By NICK McQUEEN
Not much has changed for the Sharon Springs-Wallace County boys' basketball team entering its second straight trip to the Class 1A Division II state tournament.
Just like last season, the run-and-gun, in-your-face style under eighth-year coach Larry O'Connor has led the Wildcats to a 21-2 record and the No. 2 seed in today's first round at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The one things that has changed is personnel. That's a big reason why O'Connor feels this year's Wildcat club can go all the way.
Despite graduating its top two-scorers from last season's fourth-place team, the Wildcats are confident they can be playing Saturday.
"I think we're a little bit better team than we were last year," O'Connor said. "We're deeper, and we're just a little more team-oriented.
"We've had multiple leading scorers in games, so no one you can really set out to stop, because we have other guys who step up and play."
The up-tempo Wildcats have four players averaging double figures, and have posted 80-plus points on six occasions, and have been in the 90s three times.
"We've even had a couple guys come off the bench this year and be our leading scorer," O'Connor said.
But the graduation of last year's leading scores -- Eli Kuhlmann and Gavin Mote -- left big shoes to fill.
Senior guard Cayden Daily stepped in nicely, O'Connor said.
Daily averages 19.1 points, 3.2 assists and 6.1 rebounds per night to lead the way, and played point guard early in the season when senior Kyle Gfeller was injured.
"He had a great summer, and once he knew the team was his after Gavin and Eli left, he kind of figured it was his turn," O'Connor said of the 5-foot-9 Daily. "He took the role right from the beginning, a and has been really good all year."
What might make this team even more dangerous than last year's marathon-style team is a more balanced supporting cast. Often this season, O'Connor platooned five in, five out and said his team didn't miss a beat.
Senior Clay Schemm and sophomore Luke Schemm, brothers, average 11.2 and 10.3 points per night, respectively, and combine for nearly 20 rebounds per night, standing 6-foot-2 in the post. Junior Nate Klinge, the 3-guard, adds 14.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per night. Klinge is also the team's best defender, and will match up with whomever O'Connor feels is the opponent's best player -- no matter the position.
"Nate's had a phenomenal year," O'Connor said. "He can guard either or. He scores the ball and is shooting the ball well. Nice he's only a junior."
The Wildcats, though, have five seniors, whose first hopes at a state championship were dashed during the fall when they fell 42-19 to Baileyville-B&B in the Eight-Man Division II state football championship.
"It started in football when they got to the state championship game," O'Connor said. "This group has been gearing for this year (in basketball). They got a taste of things early when they were sophomores and juniors, and they want to finish off their year right."
Before last season, Wallace County had not won a game at state in its previous five trips. Now, the team looks forward to hoisting a team championship trophy. To do so, the Wildcats have to get by No. 7 seed Hutchinson-Central Christian in today's 6:30 p.m. game.
"I think we got a pretty tough draw, but that's just the way it goes," O'Connor said. "Anything can happen, so you just have to go out and play your game."