The Hill City boys’ basketball team had a number of questions to answer to start the 2015-16 season.
Veteran head coach Keith Riley had the answers.
Riley is the HDN Boys’ Coach of the Year after leading the Ringnecks to an 18-8 record and fourth-place finish in the Class 2A state tournament. Long before Hill City was in Manhattan, Riley was forced to find replacements at two key positions — point guard and center.
Post player Derick McKeever and guards Ethan Gansel and Tanner Colburn graduated after helping the Ringnecks to a 17-7 record one season ago. That season ended in an overtime loss to Ellis in the sub-state championship game.
“We knew it was going to be tough replacing those guys,” Riley said. “That was the hard part.”
To fill the voids, Riley shifted Zech Wilson to the point and moved Mekhai Bates from the perimeter to the post due to his bigger frame.
“He’s a big boy,” Riley said. “He’s been a guard before. He had a lot of adjustments to make because defensive center is the hardest place to play.”
Wilson, the Ringnecks’ most consistent player, operated well with the ball in his hands.
“He played the two guard last year,” the Hill City coach said. “He did a great job for us, a heck of a rebounder for his size.”
Wilson and Bates joined junior Claiborne Kyles, the Ringnecks’ leading scorer, and Tate Buchholz as the team’s primary contributors this year. The quartet averaged more than 49 of the team’s 58 points per game. Beyond Everett Brandyberry, the team’s fifth leading scorer, no other Ringneck averaged more than 1.3 points per game.
Despite having the athletic personnel in the starting five to play an up-tempo game, the Ringnecks couldn’t fully commit to the style due their lack of depth.
“We just didn’t have any depth,” Riley said. “Those guys wore out a lot of times.”
We didn’t get to press how we liked to press because we couldn’t get in any foul trouble.”
Despite the lack of depth and new faces in key positions, the Ringnecks won four of their first five games, with a loss at Thomas More Prep-Marian being the only exception. Each of Hill City’s first four wins came by at least 10 points.
After back-to-back losses to Beloit-St. John’s/Tipton and Ellis, the Ringnecks rebounded with a win over the Railroaders in the first round of the Mid-Continent League Tournament. TMP, however, ended the Ringnecks’ run in the tournament with a 55-28 victory, a game Riley considered a focal point of the season.
“From that point on, we got a lot better,” the Hill City coach said.
From there on, the Ringnecks won nine straight games. Norton, a state qualifier in 3A, ended the streak. Hill City lost its next game to Ness City before getting back on track before the postseason.
Riley’s squad topped Decatur Community by 25 points before beating Plainville in overtime in the sub-state opener.
The Ringnecks clinched their trip to state with a 67-54 win over Ellis in the sub-state final. Wilson led all scorers with 18 points, while Buchholz and Kyles added 17 and 15, respectively.
Hill City entered the state tournament as the eight seed, but some of Riley’s finer work helped the Ringnecks knock off top-seeded Sedan, 74-69.
“We scouted them really well,” Riley said. “They were probably the best offensive team we played all year. They could flat out shoot the ball.”
Sedan put up 27 points in the first quarter but scored no more than 15 in any of the ensuing periods. Hill City completed a comeback with a 27-point fourth quarter. While the offense got hot late, the Ringnecks’ switch to a triangle-and-2 helped keep the Devils out of sync.
“I think it really frustrated them a bit,” Riley said. “We really took their guards out of the game.”
When the Ringnecks needed big buckets late, they got them from two of their top juniors. Kyles led the team with 25 points and added a game-high 11 rebounds, while Wilson totaled 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
“The last three quarters might be the best we’ve played all year,” Riley said. “We had to play great to win that ballgame.”
The Ringnecks felt like they had a good chance to advance to the final, but the coach said his team failed to show up in a 20-point loss to Jackson Heights. Hill City ended its strong season with another defeat in the consolation game to Central Plains. For Riley, the cramped postseason schedule was too much for his shallow team to overcome.
“Right at the end of the season, we had to play five games in seven days,” Riley said. “That really hurt us. That was too many games for our kids.”
Hill City’s future appears bright if they can find replacements for Bates and Buchholz, the only two seniors on the squad. With Kyles, Wilson and Brandyberry expected to return, another trip to state is not out of the question, but regardless of what happens next, Riley can always reflect on a strong 2015-16 season.
“It’s always a good year when you make it to state and win your first game,” Riley said.