When Isaiah Nunnery and Jared Vitztum were named to the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association All-Star Game in April, they believed Saturday would be the first time in more than four years they laced up for the same team.
When the rosters were released, the pair of local products and Fort Hays State University signees were caught off-guard with realizing the wait will continue into the winter.
“No matter where we go, it seems we can never play together,” Nunnery said laughing in disbelief. “Next season will be the first time since eighth grade, I believe, so it will be fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
Nunnery (Hays High) and Vitztum (Thomas More Prep-Marian) showcased the town’s talent Saturday night in Salina, as 24 of the top boys players in the state gathered for the annual All-Star contest. The duo will join forces as the first set of players from Hays High and TMP to play together at Fort Hays since 1995-96 when Chad Creamer (TMP) and Lance Hammond (Hays High) donned the black and gold.
The game featured a wealth of talent bound for Division I and II programs, an experience FHSU head coach Mark Johnson is proud to see his future players take in.
“It seems like a majority, if not all, of the players we sign from Kansas have played in that game every year. We’re just excited and know they’ll show Fort Hays well there,” Johnson said.
The game marked one last chance for the future Tigers to represent their respective high schools after their senior seasons came to an all-too-soon ending. TMP was bounced in the sub-state finals by Norton while Hays High faced a similar result against McPherson.
“I just kinda wanna represent TMP real well, just show that we can play basketball too,” Vitztum said, noting that the majority of the rosters are made up of players from eastern Kansas.
Nunnery’s feelings were mutual.
“My senior year of high school was cut a little short of what I wanted, so to be able to play another game and represent Hays High’s special,” he said. “It’s really special to me.
“I just wanna go out and make a good impression on everyone. I just wanna have fun playing with my teammates and let people know that I’m a legit player and I work hard no matter what game it is.”
The recruitment process was a quick one for Nunnery. He inked himself to Fort Hays State during the early signing period in November, following the footsteps of his parents, who were also athletes at the university.
Vitztum’s decision was made weeks after basketball season ended as he juggled many options, ultimately landing at Fort Hays State due to his honest conversations with Johnson.
“We don’t wanna put too much pressure on anyone, especially a kid from Hays,” Johnson said. “We want them to feel comfortable about the decision of coming to Fort Hays State and not feel like it’s something they’re supposed to do or required to do because they’re from Hays. We try to show them all the positives about Fort Hays State and the school and the basketball program — being from Hays and what it can mean to them. We’re very excited they all chose to come to Fort Hays State.”
With Hays High graduate Brady Werth set to be a sophomore and mentor for the pair, Johnson is ecstatic to see the basketball scene flourishing in his program’s town.
“Anytime you have good local talent, it’s definitely a bonus for your program,” Johnson said. “We feel like these guys are some guys that can really come in and help us and help us continue our winning ways and compete for the MIAA and possibly NCAA tournament selections. We’re thrilled.
“They’ve all got good athleticism. I think they all have decent-to-good size for the position they play. Their skill level’s pretty high and it’s only gonna get better and better as they continue to grow. We’re excited to have the talent right here in our hometown.”
Despite being just on opposite sides of town, college will allow the high school rivals to grow their first true relationship. The pair has faced off in summer league basketball and over the years in the Hays City Shootout, though similar busy schedules has kept the friendship strictly on the basketball court.
“We always kinda knew each other through basketball, just kinda Hays High (and) TMP playing each other in summer league, playing in the fall. Obviously becoming teammates, I’m just trying to get to know him better. He’s a really good player so I just can’t wait to get to play with him,” Vitztum said. “It was just always really competitive between us. Obviously, TMP-Hays High is a cross-town rivalry. There’s that and getting to know each other in fall basketball, playing with each other a bit and developing a little bit of chemistry.”
Both players are impressed by one another’s understanding of the game and basketball IQ though they bring different skills to Johnson’s team. As a point guard, Nunnery averaged 16.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4 assists, 2.6 steals and .8 blocks per game. He showed his ability to knock down 3-pointers throughout the season, whether it be catch-and-shoot or on a pull-up. He made 10 over the course of the final two games of the season. He drained nine treys on Senior Night, scoring 23 of his 32 points in the second half.
Viztum’s senior season saw him average 19.6 points per game and 10.7 rebounds along with more than two assists. The senior was at his best in the Monarchs’ four-overtime victory over Scott City. He finished with 33 points and 17 rebounds and hit a contested 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation to extend the game. Vitztum also scored 32 points in the Monarchs’ overtime win against Hutchinson-Trinity. He added 18 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
At 6-foot-7, Vitztum spent much of his time in high school bullying opponents in the post. The likely stretch-four at Fort Hays is working on adding muscle to battle for rebounds in college, along with the ball handling and extending shooting range to hurt opponents from all areas of the court. Nunnery’s areas of improvement are focused on finishing through contact and ball handling as a player likely to see much time dribbling at the next level.
“Isaiah shot it well in high school. He needs to continue to be able to shoot it well. He needs to work on his ball handling a little bit and get better with that — that’s everybody,” Johnson said. “You look at Jared, he had to play a lot of inside at high school. He’ll be a little bit inside for us, too, but you look at Hadley (Gillum) and Jake (Stoppel), they were able to expand their game and get away from the rim at times. What he needs to be able to do is continually improve his shot, get more comfortable and confident and consistent in his shot and his ball handling and his overall skills.”
The pair intends to begin working out alongside Werth in the coming weeks to develop in enhanced level of chemistry heading into team workouts when classes resume in August.
As for the future, finally playing alongside their cross-town rival makes for an exciting future for Nunnery and Vitztum.
“It’s awesome. It’s special when one player from the town gets on the team. So when two get on the team, it’s that much more special,” Nunnery said. “I’m excited. I was excited for him. I thought it was awesome because I think he’s a great player and I’m looking forward to playing with him.”