By BRETT MARSHALL
DODGE CITY — The master plan seems to be working for Ulysses boys basketball coach Jason Jones and his Tigers.
Now midway through his third season at the helm, Jones is beginning to see the fruits of a decision he made at the outset of the 2008-2009 season when he first arrived from Colorado Springs.
When the Tigers walked off the floor Saturday afternoon following a 59-53 overtime victory over Class 5A Newton in the Dodge City Tournament of Champions, the 4A Tigers stood proudly with a 6-5 season mark. Of their five losses, four have been to Class 5 or 6A schools. Their only loss to school of equal or smaller size came at the hands of 3A power Scott City.
"(The Tournament of Champions) was a very positive experience for the kids," Jones said after the seventh place game Saturday. "We had a chance to win all three games. But we didn't play well Thursday (59-47 loss to 6A Derby). Then we lose on the last-second shot Friday (57-55 to 6A Wichita West). Today, I thought we came out and played with energy and focus."
When he first knew the Tigers would be appearing in the prestigious tournament this season, Jones said he was nervous about how his mostly junior-dominated team would handle the surroundings.
"It would have been different had we gotten blown out, but we competed well," Jones said. "I think by sub-state (during the first week of March) then we will have used this and our schedule to our advantage. It's also good because we still have a lot of room for improvement, especially defensively. That's what you learn when you play this level of competition. We're a long way from our ceiling."
Kept in perspective, however, when Jones assumed the coaching reins two seasons ago, he opted to go with a senior-laden starting lineup. Waiting in the wings, however, and garnering plenty of playing time, were a group largely comprised of freshmen along with a couple of sophomores.
That group now occupies the starting lineup and top reserves. Today, they are juniors and seniors, and Jones sees a tremendous amount of growth in the group from when he took over. In his first season, the Tigers struggled mightily and finished 5-16. They improved to 11-10 a year ago.
"Where we are today, if you have told me we could compete in the TOC two years ago, I might have laughed," Jones said. "We were getting beat by 25 points and our schedule was just difficult. I had to keep telling the kids to be patient and keep working to improve."
On Saturday, it was 6-5 junior Garrett Kissell and 6-3 senior Chris Oliver who provided the scoring punch for the Tigers. Kissell scored 19 and Oliver 17 in leading them to their overtime win over the Railroaders.
Of his 12 varsity players, five are seniors and seven are juniors. There are no freshmen or sophomores being counted on this season as that up-and-coming group can focus on playing freshman and junior varsity competition.
"I think we're right on schedule with what I envisioned," Jones said of the plan he scripted two years ago. "We're more consistent, we're doing more things better. Our kids have had a great time here. It's been a privilege to play here and we look forward to coming back next year."
Jones credits his five seniors with key leadership in hanging tough through those first two seasons.
"Many would have quit, but we've been able to blend the seniors and juniors and they've all done a good job," said Jones. "We're still in the building process. Our freshmen are 8-2 and they only lost to Dodge by six points. I think with our JV success, too, that the future is bright. I think we'll see a lot from the success they are having at the lower levels."
From a purely basketball coaching perspective, Jones said the team's improvement has come from the fact that both Oliver and Kissell have grown and become stronger inside players than they were two seasons ago. That, along with his fleet of quick guards who enjoying shooting long-range jumpers, have keyed the Tigers' offense.
"Our guards need to get better about getting into the paint," Jones said. "We tend to be content with shooting from the perimeter. These are points of emphasis for us to work on. We need better ball security and understand that each possession is important."
Jones is looking forward to seeing how his master plan continues to unfold this season and into the future.
"It's been fun to see the kids get better and for them to be excited about basketball at Ulysses," Jones said. "They've come a long way and it will be interesting to see how far they can go."
TOC notes: Dodge City High School Athletic Director Jay Gifford said that the 2012 Tournament of Champions may move to the new United Wireless Arena which is scheduled to open next month next door to the Boot Hill Casino and Resort on the west side of town.
Gifford said the new arena, which has a seating capacity of approximately 3,500 for basketball, would be an ideal choice if negotiations on rent go well. Currently, and for the entire 68 years of the TOC, games have been played at the Dodge City Civic Center, which has a seating capacity of approximately 2,200, including the stage and end bleachers.
"We've had a couple of meetings with the Arena officials, but nothing has been determined," Gifford said Saturday during a break of the final day of the TOC.
"The Civic Center people have always been fabulous to work with but with the new arena, the seating capacity, it would be a no-brainer for us not to look seriously at making the move."
Gifford also confirmed that Ulysses, which placed seventh on Saturday with a mostly underclassmen roster, will return to the TOC in 2012. The eight-team field is usually comprised of host Dodge City and at least two teams from the Wichita City League which rotate each year.
Next year, there will be one team from the Leavenworth/Shawnee Mission area, and at least two teams from a combination of schools that includes Hays High, Hutchinson, Buhler and Newton.
It all depends on the yearly rotation schedule and how teams' rosters are dotted with underclassmen, according to Gifford. Scott City will return to the TOC for 2013.