Wallace County boys’ basketball coach Larry O’Connor and his Wildcats have dealt with more adversity in the past few seasons than most teams can imagine, but that hasn’t stopped the Wildcats’ from succeeding.
A season ago, the death of Wallace County senior Luke Schemm not only took a key player from O’Connor’s rotation, it devastated the Sharon Springs community. With Schemm, O’Connor was confident the Wildcats would’ve won their second consecutive state championship.
This season, it was a season-ending injury to talented senior Chisum Grund that threw a wrench into the Wallace County coach’s plans.
“That put some doubts into my mind because he was our leading scorer and team emotional leader,” O’Connor said. “It kinda put us back at square one.”
O’Connor was able to tinker his starting lineups and rotations to lead the Wildcats to the Class 1A-II state championship, an accomplishment that helped make the Wallace County coach the HDN’s Boys’ Coach of the Year this season.
The 69-54 win over Hartford in Dodge City gave the Wildcats their second championship in three seasons.
“We just trusted each other and fought hard,” said Wallace County senior guard Levi Johnson after the game. “That’s what our team has been about all year. Resilience and being together, that’s what got us the win today.”
The Wildcats ended the regular season with a lopsided loss to St. Francis, giving the team a 15-6 record to start the postseason.
“That kinda refocused us a little bit,” O’Connor said.
A 10-day layoff before the sub-state opener allowed the Wildcats to iron out some kinks and figure out how they would attack the postseason. Part of that was getting sophomore shooter Trever Medina to stop deferring to Johnson, Grady Hammer and the other Wildcat seniors.
“He has a lot of talent,” O’Connor said of Medina. “He wasn’t doing things throughout the season that I thought he could.”
Another question was answered when Carlin Springsteel emerged.
“He turned out to be our best defender,” O’Connor said.
“We don’t win that without Carlin.”
Wallace County clinched a trip to state with an eight-point win over Weskan in the sub-state final.
The Wildcats entered the state tournament as the five seed, but O’Connor felt his team still hadn’t played at the level it did with Grund in the fold.
That quickly changed. Wallace County held fourth-seeded Ashland to 34 points in the first round and knocked off No. 1 seed Caldwell 49-44 in the semifinals.
Despite trailing the Jaguars by 10 in the first half, the Wildcats rebounded for a 69-54 win in the state championship.
“We put three of our best games together right in a row,” O’Connor said. “I think it was because of our determination.”
The Wildcat coach said his team didn’t hide from it’s goal of winning another state title. It was a common topic of discussion at practice, and behind O’Connor’s guidance and leadership from his seniors, a resilient Wallace County squad was the last team standing.
“They definitely are mature beyond their years. They’ve experienced more than high school kids should’ve experienced,” O’Connor said.
“It’s probably one of the most fun seasons I’ve had. I like it because we all came together. It was a little of everybody putting in here and putting in there.
I enjoyed every bit of it.”