By AUSTIN COLBERT
No team in Hays High School boys' basketball history won more games in a single season than the 2013-14 squad. That fact alone is worthy of the Indians being one of The HDN's top stories for 2014. However, they made the list for so much more than just wins, but for what might have been the single wildest ride in HHS basketball lore.
"A couple of years ago I had good friends tell me that they thought we would be horrible. I'm kind of stupid. I always think we can be good, but we only won six games," HHS coach Rick Keltner said following their season-ending loss to Wichita Heights in March. "But we were in a lot of close games and I told them, 'It's not always going to be this way.' Then last year we got a little better. This year they've just been off the charts a lot of nights."
Looking back, it seems everyone should have seen it coming. The Indians went 6-15 in 2011-12, then 14-7 in '12-13. While they lost five key seniors off that team, the '13-14 roster included another deep senior class with a lot of experience, led by the reigning Western Athletic Conference player of the year in junior Brady Werth.
Throw in seniors Lane Clark, Kyler Niernberger, Jordan Windholz, Kade Parker, Kenny Rounkles and Wakeeney-Trego Community High School transfer Clayton Riedel, and the Indians were loaded with talent and experience.
"I want to make it all the way to the finals this year," Werth said prior to the start of the '13-14 season. "I think this year will be better than last year. The expectations -- I want to win a state title. I know everyone else does. I think we are deeper than last year. Our outside game is going to better this year, too."
Hays High jumped out of the gate, winning the season-opening Gerald Mitchell Hays City Shootout for the second year in a row and the seventh time in school history. After rolling Colby, the Indians won a nail-biter at Junction City, 46-45, to take a 5-0 record into the holiday break.
HHS looked anything but rusty once play began again in January, rolling through Liberal, Great Bend and Garden City for a second time. The Indians entered the Dodge City Tournament of Champions with a perfect 9-0 mark.
A frequent participant of the TOC, Hays High was looking for its first tournament crown since 1955. It wouldn't come easily, HHS having to battle past Hutchinson and Manhattan to make the championship game against Class 6A powerhouse Wichita East High School. But against an athletic East team, the Indians pulled the 61-51 upset to reach 12-0 and bring home their second piece of hardware.
The win also vaulted Hays High to No. 1 in Class 5A, however temporarily.
"It's such a big win today. I'm so proud of the kids. It's been such a long time since Hays won it," Keltner said following the TOC win. "They just keep getting better. We are just proud to represent Hays High and Hays, Kansas, and we feel we come from a special place and want to try and represent well."
After needing overtime and a bit of drama to escape Salina Central in their first game following the TOC, the Indians clipped right along to 20-0 entering sub-state against Wichita West, an easy 68-43 win. Then came Bishop Carroll in the sub-state title game, a team HHS pulled away from late for a 55-38 win, getting them back to state for the fifth time in 29 seasons under Keltner, and first in back-to-back seasons.
Hays High faced a rematch against Salina Central in the first round of the 5A state tournament, played in Topeka. In their one meeting earlier in the season, HHS overcame a 44-36 deficit with 3:02 to play to win 51-50 in overtime. Game 2 played out in oddly familiar fashion, a pair of Clark free throws with 18.2 seconds to play allowing HHS to escape with a 48-46 win after trailing by six points with less than three minutes to play.
However, the dream season came to a close in the state semifinals, Hays High losing to hometown favorite Topeka-Highland Park 48-40. HHS had rallied from a 38-32 fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game at 40 with 1:43 to play, but watched as the Scots scored the final eight points to hand the Indians their first loss.
While the Indians also fell to Heights 51-49 in the third-place game to end the season at 23-2, Keltner wanted to make sure it didn't overshadow what had been a remarkable season and the message seemed to reach the players loud and clear.
"We had a great season. There is nothing to be ashamed of. No team at Hays High has went 23-2," Werth said after the Heights loss. "It's been one of my most fun years with them. A lot of us started out when I was a freshman and they were sophomores. We had no seniors and went through three years and came to this. It's a big accomplishment. We are all pretty proud."
Werth, who signed to play basketball with Fort Hays State University prior to the start of the '14-15 season, was named the WAC player of the year for the second time following the '13-14 season.
While Windholz was the only player to sign for basketball on last year's team -- he is a freshman at Barton Community College -- three others signed to play college athletics. Parker joined Windholz at Barton as a baseball player, Riedel signed with FHSU for football, and Clark with Tennessee State University to be a placekicker on the football team.