HILL CITY — There was never an occasion this season when Linda Nighswonger needed to give her team a motivational speech before a practice. Whenever she stepped inside the Hill City High School gym after a day of school, her senior class — mainly Adrianna Nickelson and Amanda Conway — already had the job done.
“They’re a pretty dorky group,” Nighswonger said. “They’re always fun, upbeat, positive. I can’t remember any practice where we had to say, ‘OK, let’s go’. Usually, they were the spark plugs for everything.”
She insists Nickelson is the ringleader in the team’s shenanigans. Conway is always the first to join in. The rest of the time, Nighswonger put her years of coaching experience to work, bringing Hill City back to the state tournament, finishing with a 22-4 record and taking home the Hays Daily News Girls’ Basketball Coach of the Year honors.
The Ringnecks began the season 9-0 before falling to Thomas More Prep-Marian in the finals of the Mid-Continent League tournament on Jan. 23. The team rebounded in the best way imaginable, ending Hoxie’s 107-game winning streak with a 53-48 overtime victory on the road in a hostile environment fitting for a game of such magnitude.
“We were excited for that game,” Nickelson said. “... We just knew we needed to go out there and show everyone how good we can play. After that (win), that was awesome.”
Hill City fell to Class 1A-I state qualifier Thunder Ridge on the road before cruising to the 2A tournament. After an overtime victory against Meade, Hill City dropped games to Central Plains and Valley Falls by a combined 10 points.
“Obviously we wanted to go farther, we were just so close. That’s what frustrates me,” Conway said. “We were so close on getting everything, but just fell short. … I’m glad we made it and we placed.”
The heartbreak of finishing fourth one season after bowing out in the first round sits uneasy with Nickelson, as well. But ending her prep career as one of the top teams in the state leaves her satisfied with the season.
“Since it was our senior year, I’m really glad we made it to state. I’m also sad, though,” Nickelson said. “I know we didn’t play good against TMP or Thunder Ridge, but they were really good teams. In our state games, we just fell a little short. All in all, it was really good compared to last year.”
Nighswonger’s first decade as a coach at Hill City concluded with a senior class of five that finished just short of the team’s 23-win, second-place season in 2009. The goal of returning to a tough 2A state tournament was met and not all is lost from a fourth-place finish, according to Nighswonger.
“I thought we had a great season. Like they said, not excited about fourth, but excited that we were one of the four teams that were playing the last day because 60 other teams are sitting at home,” she said. “We were very close, so close in both games. It was a great season. One of our goals was to get back because we made it to state last year and didn’t quite perform the way we wanted to.”
Nighswonger and assistant coach Greg Deines partner back to a majority of the team’s junior high days, where Deines served as the girls’ head coach and Nighswonger the assistant. The players recognize both as integral parts of the team’s success, as does the head coach.
“It’s a good partnership between us,” Nighswonger said. “We each have our duties that we do, and he does a lot of the summer workout stuff. He’s a big part.”
As the Ringnecks are accustomed to, most of their damage was done throughout the year from beyond the 3-point arc. According to MaxPreps, Hill City ranked first in the state with 214 made 3-pointers, 69 more than the next closest. The shots came in volume, as Hill City attempted 185 more triples than any other team, as well.
Led by sharp-shooting senior Lexie McDowell, the HDN’s Girls Player of the Year, three Ringnecks attempted more than 100 3-pointers apiece. McDowell made 76 at a 45-percent clip, while sophomore Conner Keith made 53 while shooting 36 percent. Conway added 34 additional treys at 32 percent from deep.
Conway averaged 12.6 points per game this season, more than a three-point increase from her junior year. She did so while adding 50 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.8 steals, all boosts from any other season. She said her success came from striving to reach higher goals than she set in past seasons.
“We set goals together and everything, but this year I decided to do super high goals,” Conway said. “Even if I didn’t make them, it would make me have to actually try to get them. One of my goals was to make five 3-pointers every game, so it made me shoot more and I obviously improved on my shooting because I shot more. I know I didn’t have enough confidence, so putting that one my goals sheet, it made me have to shoot.”
Conway recorded a season-high 25 points and 11 boards against Quinter on Jan. 5 and added 21 points against Meade. She added a second double-double by accumulating 15 points and 12 steals against Plainville, coming up four assists shy of a triple-double.
McDowell’s best season at Hill City allowed the Ringnecks to be versatile on both ends of the court, as her athletic frame allowed her to play any position on both ends of the court.
“I think that helped a lot. Lexie improved so much over the summer,” Nickelson said. “You could just tell Lexie’s improved so much. It helped because she can go outside and shoot, then she can come inside and shoot and just do whatever pretty much. It helped a lot having someone who could go back and forth and knew both positions.”
That allowed Nickelson to average 8.2 points per game and dish out 2.9 assists per contest, both career highs.
After splashing onto the scene as a freshman by leading Hill City with 12.7 points per game, Keith added to an already stellar prep career with 11.1 points, 4.6 steals and 3.4 assists per game. She turned the ball over just more than one time per game, even as the primary ball-handler.
Keith notched a steal with 1:30 to play against Hoxie with Hill City down by a single point, eventually leading to a go-ahead basket by McDowell. The 5-foot-4 point guard also added three clutch free throws in the final minute to ice the game.
“She’s a leader,” McDowell said of Keith. “She steps up. She’ll step up when we need. She’s a great ball-handler and she’s a great shooter. … She knows when to do things and when not to do them. She’s a smart player and knows the game.”
Nickelson added: “I knew she was gonna be good. She’s really good and works hard, but she’s improved a lot. I think she’s gonna be really good and go far in basketball. She’s been a big help to the team.”
As the foundation of a team looking to replace five seniors, Keith feels the leadership shown by the group will translate to her smoothly.
“I feel like with Amanda and Lexie leaving, I’ll have to step up really big and try to get Lauren (Jones), Ellie (Keener) and Carrie (Kennedy) to where they can fill in for them,” Keith said. “It’s gonna be really different without the five seniors, but I feel like if work hard this summer we can make it again.”
Keith is as modest and quiet as they come and has not had to serve as a vocal leader for the Ringnecks in her first two years. Nighswonger sees that changing fairly smoothly because of her role on the court.
“I see her becoming more vocal. She hasn’t really had to be, but as the point guard she communicates with the rest of the team what we want to do,” Nighswonger said. “I think she’ll just be more confident. … It’s always fun to see the next group step up and be leaders because they don’t really have to. We’ve had strong leadership from the senior class, so it will be neat to see next year who does that.”