By CONOR NICHOLL
Thomas More Prep-Marian boys’ basketball finished 21-5 and earned a Class 3A final four berth last winter. The Monarchs graduated five seniors, including guard Jackson Schulte, a first team all-state selection. This winter, TMP started basketball late after an 8-3 football season, the program’s best year since 2002.
Multiple basketball players were football standouts, including seniors Jace Wentling and Bryce Seib and junior Kade Harris. Plus, the Monarchs opened with a brutal schedule in the Hays City Shoot-Out. In front of a packed house at Hays High School, TMP lost, 69-36, to the crosstown Indians on Dec. 2. TMP was preseason ranked third in 3A.
“It’s a good problem to have,” coach Bill Meagher told SIK after the Hays High loss. “But I would say we are definitely slower than we would normally be. And I would say the conditioning for our guys, we haven’t quite made that transition from football conditioning to basketball, and I think we saw that on the floor tonight quite a bit. And that’s OK. We would much rather the football team be successful, because that means we have got good athletes that are competitive and fighters – and good for their success. It’s tough playing the Shoot-Out right away when that happens.”
The following day, TMP fell 75-23 to 6A Lawrence Free State. As of Jan. 26, Hays High is 41-2 in its last 43 games, and Free State is considered Kansas’ best boys’ basketball team this winter. TMP played the Shoot-Out without 6-foot-7 junior forward Dylan Werth because of a foot injury. Werth was a returning second team all-conference (top-10) selection in the Mid-Continent League.
Then, in a consolation Shoot-Out game, TMP held off Great Bend, 60-58, on Dec. 4 in a contest played at Hays Middle School. In the following contest, the Monarch girls faced Hugoton in a battle of top-10 3A squads. TMP missed two starters: senior guard Megan Hamel and 5-foot-11 junior forward Jaci VonLintel, a former second team all-league selection. The Monarchs played well, though took a 52-40 defeat.
Veteran Monarch coach Rose McFarland was pleased.
“Our girls really stepped up,” she told SIK. “Even though we lost on the scoreboard, I thought we really played hard.”
After the Shoot-Out, both TMP squads stood at 1-2. Neither team has lost since.
As the season crosses its midseason point, the Monarchs are among several teams having success while battling injuries and/or sickness.
Werth, VonLintel and Hamel are now all back, though key TMP senior Kassidi Yost is now out with injury.
Notably, Werth and VonLintel delivered big performances in the Monarchs’ sweep of the Mid-Continent League tournament titles last Saturday at Plainville High School. It marked a rare time that the same school swept the MCL crowns.
TMP girls won its first tournament title since 2018 and fifth since joining the league. TMP boys are second, first, third and first in the midseason competition the last four years.
“I love the way that the team is developing,” Meagher told SIK on Friday.
Class 2A Cedar Vale-Dexter boys (9-1) and 4A Wamego girls (11-1) have enjoyed surprise years despite obstacles. CV-D, an 8-7 team last season, earned South Central Border League tournament runner-up at Cowley CC last Saturday through injuries and illness.
CV-D coach K.B. Criss called the season “enjoyable” as the Spartans have received big contributions from Spanish foreign exchange students Gonzo Cardo and Fernando Alen Garcia.
“Our main focus is throughout the whole season from the beginning to end is we try to make it a family atmosphere,” Criss told SIK. “And we try to bring all the guys together, so we do a lot of things off the court that I think really help with chemistry.”
Wamego, which was ranked tenth in the preseason, moved to first in 4A last week. The Red Raiders took their first loss, in the Tonganoxie championship game versus Eudora in a top-5 matchup. This week, Eudora is third in 4A, Wamego fourth.
Wamego qualified for state basketball last winter for the first time in seven years. Multiple Red Raiders were key players on Wamego’s state championship softball team last spring. Wamego has had two starting posts out: junior Addison Denney and 6-footer Cadence Kueker.
Denney, a talent who has played high-level basketball, tore her ACL late in the summer and is highly doubtful to return. Kueker has signed with Oklahoma State equestrian. She broke a bone in her foot and is looking to be back in February.
“Been really pleased with how our kids have stepped up,” Wamego coach Brian McIntosh told SIK. “We are not as deep as we were last year, but we are playing very aggressive, and attacking offensively and defensively.”
McIntosh, a former Emporia State women’s assistant coach, has done well with building Wamego. Senior guard Paige Donnelly is a returning all-state honorable mention selection by the Kansas coaches. Denney and Donnelly hold Wamego all-time records in squat and clean, respectively.
Through the first nine games, Donnelly, junior Ashten Pierson and junior Trista Hoobler all averaged more than 11 points a contest.
“Trista Hoobler is playing really for us,” McIntosh said.
Pierson delivered four assists a game. Plus, senior Ryann Alderson and junior Maya Gallagher had stepped up. Pierson and Gallagher are elite softball talents.
“She is kind of our glue player,” McIntosh said of Alderson. “….She can guard the point guards and the post player. She is just one of those players that does it all for us. Maya Gallagher has stepped into fill the spot down low.”
Historically, both TMP teams have gotten on rolls after the Shoot-Out against primarily bigger schools. Last season, the two Monarch teams went a combined 36-5 after the Shoot-Out. This season, they are a cumulative 15-0 entering home games versus Sacred Heart on Thursday.
In the MCL semifinals and finals, TMP girls delivered wins against back-to-back ranked teams. TMP boys faced Norton and WaKeeney-Trego. Those squads that had zero defeats to Kansas squads, opponents that Meagher called “incredibly hard.”
“One of the things we talked about at the beginning is you want to put yourself in a position to play for some championships,” Meagher said. “And this is that first opportunity for us.”
In the semifinals, VonLintel hit a shot with under 10 seconds left to win, 52-50, against Smith Center.
In the championship, the Monarchs held off Phillipsburg, 52-46. Last week, SC stood sixth in 2A, Phillipsburg seventh in 3A. VonLintel averaged 21 points in the two games. Multi-sport senior standout Emilee Lane had a big showing, and Sophia Balthazor scored 13 in the championship.
Goodland (11-2), TMP and Phillipsburg are all in the Goodland sub-state. TMP and Phillipsburg have split the previous 20 meetings with four of the last five within single figures.
“They are very, very well-balanced,” Phillipsburg coach Rachel Miller said of the Monarchs. “There is not a weak link out there, and well-coached. Rose will have them ready to go.”
For Phillipsburg, the Panthers have made the state tournament the last two seasons, the first in school annals. Phillipsburg (10-3) has junior point guard Taryn Sides, a Kansas State commit and the state’s top scorer the bulk of the winter.
However, standout junior Heather Schemper, an all-league honorable mention selection last season, all-state volleyball pick and 400-meter track state champion, suffered a knee injury in volleyball and has not come out for basketball.
Phillipsburg has adjusted, including sometimes playing 6-foot senior Abby Babcock at point guard. Freshmen Kayla Jacobs, Karissa Keeten and Brynn Billings have seen significant time. They have helped the Panthers combat opposing box-and-ones on Sides. That’s allowed Sides to play off the ball in some situations.
“They just play really valuable minutes,” Miller said. “We know that we are going to go through those freshmen learning curve so to speak, and so we know that there is going to be silly things that they do, but they have got great attitudes, they work hard, and they are really progressing nicely for us.”
In the boys’ semifinals, TMP defeated Norton, 46-29. The Bluejays have 6-foot-9 senior forward Nolan Juenemann and had not lost to a Kansas team this season. The Monarchs finished plus-12 on the glass and held Norton to 29 percent shooting.
“They attack,” Norton coach Doug Reusink said. “And they are not afraid, and they are not tentative, and they attack. And that’s what I thought our kids, especially on the offensive end, that they were either tentative, or we didn’t move the ball, or people didn’t move. We just didn’t attack, we didn’t attack. You have got to attack them. They are good defensively, and they make it harder to run offense no doubt. You have got to be aggressive and not be tentative and take it to them. You can’t back away from them, or it’s not going to work.”
In the finals, TMP gave WaKeeney-Trego its first loss in a 47-34 victory. The Monarchs held Trego to 27 percent from the field and finished plus-7 on the glass. Werth tallied 20 points.
“That’s been one of the things that we have really working with our guys on, is being aggressive on the glass, and so I was proud of them tonight,” Meagher told SIK after the Norton win. “And I think some big possessions happened on offensive boards, and that is such a painful thing for a team to guard for 30 seconds and give up the o-board and have to guard again. And so, just impressed with our guys and the effort. And that’s just an effort thing, because everybody is tired, but they continue to go to the glass, and we have got to keep that up if we want to be a good team.”
Trego was ranked eighth in Class 2A. On Monday, the Monarch girls (9-2) moved back into the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association at tenth in 3A. TMP boys remain unranked at 8-2.
In addition to Werth’s return, the boys have enjoyed huge seasons from Wentling (12 rebounds in the final) and Gavin Unrein, both role players last winter. Wentling has enjoyed a great career in four sports with all-state honors in football, baseball and track. He is the reigning 3A long jump champion and has committed to Neosho County baseball.
“They definitely lead with their energy,” Meagher said. “And it’s definitely something that the rest of the guys pick up on, and we call it ‘junkyard dog.’ But they have got that in there. They are going to protect whatever they need to. They are going to be aggressive, and I just sometimes stand back and watch in awe in how they play and how hard they play.”
K.B. Criss spent a little over 15 years in Humboldt and coached multiple sports, including eight seasons as the Cubs’ head coach. Criss gave Nate Dreiling and Zach Rampy, two accomplished players and sons of Kansas high school coaching greats, their first jobs. Dreiling was a multiple-time All-American at Pittsburg State and is currently the new defensive coordinator at New Mexico State.
Criss resigned as Humboldt superintendent and football coach in spring 2015. He had no intentions of coaching anymore. Criss moved 110 miles southwest to Dexter, which co-ops in multiple sports, namely football and basketball, with nearby Cedar Vale. The towns are 17 miles apart on US-166 and KS-15.
Some schools have struggled with co-ops, while others, such as Argonia-Attica football and Triplains-Brewster, have created a brand-new nickname. For basketball, Dexter has used Cedar Vale’s Spartan nickname.
“I was shocked, I was absolutely shocked at how well it worked,” Criss said. “The people before me, and the people at Cedar Vale, they are some tremendous folks at Cedar Vale, parents and Lance Rhodd, the superintendent over there, that’s the reason it works. Those guys did a tremendous job laying the ground work early for this thing, and I was just amazed at how well it worked, how well the two schools got along, how well the sports got along.”
Criss took over the boys’ basketball program in ’15-16. Before then, the program had seven straight losing seasons since ’08-09. Since then, Criss posted records of 12-12, 13-9, 12-10, 19-4, 17-3 and 8-7. He also serves as Dexter’s superintendent of schools and K-12 principal.
The state showing in ’15-16 is the only joint state appearance for Cedar Vale-Dexter. Cedar Vale had not made state since 1951. Overall, Criss led CVD to league championships in ’19 and ’20, and a league tournament title in ’20. It’s the lone midseason tournament title, boys or girls, for CVD. Neither program had won one since ’01.
Criss is now coaching both junior high and high school basketball teams. Plus, Criss had coached CVD football for a couple falls.
“I didn’t have any intentions on coaching anymore, but I am glad I did,” Criss said. “I would have missed out on a lot, and it’s one way for me to stay involved with the kids on a positive side, because sometimes it gets difficult sitting in the superintendent’s office to really have a day-to-day role with the kids, and that’s why you got in this field anyway, so I am glad I did.”
Last season, the Spartans missed seven games because of COVID-19, and played just twice before Christmas. This season, CVD returned three starters: senior point guard Cole Clark, 6-2 junior Caden Woods, and 6-foot-4 junior Xavier Strong. Plus, senior Cody Waters and 6-3 sophomore Devonte Harris saw key time.
Through the first six contests, Garcia had 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds per game. Clark, the team’s catalyst, has 10.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and three assists a contest. Cardo has 11.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Harris and 6-foot-4 sophomore Brayden Henderson have combined for 10.5 points a game.
Dexter has routinely had around five to eight exchange students every year, a program that Criss said has “went over great” and “picked up steam” during the last few years. Cardo is on the perimeter, and Garcia is an excellent rim protector. Cardo and Garcia plan to do track in the spring, too.
Criss has extensively worked on team chemistry. Those have included team meals, bowling outings, community service and even trips to Colorado. Criss said the off-court activities have helped the Spartans “share the ball tremendously.”
“With so many different things going on in kids’ lives outside of school or outside of an activity, I just think anytime we can try and create an additional family or for some kids, really the only family they have, I think they are very, very important,” Criss said. “And I think the chemistry you build in those things, and the trust and the bond, it helps in achieving that family culture.”
Criss is “blatantly honest” with his team. Before the first game, Criss went up to Woods and asked if he wanted to start, or he was more comfortable coming off the bench. Criss called the difference “50/50” between Woods and Waters. Woods told the coach he would come off the bench and said he “felt more comfortable” that way. Plus, Henderson has stepped up.
Early in the year, Strong started, and dislocated his shoulder in a win against Shidler (Okla.) on Jan. 4. Harris missed a couple of weeks leading up to the first game and early season tournament. Harris was also in quarantine because of family members being sick.
Dexter had to close school because of illness in the week of Jan. 10-14, though Cedar Vale stayed open. After a Jan. 7 win versus South Haven, CVD had just one practice until Jan. 18 and had limited prep before the South Central Border League tournament. In the Jan. 18 rankings, Cedar Vale-Dexter moved into No. 10 in 2A boys.
At the SCBL, CVD beat Central-Burden, 34-28, for a quarterfinal win. In the semifinals, Cedar Vale-Dexter defeated South Haven, 37-23, behind 16 points from Cardo. The Spartans lost, 38-34, to Caldwell in the tournament finale. Caldwell came back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Clark paced CVD with 11 points, and Henderson delivered six.
“Really played well this year,” Criss said of Henderson. “Our guys call him the ‘big fundamental,’ but he is probably the most fundamentally sound guy on the defensive end of the floor we have.”