Gearing up for the program’s first state tournament appearance since 2014, the Hays High boys basketball team is looking to savor the moment while also embracing the opportunity at hand.
“It’s a delicate balance when you qualify for the state tournament,” HHS coach Alex Hutchins said. “You don’t want your guys to be so caught up in the excitement and basking in the glory that they don’t make the most of the opportunity that we have.
“At the same time, you don’t want to not enjoy the success that you’re having. It’s a special opportunity and it’s something that not everyone gets to do.”
Hutchins said the Indians have been able to find that balance as they prepare for their Class 5A state tournament first-round game against Topeka-Highland Park at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday at White Auditorium at Emporia.
“I do think our guys seem focused,” Hutchins said.
The No. 3-seeded Indians (16-6) enter on a seven-game winning streak, earning a 43-36 victory at rival Great Bend to punch their ticket to state.
Six-seeded Highland Park (15-7) advanced with a dramatic 51-50 win over Aquinas in the sub-state final. Junior Mu’Khajhae Daniels hit two free throws with 3.7 seconds left to give the Scots the win.
Highland Park is led by the trio of 6-foot-7 forward C.J. Powell and guards Juan’Tario Roberts and Jahi Peppers. The Scots have enjoyed a huge turnaround after winning just three games last year.
“They are extremely athletic,” Hutchins said of the Scots. “They want to pressure and force turnovers and get out in transition. ... They play a really tough schedule, they play a lot of big schools. They’re tested. They’re close to home. They’re a program that has a ton of tradition. We’re going to have our hands full.”
The Indians have been dominant defensively of late, surrendering just 29 points per game in their last three contests.
“I do think urgency has played a role,” Hutchins said. “... I think that we’ve valued every single possession on defense; usually when you talk about that, you talk about offense.
"I think our bigs — especially Dylan (Ruder) — have done a really good job of protecting the inside all year, but I think we’ve also seen an added intensity from our guards. Not that they’ve struggled this year or anything, but I do think there’s times this year where we’ve had one or two of our guards engaged on defense at a time. For the most part, these last couple weeks all five guys on the court have been locked in and flying around the whole game.”
Hutchins said defending Highland Park will present a different challenge compared to most teams the Indians have faced this season.
“I think they remind me a little bit of Salina South in the way that they have athletes all over the court, and they want to get out and run and get out in transition,” Hutchins said. “But Salina South did not have a 6-foot-7 player like they do that does what he does. I don’t know that we can compare them too much to anyone we’ve seen yet.
“I think the biggest focus is getting back in transition and making them earn all their points in a half-court setting.”
T.J. Nunnery leads a balanced Indians’ scoring attack with 10.1 points per game while junior forward Dalyn Schwarz adds 9.8 a game.
The Highland Park-Hays winner will advance to an 8:15 p.m. semifinal Friday to take on the first-round winner between No. 2 seed Basehor-Linwood (20-2) and No. 7 Andover Central (14-8), the defending 5A champion.