By AUSTIN COLBERT
TOPEKA -- It's easy to forget Brady Werth is only a junior. Having started for the Hays High School boys' basketball team since his freshman year, it's impossible to envision the current group of seniors without their star big man next to them.
"I've always been around them since freshman year. I love those guys," Werth said. "It's basically like I grew up with them. I feel like I'm in their class. It's going to be hard letting them go. But that's life."
Werth played his final game with the Indian seniors on Saturday in the Class 5A third-place game against Wichita Heights at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka. While Hays High lost 51-49 to end the season with back-to-back losses after a 23-0 start, the players understand it shouldn't diminish the big picture of all they have accomplished.
Two seasons ago, when the current seniors were sophomores, Hays High went 6-15, the first losing season under coach Rick Keltner since the 1998-99 team went 9-12.
"A couple of years ago I had good friends tell me that they thought we would be horrible. I'm kind of stupid. I always think we can be good, but we only won six games," Keltner said. "But we were in a lot of close games and I told them, 'It's not always going to be this way.' Then last year we got a little better. This year they've just been off the charts a lot of nights."
The 23 wins this season is a new school record, breaking the previous record of 22 set by the 1943-44 team, which also won the school's only state championship.
But it might take some time before the Indians can look back and truly enjoy their remarkable season. Hays High had championship aspirations before falling short of Topeka-Highland Park, 48-40, in the semifinals on Friday.
Getting in a strong state of mind to play a third-place game was a whole different challenge.
"I thought we were horrible in the first half. Defensively it was as bad as we've ever been," Keltner said. "I think we were still sleep walking from last night. You can tell yourself you want to play, but it's hard to get in that same play angry mode when you are disappointed for not being in the finals."
Hays High played neck-and-neck with Heights (20-5) throughout most of the first half before a late run gave the Falcons a 30-23 edge at halftime.
The lead reached as much as 42-32 early in the fourth quarter before the Indians put together one final run for the season, led by an inspired performance from senior Jordan Windholz.
"He's been carrying us all year, making big shots," senior guard Kyler Niernberger said. "There was a different feeling, definitely. But when it came down to it, we just said, 'This will be the last time we will ever be together, so we might as well go out with a bang and give it our all.' "
Hays High made four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, three by Windholz, including one with 9.8 seconds to go that made it 50-49 in favor of Heights. The Indians fouled and Heights junior Chris Lowe made one of two free throws, to give Hays High a last shot at overtime or the win.
Windholz made a good attempt at it, but his deep 3-point try came up short at the buzzer.
"If Jordan's shot would have gone in, this place would have gone crazy. What a great comeback," Keltner said. "Nobody wants to win a state championship more than we do, but at the same token we understand the big picture. We have some kids that are walking out of this place leaving a pretty good mark."
Windholz led all players with 19 points, making 5 of 13 from 3-point range. Senior Lane Clark had 11 points, making 3 of 5 from deep.
Junior Semaj Hervey led Heights with 11 points, while senior Jordan Wilbeck had 10.
"We had a great season. There is nothing to be ashamed of. No team at Hays High has went 23-2," Werth said. "It's been one of my most fun years with them. A lot of us started out when I was a freshman and they were sophomores. We had no seniors and went through three years and came to this. It's a big accomplishment. We are all pretty proud."
Wichita Heights 51, Hays High 49
Semaj Hervey 5-12 0-2 11, Jordan Wilbeck 4-10 2-4 10, Bell 3-8 3-6 9, Gill 2-4 2-2 6, King 1-6 2-2 5, Lowe 1-1 1-2 4, Johnson 0-3 2-4 2, Ellis 0-2 2-6 2, Taylor 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 17-47 14-28 51.
Hays High (23-2)
Jordan Windholz 6-15 2-2 19, Lane Clark 3-6 2-2 11, Werth 2-4 4-6 8, Riedel 2-7 0-0 4, Parker 1-3 1-2 4, Nunnery 1-3 0-0 2, Rounkles 0-2 1-1 1, Niernberger 0-2 0-1 0. Totals 15-42 10-15 49.
Heights 15 15 10 11 -- 51
Hays High 12 11 9 17 -- 49
3-point goals -- Heights 3-10 (Hervey 1-3, Lowe 1-1, King 1-3, Johnson 0-1, Wilbeck 0-2), Hays High 9-26 (Windholz 5-13, Clark 3-5, Parker 1-2, Niernberger 0-2, Nunnery 0-2, Riedel 0-2). Rebounds -- Heights 38, Hays High 31. Fouls -- Heights 11, Hays High 21. Fouled out -- Niernberger, Hays High.