By RANDY GONZALES
The senior class for the Sharon Springs-Wallace County boys' basketball team is two wins away from a state title.
Coach Larry O'Connor said it's a journey that started with heartbreak when the players were in eighth grade.
As eighth-graders, the Wildcats lost to Dighton in the league tournament. It was their only loss.
"They took it pretty hard," O'Connor said.
Wallace County made it all the way to the Class 1A Division II state title game in football last fall but came up short.
"They just want a state championship," O'Connor said. "They came close in football.
"As of today, we still have a chance in basketball."
After finishing fourth at the Class 1A Division II state tournament last season, the Wildcats want to go home with some hardware this time come Saturday night in Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The quest began with a 69-46 win over Hutchinson-Central Christian in Wednesday night's state opener. The Wildcats' pressure defense and fastbreak offense turned a two-point halftime lead into a blowout victory.
No. 2 seed Wallace County (22-2) will play No. 6 seed Baileyville-B&B (18-7) in Friday's 8:15 p.m. semifinals at GMC.
"It's a really close group. A (state title) would top it off," O'Connor said.
While O'Connor's team finds itself back in the final four at state, Almena-Northern Valley boys' basketball coach Chuck Fessenden completed a coaching trifecta of sorts.
Fessenden already had led Husky football teams to state title games as a fall sports coach, and he also already has led the school's boys' track and field team at the state meet in the spring. With Wednesday's first-round game against Beloit-St. John's/Tipton, Fessenden now can add a coaching appearance in the season finale of a winter sport.
The only difference is Fessenden has won four state titles in football and another two state crowns with the boys' track team at Northern Valley, while the Huskies won't have the chance to win a basketball title under Fessenden this weekend. No. 8 seed Northern Valley lost 64-39 to end its season at 13-11.
It was the Huskies' sixth trip to state, but the first since 1992. Northern Valley has won three state titles, all under former coach Doug Reusink.
Despite Wednesday's loss, it was a good season, said Fessenden, who in three stints is in his 10th year as head coach.
"I'm pleased with getting here," Fessenden said.
"That was one of our goals, to get to the state tournament."