from Merriel’s parents.

Every May, the Rileys packed up and moved south to Dighton. They lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath, 900-square foot house. Keith’s brother, Gerald, oversees the farm.

Brian, currently an eighth grade history teacher in the Shawnee Mission school district, liked going to Dighton “a lot” when he was young. Brian had a different set of friends in Dighton and played little league baseball there.

Brian’s best friend in Dighton is Casey Kershner. The two live a block and a half apart in Kansas City. They still get together every couple of weeks.

3. Riley didn’t tell anyone he was elected to the Hall of Fame

In August 2013, Riley received word he’d earned induction into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He didn’t tell anyone outside of his wife. After several months, Merriel told Keith he had to tell the boys.

Stein eventually discovered Riley’s honor. Stein asked Riley, in mock seriousness, “Do you need to tell me something?”

“I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about,” Riley told me at the time.

Stein eventually released the information to the media.

Riley’s success has come from several areas. He has rarely had parental issues during the years and has a strict adherence to fundamentals. He especially wants to avoid fouls well away from the basket. Riley is known for rarely talking to officials.

Riley hones on the small things, including cutting correctly, passing to the correct hand and boxing out. Generally his teams have few turnovers, especially travels. Riley harps on having no violations in games – travels, three-second and five-second calls. He has picked up two technical fouls since 1994.

“I am really a stickler on the little things,” Riley said. “Always have been. There have been a lot of years where we haven’t been the most talented team, but the way we survive is doing the little things, so we have got to do them. When you’ve got the talent and you are doing the little things, it makes you that much better.”

4.Two areas keep Keith Riley going

It’s simply staggering how long Riley has coached. He has coached longer than any of the Kansas legends, including Nelson, English, Silver Lake football coach C.J. Hamilton, Wichita Heights’ coach Joe Auer, and Shawnee Heights’ coach Ken Darting. Riley’s first group of graduates are now more than 70 years old.

Riley graduated from Dighton in 1961 and Fort Hays in 1967 with an industrial arts degree. At first, Riley thought he would stay at Hill City for a year.

“I really enjoy working with kids. They may not always enjoy working with me,” Riley said with a laugh. “But I really enjoy working with the kids, and secondly, I like the challenge. Whether you are good or bad, whether you are just going to have a year you know you are not very talented, but you have got to work your butt off to be competitive, and that’s what we have always tried to do.

“So that’s the two reasons I stay into it,” he added. “I really enjoy it. I enjoy going to practice. I enjoy coaching teams. It’s frustrating. I think it’s Tom Osborne said one time that coaching, you are either at a high or you are at a low, there is no in-between, and that’s the truth. If you are winning, you are at a high. If you lose, you are at a low. There’s no tweener.”

Keith and Merriel Riley.

5. Merriel Riley had a superstition for many years

Keith and Merriel, a Hill City native, have been married for 50 years. For many years, Merriel, a 1964 Hill City graduate, never missed a game. Brian called her the “glue.” Merriel filled out the scorers’ book the day before every game as a good luck superstition.

“My mom is such a supporting, caring person,” Brian said. “And always willing to do for others. … My mom has just been a rock for my dad.”

6. Riley was an excellent pole vaulter in high school – and still remembers his last state track meet

In 1959, Riley tied for fourth as a sophomore at the Class B state track meet in pole vault. The next year, he tied for fifth at state in Class B, per the Kansas State High School Activities Journal records and SIK research. As a senior, three vaulters finished in a three-way tie at KU Relays. Riley won the tiebreaker and captured the prestigious KU Relay crown.

Riley cleared 12 feet. He beat Roger Barth from Topeka Highland Park, Wyandotte’s Gary Shrader and Shawnee Mission North’s Don Bradley. These were probably the state’s best pole vaulters. Barth eventually won the AA state title, Kansas largest class, in 1961. Shrader and Bradley tied for fifth in AA.

Riley qualified for state track in relays. His senior year, Dighton’s 880 relay team had a member who wasn’t feeling well. The relay didn’t make finals.

“I was so dang mad,” Riley said.

Then, Riley went over to pole vault. Riley thought he could win.

“I pole vaulted the worst that I ever pole vaulted in my life, and that bothers me more than anything, because I had a chance to win it, and I just lost control,” he said.

Riley was recruited some by the University of Kansas. Riley went to Hutchinson Community College and did basketball and track for a year. He played basketball at Fort Hays, though struggled with an ankle injury. Riley lettered for the Tiger basketball team in 1966.

In track, Riley has usually coached the sprinters, pole vaulters and hurdlers.

“I really wanted to coach and teach,” Riley said. “I don’t mind farming, but I am not dedicated to the farm like I am to coaching. My brother is dedicated to the farm, and I go down there, and do what I am supposed to do.

“We have had really good guys work for us, and that really helps out, because I don’t like to be a mechanic, and good farmers are mechanics and everything else, and that’s not my thing. And I enjoy working. I don’t mind going out at 8 and getting it at 8 or 9 at night. I hate to do it every night, but we do that a lot.”

7.Keith Riley coached against John Locke, “the Dr. James Naismith of all top shelf coaches”

Locke, born in Osborne County, coached at Covert, Stockton and Natoma. Famously, he led both Natoma boys and girls teams to the state championship games in 1975.

Natoma has multiple commemorative signs regarding Locke’s career. In 1984, Locke was an inaugural inductee into the Kansas High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. He finished with a career mark of 731-203 in 44 years. He retired in 1979. Locke was an avid hunter and raised horses in a farm south of Natoma.

I have talked to several people regarding Locke during the years. Everyone agrees that Locke was a gentleman and nice to everyone. Riley played with Locke’s son at Fort Hays.

“I just had so much respect for the guy,” Riley said. “His teams were organized. They know what they were going to do, and he always gave me encouragement. That next year, I think it was my first year as head coach, they weren’t very good, and we beat them pretty bad, but he always came over and gave me a compliment, and anytime I would go to Fort Hays games, I would see him sitting up in the crowd, I would always go up and talk to him, and he was just a great guy, he really was. I don’t think very many people could say anything bad about John Locke.”

Mike Miller played at Stockton and is still on multiple all-time leaderboards for Fort Hays basketball. Miller is a bank president in Montezuma. His sons, Jackson and Clifton, were standouts for Applegate. Miller’s dad served as a coach and math teacher in Stockton. He went over and assisted Locke for a year in Natoma. Then, Stockton called and offered him the principal position.

“My folks and the Lockes were good family friends,” Miller said.

Larry Jantz currently lives in Hays and served as an official for 33 years. He officiated 55 to 60 games a year. Jantz is an avid sports fan who currently provides color commentary for Smoky Hill TV for various KSHSAA state events. This week, Jantz provided his 15 “Top Shelf Coaches” to SIK from his time officiating.

Locke and Riley rank first and second.

“Johnny Locke, he was the Dr. James Naismith of all top shelf coaches,” Jantz wrote. “He even had racks of different sized basketballs in the hallways of Natoma’s grade school – all had silk screened hand prints on them in order to teach proper techniques in holding and shooting the basketball. Some were for left handed shooter, and most were for right handed players. (Yes, some were smaller than 12-inch diameter for his little Tigers to shoot properly, no knee or quick shooting from the hip required).”

8. Riley is very organized

Riley is well-known for his organization, attention to fundamentals and delivering the most out of his talent. When Riley first came to Hill City, he was upset the head coach was not more organized. He took over as head coach the following year, in ’68-69.

“I was really frustrated my first year as an assistant coach,” Riley said. “I really had a good JV team. I think we only lost one game that year. Had a really good bunch of kids, took us a little while, but we really had a good team and everything, and by the end of the year, my JVs were just about to beat the varsity. I think we were just a lot more organized, and I have always been that way. I never wanted to walk in the classroom and think, ‘Well, let’s see, what am I going to do today? I wanted to know exactly what I was going to do in the classroom, because I am not great at improvising.”

Even the players recognized Riley’s organization.

“I know one of the kids that came back after a couple of years of, ‘Boy coach, the difference when you took over is, you were organized,’” he said. “And the kids know if you are organized or not. They know. … So I think that’s the biggest thing in coaching, you have got to make sure you know what you going to do when you walk on the floor.”

9. Riley always attended area rules meetings

Jantz said Riley was one of two coaches that always attended area rules meetings designed for game officials.

“He was determined to know what were upcoming rule changes, which were to be emphasized, and then would ask me to work his preseason scrimmages,” Jantz said. “Why? He would say: ‘The kids get tired of me harping and talking to them about the rules, so I want it to come from a third voice – you game officials.”

10. Riley put up basketball goals in Hill City – goals are still there today; he won his first state title in his second year

Riley’s first varsity team won 19 games.

“I took over at a pretty good time, my first year I had a good ball club,” he said.

The group loved basketball. When Riley took over, he went downtown and put up some basketball goals at the tennis courts. People going up and down on main street often saw the boys playing on the courts. Since then, Hill City has re-did the tennis courts and put goals on both ends with a court.

In 1970, Riley’s Hill City squad finished 24-1 and won the Class 2A state championship. Riley believed the goals significantly helped the Ringnecks win the state.  Hill City’s only defeat of the season came to Phillipsburg. Riley said the ’70 squad was probably the best shooting team he’s ever had.

HC’s roster included Rick Barden, Neal Bassett, Gene Dodd, Don Keller, Don Law, Dirk Parks, Chuck Hachmeister, Rod Radcliffe, Gary Werling and Lance Wise. Riley called Werling an “all-around athlete and a good player” and Law “just an animal on the boards.” Dodd set scoring records for single game and the entire tournament at state. Radcliffe was an excellent shooter.

“Those kids were down there playing all the time, and the best thing that you can do is go outside and play by yourself or get some guys to play in the summertime,” Riley said. “And too many kids, they want to play video games or find something else to do. But those kids were really good basketball players. They could shoot it, and they rebound it and they run, and they were –hate to say it – but they were the cockiest bunch I have ever coached. They weren’t going to get beat. We lost one game that year, and one of the kids walked into the dressing room and said, ‘We are not losing another one this year.’”

Riley remains in close contact with many of his players, including several from the ’70 squad and Tom Clark, the leader of the ’78 state team. At a reunion in the early 2010s, multiple players from each of Riley’s three state teams took a picture together. A couple players went to Jackson Hole for the Hall of Fame ceremony.

“They were just a part of our lives,” Brian said. “These guys were kind of like living legends to us kids when they would show up, and I still feel that way about Tom Clark, and Gary Werling and Rod Radcliffe and those guys. There’s certainly a brotherhood that is established amongst all of us that kind of played for dad. That’s kind of been the great thing for Geoff and I.”

Coach Riley in the 1970s.

11. Riley had immediate success in track

Riley’s early track teams dominated. His six boy state titles came in ’69, ’70, ’71, ’78, ’79, and ’97. The girls won in 1976. He qualified at least one boy every year to the state track meet from 1967-2012. Riley significantly upped roster numbers.

In ’69, Riley said Hill City finished third or fourth at the regional. Down to state, Riley told his team they were strong in certain events and could place in the top-three at state.

“Kids kind of looked at me kind of funny because Hill City never had hardly much of a track team,” he said. “And we went down there and won it that year, and then the next year we won it again, and the next year we won it again. But I had some good sprinters back then and some other things.”

The 1969 squad won the AA state championship with 22 points, one ahead of Marion, per Kansas High School Activities Journal archives and SIK research. Mike Alexander won the 100-yard dash and the 220 dash. He ran on the winning 880 relay. Leonard Jones was second in the 880.

The ’70 squad won with 28 points, ahead of runner-up Anthony’s 19.5. Alexander duplicated his three titles. The ’71 team beat Stanton County, 31-30, for the championship. Jones won the 100, 220 and 440. The 880 relay won as well.

The 1979 team rolled with 98 points, while Southwestern Heights was second with 44. JP Worcester set the record in the 3,200 run in 9:43.1. Mike Worcester set the record in 4:31.6 in the 1,600. The 3,200 relay set a new record. Dale Terry cleared 6-8 in the high jump and was second, though tied the state record.

Riley coached Darby Roberts in the ‘90s, who was the nation’s top javelin thrower and an All-American in ’92 and ‘93.

“When you go to a track meet, Darby was a rock star,” Brian said.

Sprinter Mike Applehans was a state record holder. In ’97, Applehans won the 100 and 200, and Geoff Riley captured the 300 hurdle title. The 1,600 relay also won.

“When kids start to be sophomores or juniors in basketball, they realize where they are at,” Riley said. “In track, it’s easy. You line them and say, ‘Why am I not on this relay?’ Well, let’s go find out. You run them up here and see. Basketball is a little bit different, but when you see them everyday and in practice, it’s pretty easy to pick your starting five.”

12. Riley loved helping other players

Decades later, Miller still remembers Riley supporting the other league players. The Mid-Continent League, with Smith Center, Norton, Hill City, Stockton, Phillipsburg, WaKeeney and Ellis, often congregated in the summers for basketball.

“That doesn’t happen that much anymore, and coach Riley, it didn’t matter if it was Hill City Ringneck players, Stockton Tigers, Norton Bluejays, whoever, he would be down there opening the gym,” Miller said. “… He loved basketball. He wasn’t just about his community. … and we’d play for hours on end in some really, really good competitive games, and that’s what made that league.”

Riley has invested time in the kids close to his house, too.

“Another thing I have always enjoyed doing, if I have got a neighbor kid that’s a basketball player, they will come over at night, maybe at 8 o’clock or 8:30, and we will go up and shoot for 30 minutes and come back,” Riley said. “I do that with kids.”

13. Riley writes his practice plans in pen – and is always writing notes, even in church and the hospital

The Rileys moved into their current house in 1980. He has a desk downstairs. Riley generally writes all his practice plans at his desk. They normally take him 30 to 90 minutes.

“I have got a lot of mine that I run off, and I will put them in a notebook, and I will go through it once in awhile and see, oh there is a good practice,” Riley said. “But usually with each team, like right now, we are struggling with an offense, so we have got to spend a little more time running our offense over and over and over and over again. We have got a couple of kids new to it. … It changes from night to night, up and down, and write the practice up for the next day, and then the next day I will look at it and say, ‘Hey, is this what I want to do?’”

He is always writing down notes.

“I even write things down in church sometimes,” he said.

Joe Jackson was an assistant coach under Riley. He later won a state title as Wichita East’s head coach and is currently the head Maize South boys’ basketball coach. Jackson visited Riley in the hospital after Riley had knee surgery. Jackson came by to check on him. While in the hospital bed, Riley had a notepad and drew up plays.

Every Wednesday, a Hays-area group of longtime coaches meets at the Golden Q. At a recent Wednesday, Riley watched the KU game with Jack Wolf and his daughter, Haley. Jack coached for 20-plus years at Ellis. Haley is a current three-sport assistant at Hays High. Riley wrote down an out-of-bounds play on a napkin at the table.

Riley is known for the ubiquitous rolled up paper he holds during games. The sheets have his plays, inbounds, out of bounds. Plus, he writes down something on each of the opponents’ players. Hill City normally runs its out of bounds plays in order.

His ’98 state team featured Geoff Riley, Justin Zohner and Dustin Beam. Zohner was the passer on the out of bounds plays.

“I would just tell Zohner, here are my first five plays we are going to run out of bounds,” Riley said. “…. He was just so smart, he knew. I didn’t have to yell them or anything.”

14. Riley drinks a lot of Diet Coke

“I drink way too much Diet Coke, I do,” Riley said. “I always take one to practice with me everyday.”

His daughter thought “Pappa” was at their house.

“Way too much, way too much,” Riley said. “My little grand daughter, she is only like 15 months, and Geoff said that he had a cup at home with a straw in it, and she goes, ‘Pappa, pappa?’ Because I always have a cup there with Diet Coke sitting there, and thought, ‘Oh, Pappa must be here.’

15. Riley keeps in consistent contact with Tom Clark

Riley’s second title came with a 26-1 team in 1978, a dominant squad that had just two close games and lost the winter’s second contest to Phillipsburg. That team had plenty of talent with seniors Tom Clark, Wade Kennedy, Steve Matheny, Bill McCollum, Terry Petrie and Phil Switzer and J.P. Worcester, a junior track star who eventually ran at Fort Hays.

The 6-foot-4 McCollum played at Colby CC and Fort Hays. Switzer had a 42-inch vertical. Switzer remains one of four Ringneck football players to earn selection to the Kansas Shrine Bowl. Switzer thrice won the state title in the 100 yard dash and played 33 games as a Kansas State defensive back.

“They were a really athletic team,” Riley said.

The 6-foot-1 Clark was a long armed player in the middle. Riley and Clark still talk on the phone every two weeks. Clark played at Sterling College and currently lives in Hutchinson. He was inducted into the Sterling College Hall of Fame in 2000. Clark’s Facebook photos of him with family and community displays his effervescent personality.

“A great leader,” Riley said. “Probably one of the best leaders I have ever had.”

17. The 1989-90 teams had significant talent with colorful personalities, including the late Carlos Nevins

Riley has believed both the ’89 and ’90 teams could have won state titles.

In ’90, star Kevin Swayne, currently the CEO of High Plains Farm Credit in Hays, suffered a knee injury in the sub-state semifinals. As well, Hill City had a female student die in a car crash around sub-state time, which put a dark cloud over the school. HC lost in sub-state.

In ‘89, Spearville and Hill City were ranked first and second in 2A most of the season. Both reached the final four of the state tournament.

The ’89 team marked the first time Alan Stein, then a standout post for Spearville, came across Riley.

The discussion revolved around Spearville and Hill City meeting in the championship. Instead, both teams were upset in the semifinals. Garden Plain shot 20-plus more free throws than Hill City, and the Ringnecks lost, 61-59. Spearville fell to Moundridge. Hill City beat Spearville for third place, 65-55.

Stein had several connections to multiple Hill City players, including playing in some all-star games later that spring and summer with Carlos Nevins, who averaged 20.5 points and 10 rebounds a contest en route to first team all-state honors. In the third place game, Stein had 29 points, Nevins with 23.

“Got to know each other really well at those times,” Stein said.

Nevins exuded joy throughout his life. He passed away Sept. 12, 2021 at the age of 50 from a car accident near Junction City, per a Hays Post obituary. Nevins played college football at several places, including Pittsburg State. He lived in Overland Park and established a business.

“Carlos is one of the greatest athletes to ever go through Hill City,” Geoff said. “He was something else, and he was a character. It was a sad deal when he passed away this year. But people were talking about stories of him, and everybody admired Carlos, because he was such a nice guy. But he was just a stud, too, on the court, football.”

Geoff vividly remembers the ’89-90 squads.

“They were amazing,” Geoff said. “They were a heck of a team. Rarely do you have guys dunking a ball in 2A. Well, Carlos would have a dunk or two every single game.”

Around kindergarten or first grade, Geoff started going to practice everyday.

“They had a really good team, and they were a lot of fun to watch,” Geoff said. “Hill City, the gymnasium was packed when those guys were playing, so that inspired us. I think we just loved watching those guys play, so we really got into basketball then as well.”

Geoff frequently took a big bag of Doritos at practice. During water breaks, Nevins came to Geoff.

“Carlos had the biggest hands you have ever seen in your life,” Geoff said. “He would come over, take a big ‘ol (handful) of Doritos. And I just loved it.”

Geoff grew up playing with close friend and teammate Andy Heiman, the superintendent’s son who was two years older and lived right behind the Rileys.

“I have played one-on-one 10,000 times in my life and 8,000 times were against him,” Geoff said. “…I always tell people I had a really good jump shot, and that’s because Andy was about six inches taller than me for the longest time, and that was the only way I could get a shot up on him. I’d take a couple of dribbles and step back and just shoot it.”

Geoff and Brian Riley

18. The famous 1998 team struggled early

In recent history, Riley is most well-known for his 1998 team that finished 23-3 and won the Class 2A state title, a season after HC had a great team. Riley earned all-classes Kansas Basketball Coaches Association coach of the year.

“We just really gelled,” Geoff said.

Geoff was offered by Bruce Weber, the current Kansas State coach and then the coach at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Geoff is still Hill City’s all-time leading scorer with more than 1,900 points and was a consensus first team all-state player. He eventually played at Butler County Community College and Fort Hays. He averaged 26 points a game as a senior. Geoff has terrific athletic ability and basketball IQ.  As a spectator, Stein watched Geoff in a game his freshman year.

“He was very knowledgeable of the game, and just his skill set as a freshman was off the charts,” Stein said.

Coach Riley said the ‘98 team was “smart” but ran into some trouble early in the year when squads ran box and one on Geoff, the point guard. Junior Scott O’Hara was a key player, and Dustin Beam could rebound and was quick inside.

“Dustin Beam, from his first game of the year to his last game of the year wasn’t even the same person,” Geoff said.

Current veteran Hill City assistant coach Scott Schulz was a freshman that year. Geoff Riley is still great friends with his former teammates. Geoff and post Justin Zohner remain best friends.  Hill City ran a matchup zone that gave opponents problems.

“Man I was calling around, what the heck do I do?,” coach Riley said. “Finally I decided I am just going to take our man to man offense, we are going to tweak it a little bit and make it simple, and then we took off and played well. … I didn’t coach real well against a box and one. Box and one against a wing is different, they run a box and 1 on your point guard, that makes it a lot different, and those other kids weren’t quite ready. They weren’t stepping up yet. But man, when they stepped up, it just made all the difference in the world.”

19. Riley was a great teacher

Riley’s attention to detail showed in his classroom. Riley never had a serious student injury in a half century of teaching woods. In the early ‘70s, Riley was a proponent of girls taking shop, too. Brian took woodworking and drafting from his dad.

“He was a great woods teacher,” Brian said. “I remember that class more than anything else, because some of that energy that he brings to the court, he brought to the classroom, too. … He wanted everything to be perfect on the court, and try to do things the right away, it was the same thing in wood shop class, which made him a great shop teacher, because when kids left class at the end of shop, you could still eat off the floor. I mean, the shop was spic and span. Kids turned out great projects. They learned a lot from him.”

20. In recent years, Riley has succeeded despite lack of depth and injuries

Riley has consistently won despite injuries, lack of depth and height.

Riley believed the ’08-09 team could have won the Class 2A state title. The squad featured Alex VanLoenen and Chris Miller. As a junior, VanLoenen was hurt in football and played just five basketball games. He limped up and down the court and still averaged 15 points a game. VanLoenen didn’t play football as a senior.

Then, the day before Thanksgiving break, VanLoenen tore his ACL on a break and was out for the year. In the season’s second game, Miller tore his ACL.

“These two kids are really good players,” Riley said. “I didn’t know what we were going to do. I had to take my center and move him to point guard and take my point guard and move him over to a wing.”

Hill City opened 1-6. The Ringnecks then flipped two results, including a pair of wins versus Stockton, which beat HC in the season opener. Hill City finished 12-10. Senior Ross Breese stepped up with 7.1 points per game. Junior Dylan Vap averaged 14.6 points a contest. Senior Seth Thompson was at 10.5 points a game.

“I feel sorry for any kid that gets hurt and doesn’t have a chance to play his senior year, because that’s the most important year,” Riley said.

Riley is consistently known for upsets and getting the most from his teams. In an extreme rarity, Hill City does not play in preseason tournaments. In ’11-12, HC finished 17-6 with no bench. The top-five players combined for 97 percent of the scoring.

In ’14-15, Hill City upset Thomas More Prep-Marian, 49-47, in the Mid-Continent League season opener. TMP never lost again in MCL play and won all its conference games but one by double figures. The Monarchs went to the Class 4A, Division II state tournament.

In 15-16, HC took fourth in 2A as the No. 8 seed when it beat top-seeded and undefeated Sedan in the state quarterfinals.

Two years ago, Hill City opened 2-2 and then went 11-6 the rest of the year. They nearly upset a much taller and more talented TMP squad in the Mid-Continent League quarterfinals. TMP had four players 6-1 or taller, including 6-7 Carson Jacobs.

Hill City had a seven player rotation and no player above six-foot. TMP won, 49-45.

“It’s just really, really hard,” TMP coach Bill Meagher told me after the game. “He is really, really good at getting his guys to execute exactly what he wants.”

Postgame, Meagher gave Riley a compliment. As well, multiple fans came up to Riley afterward and congratulated his team on a fine effort.

“You are the best coach in the country,” Meagher said.

 Last season, HC opened 1-3 before a 14-2 run.

“The type of effort that he gets out of his kids, the knowledge that he gives them by just the sheer practice times, all the time they spend in practice, the things they do in practice, the expectations that he sets forward to them, it’s amazing,” Stein said.

This year, Riley’s consistent focus, as always, remains on the next game. Consistently in conversations about past teams and successes, Riley will circle back around to his current squad and what can be done better.

Hill City lost 40-37 to Hoxie in the game before Christmas break. Riley brought up the loss multiple times as he discussed his history. Hill City entered Christmas 2-2.

“After that Hoxie game, I was so hard on myself,” Riley said. “I thought we had ran over this stuff. I thought we knew what we were going to do, and we didn’t do it, so that’s my fault. You have got to blame yourself and not always the kids. I am really hard on myself, because after the game, you think, ‘Well, what could we have done differently better?’ and if you don’t do those kinds of things, you are never going to get better.”

Coach Keith Riley

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