DODGE CITY — For defending state champion Wallace County, it was always going to be a battle to repeat in the Class 1A Division II state tournament.
The Wildcats got through the first round Wednesday, but Friday they faced a tough and determined Elyria Christian team that had its sites set on a title shot.
So it was that the tournament will crown a new champion Saturday, as Wallace County fell 61-41 to the Eagles.
“That’s a good team,” Wallace County coach Larry O’Connor said. “They’re big, they’re strong. We just kept battling. The kids don’t ever quit. We had our shots.”
The Wildcats got out to a 4-1 lead after the opening four minutes in a slow-starting game. A tie at 8-8 six minutes later would be the closest Wallace County could get to the private school out of McPherson, which finished the period on an 8-0 run.
Elyria Christian took its largest lead of the half at 24-13, but the Wildcats went on its own 9-3 run to close within seven until the Eagles scored at the end of the half to go up 31-22.
Just when it seemed like the defending champs were making a run, the Eagles had an answer.
Wallace County opened the second half with a 4-0 run to close within five before the Eagles closed with a 16-7 run, holding Wallace County to just two field goals.
“They had just a couple of runs, when we’d get to within seven or eight,” O’Connor said. “They’d go on a little run, and we’d have to battle back. That was big.”
Caleb Froese had 21 points to lead the Eagles, with Jaden Starburg and Tyler Thiessen adding 10 each.
Thiessen also had nine boards to lead his team.
Trever Medina had 22 points and eight rebounds to lead Wallace County. No other player had more than five points for the Wildcats
One tale in the game was turnovers. The Wildcats had just 14 to the Eagles’ 11, but Elyria Christian outscored Wallace County on those miscues, 20-7.
Despite being defending champs, O’Connor said, his team knew it was a different season with just two starters returning — one of whom was lost to injury in January.
“We’ve battled all year. We got better as the year went on,” O’Connor said.
Elyria Christian (22-2) will face top-seeded Northern Valley (24-1) in Saturday’s final.
Wallace County (13-12) will face South Barber (18-6) in the third-place game.