By AUSTIN COLBERT
As Jordan Windholz sat on the Hays High School bench in the Indians' Class 5A state playoff opener against Lansing last season, it was difficult for him to keep the emotions away as the feeling of helplessness became overwhelming.
"Those are like my brothers out there, so you are sitting there and there is nothing you can do about it," Windholz said. "You are just watching it. I think I started to cry even before the game was over. It really hurt so badly. I believed in them but it was a heartbreaker."
The Indians' basketball season ended that night in a 59-42 loss to Lansing, the eventual state runner-up, in Topeka. It had also been Hays High's first state playoff game since 2003.
Today, the now senior guard is fully recovered from a devastating anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tear that caused him to miss the final seven games of last season.
"It just felt like something was wrong," senior guard Kyler Niernberger said about the final stretch without Windholz.
"We needed him out there with his energy and how much he talks on defense and his leadership. It showed how much we missed him in those last couple of games."
The Indians will have Windholz at state this time. Second-seeded HHS (22-0) opens the Class 5A state tournament at 6:30 p.m. today at Topeka's Kansas Expocentre against Salina Central (13-9), the very team Windholz hurt his ACL against last season.
The injury happened in the Indians' Feb. 5, 2013, game against Central in Hays. Despite being the team's second-leading scorer at the time with 7.6 points per game, Windholz had been coming off the bench all season, but got the start that night with Niernberger, the usual starter, out with the flu.
Windholz made it to the second quarter before his knee gave out on him, and Hays High would eventually lose the game, 45-40.
"It's weird how it's the team we are playing (at state) that I tore my ACL against," Windholz said. "So I kind of use that to fuel me a little bit. I just remember sitting and watching my team. I try to give them the best I can. It was heartbreaking watching those guys lose last year. I'm just glad I get to experience it this year and I'm actually in here and back. I'm just thankful."
Windholz was out nearly eight months recovering from his ACL injury. Also a soccer player, he was cleared for athletics in September and returned to the soccer field on Sept. 24 against Great Bend after missing the first six games of the season.
Windholz said getting back on the soccer field and learning to trust his knee again was important for him to be ready for the start of basketball season in December.
"I wanted to be better than what I was and I kind of took that injury and made a better person and a better outlook," Windholz said. "I always think of that and I worked so much harder coming back. I just never gave up and here I am."
Windholz has made the most of his senior season by starting all 22 games and averaging 13.6 points a night, second to only the 15.5 ppg of junior post player Brady Werth. He is second on the team with 45 steals this season (senior guard Lane Clark has 46) and leads the team in made 3-point shots with 44.
Windholz has hit the 20-point mark three times this season, and scored a combined 46 points (26 and 20) over the final two regular-season games against Dodge City and Great Bend.
"He's not afraid to shoot," Niernberger said. "It's nice because he will take his shots when they are open and he will create shots when he needs to. It's nice passing him the ball because I know he will make smart decisions and hopefully make a shot or hook another teammate up with an assist."
Windholz has already seen Central once since his injury a year ago, a 51-50 overtime win in Salina on Feb. 11. In that game, he led the Indians with 17 points and helped fight off a Mustang team that had led by 13 points in the third quarter.
Now, Windholz and the rest of the Indians are excited to see Central one more time, and are hoping to make up for what they considered one of their poorest defensive games of the season.
And if everything goes perfectly, Hays High could possibly meet up with No. 1 seed Lansing (22-0) in the state title game on Saturday, the same team that ended its season last year.
"He's come back very strong," Werth said of Windholz. "He is definitely determined to get a championship out of it. And that's exactly the way he's been all year. He has been working hard and doing everything he can for the team."
Windholz has received attention from various colleges to play basketball and soccer and hopes an offer might come his way later in the spring.