Emotional season leads to state berth
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
It's been an emotional roller-coaster year for Rick Keltner, one that has made the Hays High School boys' basketball coach look at the game a little differently.
"I've always been competitive," said Keltner, in his 37th year of coaching, the past 29 at Hays High. "And I blame myself if we lose. But this game's not life or death."
With that in mind, the Indians came up with a classier motto this year than the old cliche of "taking it one game at a time."
The back of the Indians' warm-up shirts read "Turn it up. Win the day."
"We're trying to keep things in perspective," Keltner said. "We coaches get caught up in scores and winning or losing. It's not all about that. We're all blessed to get to play this great game."
Things have come full circle for Keltner since his team qualified for the Class 5A state basketball tournament last year and did so again last weekend.
In between, Keltner became a grandfather for the first time.
He watched his squad put together a year to remember by winning 22 straight games and entering Wednesday's first round at state undefeated.
In the midst of that memorable season came a weekend he will remember forever, and would like to forget, all at the same time.
Defeating teams from larger schools on three consecutive days in late January, the Indians won the prestigious Dodge City Tournament of Champions for the first time since 1955 -- the same year Keltner was born.
But the day following that emotional high of celebrating with his team, Keltner sat by the bedside of his dying father, the biggest fan of his only son. Keltner held his dad's hand and watched him take his last breath. Bob Keltner was 86.
"I know there's a lot of other people my age who have lost their parents, and I was lucky to have him in my life for a lot of years," Keltner said.
"But," he said, shaking his head, finding it tough to continue, "it's still hard."
In the Indians' first game following his dad's funeral, Hays High survived a scare by Salina Central by posting a come-from-behind win in overtime to keep its undefeated season intact.
Coincidentally, Hays High's first-round opponent in Wednesday's 6:30 p.m. state opener in Topeka is Salina Central.
"We don't take anyone lightly, take nothing for granted," said Keltner, who wasn't only talking about basketball.
In the six weeks since his father's death, Keltner's only sibling, older sister Terri Carpenter, was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. And his 82-year-old mother, Dorsie, is in a Wichita hospital fighting a case of pneumonia.
Still, Keltner chooses to look at the positive side of things.
"I had some really quality time with my dad this past year, his last few months," Keltner said. "I can't forget that."
He talked of taking his dad to a University of Kansas basketball game approximately a month before he died and making trips to Wichita on weekends to stay overnight with his dad in his hospital room to give his mom a break.
Now, as Keltner heads to state for the sixth time in his HHS career, he isn't looking ahead. The only game he will talk about is Wednesday's, and the only team to be concerned with is Salina Central.
But, he admits, he would love to be able to call his mom Wednesday night and tell her the Indians are in the final four.
Regardless of the outcome of the game, Keltner said he will make that phone call because "this game's not life or death."
"I've been blessed," Keltner said. "I know my dad is pulling for me to win, but I also know that he will be proud of me no matter what."