By CONOR NICHOLL
Sports In Kansas continues with its three-part series on Hill City coach Keith Riley and Montezuma-South Gray coach Mark Applegate. As of Friday morning, Riley is at 733 wins, and Applegate is at 730. Riley has passed legendary John Locke’s 731 career victories for the most wins by a primarily boys’ basketball coach in Kansas history. Locke mainly coached at Natoma and is in multiple Hall of Fames.
Sports in Kansas reached out to several dozen people for oral histories regarding Riley and Applegate. They have spent more than 90 combined years at their respective schools and collectively won seven state basketball titles. As well, multiple stories came regarding Applegate’s wife, Mindy, who passed away in November.
Below in A-B-C order, is oral histories from former players and coaches, administrators, friends, college coaches, officials, opposing coaches and others associated with the pair collected by SIK.
Part I, which focuses on coach Riley’s career, can be found here:
Eli Applegate, Mark Applegate’s son, two-time state champion player at South Gray, current Spearville boys’ basketball coach
“My dad has always been my hero, ever since I was little I wanted to be just like him. It was one of my greatest memories looking back and getting to have my dad as my coach. It’s also really cool to bounce ideas off of him now that I am coach. My mom was always my Dad’s biggest supporter. She always knew what to say to him no matter the situation. She was always there no matter what. She was my dad’s and all of us kids #1 fan.”
Kim Batman, current Montezuma-South Gray high school principal
“Mark is truly one of the best coaches and an even better person”
Former Washburn men’s basketball Bob Chipman. He retired with 808 wins, which ranks 16th all-time along NCAA coaches at all levels for career wins.
“Being around Coach Applegate, the last several years, it’s pretty clear to me how he’s been so successful. He loves the game, loves working with kids and he loves to win! Congratulations to Coach and his program a little early on this historic achievement!”
John Crist, Quinter boys’ basketball coach
“I’ve coached against Keith Riley for 29 years now. There are so many things that come to mind when going against his teams. But the one that stands out to me the most is how fundamentally sound his kids have always been. You have to beat them because they simply do not beat themselves. Coach Riley has always done it the right way and his teams and players reflect his coaching.”
Greg Deines, longtime current Hill City girls’ basketball assistant, former HC player
As a young kid growing up in Hill City it was a goal of mine at a very young age to be able to start and play for Coach Riley. That goal was obtained my sophomore year and throughout the rest of my high school career. After going away for 10 years to serve in the military, I had always wanted to come back to Hill City and coach basketball it was a passion of mine that I believe Coach Riley instilled in me at such a young age.
I have been coaching basketball in the Hill City system for 20 years now mostly on the girls’ side, but I was able to coach with Coach Riley for one season doing Freshman boys before the assistant job opened up on the girls side. Coach Riley and I always share a laugh about how I would come out of the locker room with my arm already in the shooting position. LOL! Congratulations on such a wonderful accomplishment of passing Coach Locke who was very well known out in these parts. I graduated in 1985. We went to state my junior year in 1984 losing to Ellinwood in the first round. We beat the #1 team in 3A that year Southwestern Heights in the sub state championship to advance to state.
Garth Gardiner, former Ashland boys’ basketball coach
Competing against Coach Applegate and his South Gray Rebels wasn’t always enjoyable. In fact, some nights, it was downright painful. Coach Applegate never had “down years,” he amazingly just “restocked.”
What was enjoyable, was developing a competitive friendship with Coach Applegate and his encouraging words to our team when he saw progress for what we were building. His pregame handshake greeting always ended with “good luck, but not too much!”
He is a fierce competitor but an even better coach and person. His teams always play with effort, enthusiasm and class. It’s easy to see why the pipeline of talent in tiny Gray County continues to flow – it’s because kids grow up there wanting to play basketball, and wanting to play for Coach.
Sadly, Coach Applegate lost his secret weapon in November. Mindy was the glue that cemented his program together. From running the clock to keeping the scorebook, or just being the “Team Mom,” Mindy was a rock. I enjoyed her hugs, much more than I enjoyed Applegate’s sarcasm (even though I enjoyed our constant ribbing.)
Congratulations, Coach, on being one of the best to ever do it – at any level. Even though it didn’t happen very often in my 12 years, I was most proud when our team came out with a W against yours. Because I knew that beating a guy with over 700 career wins was rare, and it was a milestone for our program to add a win over a Hall of Famer.
Congratulations on an unbelievable career, and thank you for your friendship – it was truly an honor to shake hands and compete against you and your teams.”
Scott Goodheart, veteran Kansas basketball official
I have the upmost respect for Coach Riley and Coach Applegate.
I have had the pleasure to officiate both Coach ‘Keith’ Riley and Coach ‘Mark’ Applegate and both were very memorable experiences. Their teams play basketball the right ways and these guys have been doing it a very long time.
The coaches you can tell their kids are always respectful and discipline teams. That is a reflection of the life skills these guys instill into young individuals. There was something about when these coaches spoke to you as an official, you would listen, because they probably had a good point.
Sean Hayden, current Eudora head football coach
The greatest thing about Coach Applegate is his relationship with his players. He is so funny and down to earth. When I was going through college to get my P.E. degree, Coach Applegate would take time out of his busy schedule to give me tips and pointers on being a good teacher. As a player, I remember Coach always talking about “Poise and Composure.” This is something that is very important in intense basketball games and I feel like his teams are always calm under pressure because of it. I took that with me as a coach and try to convey calm whenever things were going really well or when they weren’t going so well.
In fact, “Poise” is actually one of the core values of our football team. Coach Applegate is also a big teacher of fundamentals in the sport of basketball, and his players are always technically sound. Every athlete or student who has ever had a chance to know Coach Applegate is a truly lucky individual.
Joe Jackson, current Maize South head boys’ basketball coach; won state title as Wichita East boys’ basketball head coach; former Hill City assistant coach
Keith Riley is the winningest high boys school basketball coach in Kansas history, but the thing that jumps out at me more than that are the relationships that he’s built over 50+ years of being a high school basketball coach.
I can absolutely say that I would not be where I’m at today without his guidance, his mentorship, and his friendship. I truly felt that, after being his assistant for 4 years, he had me prepared to run a program. I was very fortunate to work under 2 of the best high school coaches in the state, and my head coaching career would not be nearly as successful as it has been without the time and knowledge that Coach Riley poured into me.
One of the biggest things that stands out to me was from the day I met with Coach Riley for my “interview.” I had been accepted to student-teach in Hill City, and Coach Riley had already told me that if I get on student-teaching in Hill City that he would love to bring me on staff. The interview basically happened in his truck, and like I mentioned before, it wasn’t really an interview, it was more of a “here are my expectations,” sort of conversation.
The biggest thing that stood out to me from that conversation, and I still remember this quote to this day. He told me “if you don’t have high expectations for the kids you’re coaching, you’re not going to be very good, regardless of the talent level.” It was his expectation that our entire coaching staff would have high expectations for the team. And by having high expectations for our team, this also helped hold ourselves accountable to making sure we were fully prepared for practice every day, and that we brought energy so kids could see the importance of what we are doing every day!
I spent countless hours at his house over those years. His wife Merriel is like a 2nd mom to me. She would be upset with me if I didn’t come over for dinner after practice. Keith has a great sense of humor, and he always reminds me that their grocery bill went down by about $100/month after I moved away.
We spent a lot of hours in his basement office, planning practices, watching film, and checking out other games. Anytime we were scouting, he always impressed me with his attention to detail. He has the rare ability to see all 10 players on the floor simultaneously, and not only can he see what is going on, he can describe that in such a way that it would make sense to anyone that understands the game. Coach Riley is also extremely detail oriented, and he still handwrites his practice plans every evening.
After practice would get over, we’d go to the convenience store, grab a Diet Coke, then head to his house, eat a great meal that Merriel had prepared, and then go to the basement to plan out the next day’s practice. He still writes all of his practice plans by hand. I use a spreadsheet to plan ours out, because I can do it quicker and more efficiently, but I really do think there is something to handwriting a practice plan.
By handwriting it out, he would think through (and oftentimes, talk through with me) every aspect of practice. He would write those plans in pen, and if he decided he wanted to make a change, he would scrap that piece of paper and start over on a new sheet. We never really talked much about this, but I really do think the process of writing out a practice plan allows him to think through and visualize each drill. He has always done a phenomenal job planning practices with a natural progression that makes sense. A lot of people who haven’t coached may not understand how big of a deal this is, but a great practice design is a huge part of being a successful coach. This just adds one more reason why he is the best to do it!
Another thing I really treasure are our phone calls. Oftentimes, that ability to see so many things going on, on the court, at the same time, is described over the phone to me. We always have a lot of great talks about all kinds of things in life, but as you can imagine, most of our conversations circle back to basketball.
We typically talk once or twice each week, and I can’t even begin to tell you how many phone calls we’ve had over the years that involve a note pad, a napkin, or piece of paper and me writing down a baseline inbounds play, an offensive set that he saw in a college game on TV, or even a drill that Coach Riley had recently used in practice that he wanted to tell me about. I am a basketball junkie, and I absolutely love the opportunity to share some of the things I’m doing with Coach Riley, too! He has used some of my ideas over the years, but I have, by far, been the recipient of a lot more knowledge than I’ve dished out to him!
Another thing that really stands out to me is that he is always innovating and making changes to his offensive and defensive schemes. He is constantly adapting to his team’s strengths. A lot of coaches, especially ones that have been doing this for a couple of decades or more, kind of have their “system” in place.
Many of those coaches do a great job coaching their system, too, but Coach Riley will always adapt to the strengths of his team. He is the best I’ve ever been around at making those adjustments, and I truly feel this is why he’s the best at maximizing the talent he has in his program. Speaking of adjustments, he is also a master at making mid-game adjustments which have given his teams countless opportunities to win, as well.
Along with his ability to adapt and make adjustments, anytime you are dealing with high school kids, you’ve got to know how to redirect their way of thinking sometimes. Coach Riley could probably pass as a psychologist in another setting, because I have seen him think outside the box, and find many different ways to reach young people.
Sometimes, it’s a stern talking to that does the trick, but he taught me early on that not every player responds in the same way. I’ve seen him utilize countless methods to motivate players. It ultimately comes down to him doing a great job getting to know his players, and knowing what makes them tick. We always joke with him that he’s “got a mind like a steel trap.” He can tell you scores from games that happened in the 1970s, and I’ve always been impressed with his ability to recount key plays in games from different eras. He truly has a one of a kind mind.
A lot of his former players will tell you that he’s mellowed out some over the years, and isn’t as intense as he used to be. The message may not always be delivered in the same tone, but I can attest that he still is very intense, and he always has high expectations for his team. Great players love to be coached by him, because they know he gets it.
It was always incredible to me to see how many great players from the opposing teams that hold Coach Riley in high regard, too. The level of respect they show him really stands out, and win or lose, they know they’ve been in for a fight that night. Countless times, great players from other teams have sought him out individually after the game to congratulate him, or to compliment him, because they understand that he “gets it,” and he always gets his teams to compete at a high level. Even some of his teams that haven’t been as talented always seem to overachieve. I really think that speaks volumes to his character, his coaching ability, and overall to his greatness.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked under his wing for four years.
Sean Jantz, former South Gray standout
I believe the reason Coach Applegate is so successful year after year is his ability to connect with his players and the amount of trust we had in him and he had in us.
I’ve had many basketball coaches throughout my playing career and Applegate by far kept the game simple and never “over-coached” a game or an opponent.
The core team from 05-08 won two state championships and we literally only ran one play, a simple screen and motion play called “Kansas.” Today when we guys get all together it’s a running joke how in the world did we win so many games with one play but looking back on it that was the brilliance of Applegate. It was the same plan every game. He allowed all of us including me to just play, create, shoot without fear. Every single one of us was relaxed on the court, not afraid to make mistakes because Applegate was a friend to all of us. When you allow kids to play without fear, obviously as we proved, great things happen.
Mark Johnson, current Fort Hays State University men’s basketball coach, all-time winningest coach in Tiger basketball history
Coach Applegate and Coach Riley are two legends in Kansas High School Basketball. Their constant success through different decades is an amazing feat. They both have done it the right way and those two communities couldn’t have had better mentors and leaders for their young people. Our basketball program at Fort Hays State University is lucky to have had some of their former players compete for us. They have all been as well-coached as anybody that has played here. I would like to personally congratulate them on their unmatched successes.
Rick Keltner, winner of 453 games as Hays High head boys’ basketball coach, and current La Crosse boys’ basketball assistant coach
Coach Riley and I and about 8 or more coaches meet every Wednesday night in Hays for food and stories at gatherings we call therapy. We have done this for several years and I am thankful for the fellowship and friendship. One Coach Riley trait that we like to kid Coach about is his dire predictions about his games. The man consistently humbly down plays his Ringnecks chances and then consistently wins big in games he had predicted doom. Now we give him grief the moment he tries to cry wolf again as we all are not buying it.
A story I remember Coach telling was about an incident which occurred during a semifinal game in the 1998 state tournament versus a fine Troy team. Coach Riley’s son Geoff was on the team and averaged 28 pts a game.
Geoff under his dads coaching was an unselfish player and deferred to others during blow out wins. Coach Riley is proud of the fact that his son Geoff’s top scoring games occurred in close games and not during garbage time in lopsided games— so— during the hard fought game with Troy in the state tournament Geoff was wide open in the corner and shot it.
As the ball approached the rim an athletic young man from Troy jumped up and grabbed the ball before it could go in— coach Riley rarely talks to officials during a game but in this crucial moment of a close game he protested to the officials that the Hill city shot had been goaltended.
When coach asked the official why goal tending was not called the ref said: “It wasn’t going to hit the rim coach!” To which Coach Riley quipped “the heck it wasn’t – Geoff has never shot an air ball from there in his life!!”
Needles to say Hill City won the game 61-57 and defeated number one ranked Hutch Trinity to win the state title— I believe Coach Riley’s confidence in Geoff as he did not play favorites— hall of fame coach Steve Eck use to kid Coach Riley that he was holding Geoff back- coach has two sons and both have grown into men of high character and professions.”
Rudy Loewen, longtime friend of Applegate family, former South Gray teacher and board member
My name is Rudy Loewen. I have lived in Montezuma, Kansas since 1970 when I moved here with my wife and three year old daughter to take a teaching position at Montezuma High School, so I’ve been a resident for over 50 years.
In the early 1980’s, I was crossing the street to attend a ‘happy hour’ at a neighbor’s house. An old Chevy was driving down the street and it stopped and a young man named Mark Applegate was asking directions to the high school where he was going to interview for a teaching and coaching position. He was single and had on a powder blue leisure suit of some kind, fitting to the times I suppose. The tail pipe on the car was held in place with baling wire and bounced off the street periodically. I gave him directions and continued to the backyard happy hour. Upon arriving, I was asked who was in the car and said it was a young man applying to be our new basketball coach. My exact words were: “My god, I think we’re in trouble.”
Well, little did I know what was to follow. That unlikely coaching candidate has become a Kansas high school coaching icon and somewhat of a legend throughout the high school coaching ranks in the state. He has won several state championships and is in the latter years of a terrific coaching career.
A few years after his arrival, a young single mother applied for a teaching job (English) at the high school. Her name was Mindy Harris. She was hired and the high school secretary at the time warned her to stay away from a single young coach at the high school – Mark Applegate. “He’d be no good for you,” was the secretary’s admonition.
Time marched on and Mark and Mindy would learn to know each other and the rest is history.
To continue, my first wife passed away seven years ago and Mark and Mindy were there for me to help me get through the trying times. Similarly now, I like to think I’m here for Mark to help him through this difficult time. I’m just so thankful he is able to immerse himself in coaching this season and the team is doing very well. I also have a grandson who is a senior on the team.
Mark (and Mindy) have been friends of mine for years and Mindy and my second wife also connected and became good friends. I feel like I could go on and on about Mark and Mindy Applegate and how much they have meant to the school and community as well as to me personally. They are (and were) special people who have helped build this school and community to the point it is now.
I love them both.
Garrett Love, South Gray’s all-time leading scorer with 1,399 points, played at South Gray from 2002-06. The last several years, Love, Applegate and Chipman have hosted youth basketball camps in Montezuma with several KU and K-State players to help kids get more excited about basketball. Love also was the youngest member of the Kansas State Senate, when he was elected at age 22. He served in the Senate from 2011-17.
I think one of the things Coach Applegate did that paid the longest dividends was building up the basketball culture & excitement with our younger kids.
As a Montezuma grade school kid growing up in the 90’s around the time Coach won our first championship, I dreamed of playing for Coach Applegate when I got older. Coach would put on a camp and a clinic and then worked with the Rec to have a 3rd week of basketball which for a small community like South Gray was a great opportunity for grade school kids.
As we got older, all we wanted to do was play basketball and if we weren’t practicing or in season, Coach was always up for opening up the gym for us.
That’s one of the great things about building a winning basketball culture like Mark Applegate did is that the younger kids are always watching the older kids playing and it makes them want to put that extra time in too.
Mrs. Applegate had a great basketball mind but more importantly heart for kids going through the program. She would host meals for teams and had thoughtful insight & support to offer kids as well. She will be missed by so many. With her being such a big part of basketball, not having her there has to be so hard for Coach. We all miss her but can’t imagine the loss he’s feeling.
Playing for Coach Applegate, he taught us to never count yourself out. Control what you can and not worry about the rest. I remember being down 20 my sophomore year to a really good Deerfield team and we came back & won. He never gave up so neither do his players.
Looking at the last 20 years, there’s really not many teams out there who have beat Coach Applegate more than once or twice… Cimarron has always hosted the Bluejay Invitational as an early season tournament and in the last 18 years, we have probably won 17 of them which really is a pretty impressive stat since there have been a lot of good teams & bigger schools than us playing there.
Bill Meagher, current Thomas More Prep-Marian boys’ basketball coach
“It has been an honor and privilege getting to know and compete against Coach Riley through the years. He is a coaching legend, role model, and mentor to many young coaches around Kansas. He is a fierce competitor on the court whose teams always compete at the top of their ability. Off the court, you can’t find a nicer guy who is always there to give you a positive comment or some advice when you need it.”
Mike Miller, played against Hill City at Stockton; his two boys, Jackson and Clifton, were standouts for South Gray
“What they have done at Montezuma is very similar to what Smith Center did for football. Smith Center was a powerhouse year in and year out. What they have been able to accomplish is an attitude in the community, and when kids grew up, they are around that atmosphere. They just grow up expecting and knowing that they are going to have a good basketball team, and they are going to win a lot of games and confidence is 80 percent-plus of the whole deal. Don’t get be wrong now, coach Applegate has had a lot of talent come through that little 1A school, but like any coach, you have got to be able to control and assemble that talent and get kids to play together.”
Brandt Rogers, current Ness City boys’ basketball coach
On coach Riley: “Coach Riley’s team are always the most fundamentally sound teams we play, year after year. No matter the talent level of the kids, he gets the most out of them every night.”
On coach Applegate: “Coach Applegate’s team play very fast. He gets the most out of his kids every year. He told me one year that he didn’t know how good they would be this year and they won the league, won substate, and made it the weekend at state basketball. One of my favorite lines from coach Applegate is “good luck, but not too damn much!” Which he says before every game after the officials meeting.
We had the chance to work with his wife Mindi when she was a consultant with Southwest Plains and she truly was one of a kind. My deepest condolences to the Applegate family and the Montezuma/Copeland South Gray communities.
Grant Salmans, longtime South Gray assistant coach
I have been Mark Applegate’s assistant coach for 24 years. I have coached with him since 1995-96 season until now except for two years that I was the girls head coach in 2014-15 and 2015-2016 and then started back with him since 2016-2022. Mark has been a great mentor to his players and coaches. He does a great job of coaching his players on the game of basketball but where his is at his best is the mental part of the game. He has coached a lot of big games and the mental approach that he has to the game translates to how his players play. He lets each team be their own. Every year teams have strengths and weaknesses but every team takes ownership in the team. He has high expectations for every season and challenges the players to do the best they can. Players will do everything they can to not let him down, and I think that is the ultimate complement to any coach.
James Temaat, Minneola head boys’ basketball coach, last eight years. Temaat played four years against South Gray in high school
Whenever we play one of Coach Applegates teams you will always know that his team will be playing at a very high level, as his teams are always in competition for a state title. I have learned a lot from him throughout the years through coaching against him. There is nobody quite like him and it is a privilege to be able to coach against him.
Haley Wolf, former Ellis standout athlete, current Hays High assistant coach: cross country, girls’ basketball, track
As great of a coach that Coach Riley is, he is an even better person. Coach Riley is one of the classiest persons you’ll ever meet. He will do anything for you, and I have yet to come across anyone that knows Coach Riley that has a bad word to say against him.
I’ve known Coach Riley since grade school from seeing him at games and from the connection with my dad and him. He would always ask how I was doing, which meant a lot and I always appreciated. He would also always jokingly say that I should have went to Hill City instead of Ellis.
Growing up watching Hill City play, I always admired the way that they played and the way Coach Riley coached. He didn’t always have the most talented teams, but you never counted Hill City out because they were so well-coached. They regularly beat more talented teams because they were disciplined, tough, and paid attention to detail.
I’ve tried to take these lessons with me as I’ve entered my own coaching career. I consider Coach Riley a great influence in my life and career, as well as a great mentor and friend. Very few people are as committed to the game and cares about their players as much as him. No one is more deserving of the recognition and accomplishments than Coach Riley.
Jack Wolf, retired, longtime head Ellis track coach; served in multiple other coaching capacities with Ellis
Coach Riley is one of the most considerate coaches of all time. He has a special personality that is outstanding. His coaching career goes back when I was in high school and before. His passion is coaching basketball. He loves the game and he loves his players. He gets the utmost out of his players every year. His players always give their all for their coach. He has so many stories about all the teams he has coached over the years. He truly deserves this type of recognition as one of the best boys high school coaches of all time. Coach Riley will always be remembered as a kind, compassionate, and a perfectionist when it comes to coaching basketball on the court or off the court.