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All-Area 2013: Hoxie's Dardis named top coach

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Hoxie High School coach Aaron Dardis had a late-season conversation with Jaxsen Moss, a first team all-area selection from last year's Indian squad who graduated last May. Moss came to one of Hoxie's games and asked Dardis: "When was the last time you guys lost?"

Dardis thought back and said, "Before Christmas break."

Moss immediately said, "We always get better during Christmas break."

"That's what I always preach to the team," Dardis said. "I say, 'That's our tradition, and it's up to you guys to keep it going, because we really have done that each year.' I think they took that serious when you get a few weeks of just practice."

When break started this season, Hoxie was 3-3, and one of its best players, junior Kade Spresser, was sidelined with an ankle injury.

Once games started again in January, the Indians reeled off 17 straight victories and made a repeat trip to the Class 1A Division I state tournament despite having no seniors who played significant minutes. Spresser was the team's third-tallest player at 6-foot-1. The season ended with a first round state loss to Stockton. Hoxie's winning streak and evolution throughout the season helped Dardis earn Coach of the Year honors on the 35th Annual HDN All-Area Basketball Team.

"If we go back to Day 1, we didn't really know who we were or what we were looking at in terms of the season for us," Dardis said. "But the kids, through their hard work and dedication, we really progressed throughout the season, and it ended up being a pretty fun year for us."

Dardis, 128-69 in his ninth year at Hoxie, is already arguably the most successful boys' basketball coach in a school long known for wrestling. He has eight winning seasons and three state appearances, including a third-place finish in 2011-12. Dardis has some challenges because of Indian wrestling, a program that has finished second, third and second at state the last three winters. For years, Dardis said he could take the Hoxie wrestling team and put together a "pretty good" basketball team. The senior class of wrestlers lost just a couple of games in junior high basketball. Hoxie has just 16 basketball players.

"It's pretty hard for a 1A school to miss out on these great athletes, but they just happen to be really good wrestlers," Dardis said. "They do well in that and I am happy for them."

In basketball, Hoxie continually collected quality wins -- and avenged early season losses. The Indians lost the season opener to Wallace County, eventual fourth-place finishers in Class 1A, Division I. Then Hoxie defeated the Wildcats on Jan. 15.

"He pushes us and he knows what our expectations are and how good we can be," Spresser said.

The Indians fell to Dighton by 12 in mid-December, then beat them twice after the holiday break. Hoxie also defeated Hill City, Plainville and Oakley -- all 2A schools that finished with at least 14 wins. Dardis said the team felt a "sense of urgency" to improve during winter break. The team focused on fundamentals and a young team improved.

Just Spresser, junior Chase Kennedy (16.7 points per game) and sophomore Connor Katt (7.8 points per game) had significant varsity experience. Spresser, who missed three contests, led the team with 18.2 points per game. Many times, the team ran sets with screens for Spresser and then into a post up because of the Indians' lack of size.

"If we have got a kid like Kade who is just a great finisher inside and out, we thought why not give him a high percentage shot just right off the bat?," Dardis said.

Still, Hoxie, led by 8.4 rebounds per game from Spresser, collected 31 rebounds a contest; last year's team averaged 27 rebounds a game. Dardis called rebounding a strength and said Hoxie was outrebounded just once all year.

While last season's team mainly used six players, the Indians had increased output from a deeper bench this winter, an area that Dardis said was also a big difference-maker.

Hoxie went 12-2 in games decided by eight points or fewer and earned the nickname of "Cardiac Kids" from some people in the school and community, a moniker the team embraced.

Dardis said the junior class "never panicked" and overcame some tough situations to pull off wins.

"We were in a lot of close games, and we could just give up and we could just let down if we were down at half, which we was a lot," Spresser said. "He pushes us, and we fight back, and he motivates us to fight back and keep playing hard and it's really awesome."