By KEVIN THOMPSON
For three straight years, Holcomb had reached the Class 3A sub-state finals only to lose each time to Scott City, who went on to win three straight state titles.
The Beavers moved up to Class 4A-II this season, but Holcomb was suiting up a relatively young and inexperienced team, having graduated seven players and returning just one starter.
What followed was a season for the books.
Now the Longhorns are back at state for the first time since 2009, looking to use the momentum and maturity that has followed them throughout the season.
Holcomb plays the second game of the afternoon today at 4:45 at the Hutchinson Sports Arena against No. 3-seeded Nemeha Valley (21-2). If they win, they will face the winner of the 3 p.m. game that pits No. 2 Beloit (22-1) against Wellsville (20-3).
In the evening, top-seeded Hesston (23-0) faces Wichita Collegiate (16-7) at 6 p.m., followed by Riverton (20-4) against St. George-Rock Creek (20-3).
Experience has been the payoff for hard work for a young Holcomb squad.
Before Jan. 14, Holcomb's season was going well. They had only lost to Pueblo (Colo.) East by two points in the second game of the Clarion Inn Southwest Classic and they were 6-1.
Then they traveled to Scott City, and after leading at the end of the first quarter, the Longhorns suffered a 20-point loss to the Beavers.
What happened after that was a figurative line drawn in the sand for them. Rather than mope about the loss, the Longhorns used that defeat as the demarcation line for the rest of their season.
Holcomb's only loss after that game was 57-51 in the semifinals of the Hillsboro Trojan Classic the next week to Hesston, the state's top Class 3A team all season.
"We started focusing on the little things that we need to do to win. Once they started doing that, it helped us to play better basketball," coach Chad Novack said of the Scott City loss. "We watched film and they started realizing that they weren't doing the little things very well. And when we started doing that, they realized they were better than they showed that night."
Holcomb has ridden that new-found identity to new heights. Even losing to Hesston, his team learned something, Novack said.
"We still didn't play our best and we were still right with them from start to finish," he said. "We came to the conclusion that we're a pretty good ball club because we're doing the little things right. It gave us confidence that we can play with anybody in the state."
Playing a strong schedule has helped the Longhorns prepare for state, Novack said. Playing big teams in big games can only help.
Riding the current win streak into the state tournament, Novack likes his team's chances not just because of match-ups, but because of chemistry.
"That's a big key behind our success. The kids are behind each other not only on the floor but off the floor," he said. "They're very unselfish about who gets the credit. We come wanting to win."
The young team doesn't look that young any more, Novack said. He said the team worked hard in the summer and the off-season knowing how tough it would be to replace the graduates.
Leading the way for the Longhorns is senior Heath Tucker (15.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, 2.8 spg) and junior Trey Sleep (17.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), along with a strong cast of supporting players ,who have stepped into their roles well as the season has progressed.
"The thing I would add is that even the guys who don't get in, if you watch them on the bench, they're motivating the guys on the floor," he said. "They're an extension of those guys on the floor."
The one issue that has plagued the Longhorns this season is turnovers, an area they've focused on going into the postseason. Each possession is valuable, Novack said. To be on offense and not get a shot can't happen.
"With our length, if we at least get a shot, it may not go in but we'll have a chance to get the offensive board," he said. "We've out-rebounded our opponents every game this year."
The Longhorns have been to state nine other times since 1985, including four straight trips from 1985-1988. They won titles in 1986 (Class 2A, 44-41 overtime over Garden Plain) and 1992 (Class 3A, 57-53 over Hillsboro).
The coach of those teams was Chad's father, Dave, who coached the Longhorns from 1981 to 1998. The tradition is there in Holcomb, and it would be nice to perform well, the younger Novack said.
"Ever since Dad started letting me go to the gym, it's something I've grown up with and been accustomed to," he said. "It'd be nice to get Holcomb back to that. To have success at state would be sweet."
Chad Novack played his senior year at Holcomb on the top team in state, but which lost in sub-state. He reached state as a coach with Southwestern Heights in 2010.
When Holcomb last went in 2009, the current players were still in middle school or grade school, but they feel the same passion and hunger he had in his playing days, Novack said.
"They want to succeed not for just themselves, but for their buddies," he said. "It shows just the way they are on and off the floor."
The Longhorns had three goals before getting to state.
The first was to get better every day. Second was to win the conference, followed by sub-state. Fourth now is to win the state tournament.
"It's a loaded state," Novack said. "We've told the kids to expect everybody's best. We just need to make sure we give them our best and let things unfold from there."
In quarterfinal matchups in Hutchinson, it will be Beloit (22-1) vs. Wellsville (20-3), 3 p.m.; Seneca-Nemaha Valley (21-2) vs. Holcomb (20-3), 4:45 p.m. ; Hesston (23-0) vs. Wichita Collegiate (16-7), 6:30 p.m.; Riverton (20-2) vs. St. George-Rock Creek (20-3), 8:15 p.m.
Who: Holcomb Longhorns
2013-14 Record: 20-3
Where: Hutchinson Sports Arena
When: Wednesday through Saturday
Quarterfinal game: Wednesday, 4:45 vs. Seneca-Nemaha Valley (21-2)
Head Coach: Chad Novack (3rd season, 53-17, .768).
League: Great West Activities Conference
How They Got There: Defeated Cheney 53-50 on Saturday to reach the state tournament for the first time since 2009. Defeated Chaparral 78-50 in semifinals.
Of Note: Holcomb has an 11-game win streak going into state, last losing 57-51 to No.-1 Hesston at the Hillsboro Trojan Classic. Holcomb won a 2A title in 1986. They won a 3A title in 1992.
Starters: Dalton Gottschalk, 6-3, Jr., G (10.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.3 apg); Heath Tucker, 6-3, Sr., G (15.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, 2.8 spg); Trey Sleep, 6-4 Jr., F (17.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg); Calen Rupp, 5-8, Jr., G (2.4 ppg, 2 rpg, 3.5 apg); Conner VanCleave, 6-5, Fr., C (6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg).
Top Reserves: Blake Richmeier, 6-2, Jr. G (5.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Christian Merz, 5-9, So., G (3.1 ppg); Brandon Stegman, 5-10, Fr., G (1.2 ppg).
State Tournament History:
Championships (2): 1986 (Class 2A), 1992 (Class 3A).
A Look Back: 1986 — Won 44-40 in overtime against Garden Plain; 1992 — Won 57-53 over Hillsboro.
Previous Tournament Appearances (10): 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, 2001, 2008, 2009.