Hays High boys hungry for more success
The Hays High boys basketball team was one of the first few teams in the state to experience the emotional gut-punch of having its season derailed by the pandemic.
The night before Hays High was scheduled to play in the Class 5A semifinal in Emporia last March, the Indians were in their hotel rooms when it was announced that the rest of the state tournament was being canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
More motivated than ever, the bulk of last year’s team is back for the 2020-21 season as the Indians look to make another run at a title.
“I think they’re really excited to have the opportunity to play,” said Hays High coach Alex Hutchins, entering his second season guiding the team. “I think all of us, players and coaches included, are just trying to embrace every day we get, whether it’s a game of whether’s it’s practice, because we know it could get cut short at any time.”
Hays High is set to open at 8:15 p.m. Thursday against Hugoton in the Gerald Mitchell Hays City Shootout at HHS. No fans are allowed to attend, per Kansas State High School Activities Association guidelines because of the virus.
Hays High went 17-6 last year, sharing the Western Athletic Conference title with Great Bend before beating the Panthers in the rubber match to claim a sub-state championship.
Hays returns four starters and two more players that saw considerable minutes off the bench.
“There’s a lot of returning experience and there’s also continuity with the coaching staff,” Hutchins said. “Those two things combined definitely have us feeling that we’re able to move a lot faster in practice than we were this time a year ago. Part of that is all the returning players with varsity experience, but even more so, it’s just them knowing the expectations and them knowing as a coaching staff what we want to do on both sides of the ball.
“We’ll know a lot more once we actually play a game ... but I would say right now we feel like we are significantly ahead of where we were at this time last year.”
Senior Dalyn Schwarz, 6-foot-6, was a first-team All WAC selection a year ago. He averaged 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds.
“Dalyn is a returning captain for a reason,” Hutchins said. “He was voted captain as a junior and got all the postseason accolades because he is such a great leader. He’s kind of that calming presence and consistent presence on both ends of the court.”
The Hays Indians return three starting guards from a year ago in senior T.J. Nunnery (10.3 points per game), junior Carson Kieffer (7.9 points, 4.1 assists) and senior Jason Krannawitter (6.6 points).
“T.J. and Carson showed at the end of the year last year what they’re capable of on both ends,” Hutchins said. “When those two are crashing the glass for us and getting downhill with their drives, they make us a completely different team.”
“Jason is a pest on defense, and he’s kind of a spark plug for us. He’s a guy that kind of lights the fire for the rest of the team and provides a lot of energy on both ends.”
Junior 6-foot-6 forward Jace Linenberger, who averaged 6.9 points and 4.4 rebounds as a sophomore, is expected to step into the starting lineup.
“Jace had moments last year where he looked like he was the best player on the court for us,” Hutchins said. “It came as no surprise to anybody on the team because we saw it in practice every day. But he still had moments where he looked like he was a sophomore.
“I think Jace has put in a lot of time in the weight room and working on his own in the gym and going and playing all over the Midwest. He has grown a lot and those expectations are going to elevate.”
Junior guard Jordan Dale also saw key minutes off the bench last year.
“Like we talked about with Jace, there are moments where he looks like he’s the best player on the court on both ends,” Hutchins said. “He’s grown into his body a lot, probably 3 of 4 inches taller than he was a year ago (now listed at 6-1) and probably 30 pounds heavier. He’s starting to learn how to use his body and adding a physical element to his play. We’re really excited to see what he brings.”
Other juniors who will have opportunities to earn playing time include Noah Weimer, Wes Oakley, Ashton Hernandez and Garrett Wellbrock, Hutchins said.
This year, the Shootout is down to a four-team round robin and not the usual eight-team field with COVID-19’s impact on schedules. After opening against Hugoton, Hays will play Life Prep at 8:15 p.m. Friday. They will close the tournament against crosstown rival Thomas More Prep-Marian at 7 p.m. Saturday. All games are at Hays High.
“I think the biggest thing we want to see is our guys progress,” Hutchins said. “It’s hard to bring in expectations that we had from last year to this year. But we really do want to continue to grow from last March.
“We’ll get a better evaluation of where we are on Thursday night, but we’ve got lofty expectations. A lot of it comes down to focusing on us and being as good as we can possibly be.”