By BRETT MARSHALL
A year ago, when the Greeley County boys basketball team qualified for the Class 1A state tournament in Hays, the Jackrabbits had just one loss and ended up as the No. 3 seed in the talent-laden eight-team field.
Now, with 1A split into two divisions, the Jackrabbits are the top seed of Division II with a 19-3 record.
They will take that lofty record into Thursday's first round game at Hays' Gross Memorial Coliseum at 6 p.m. against Bern, a team that managed to advance despite an 8-14 record.
With the newly-minted format, most of the top-seeded teams in Division I and II only had to win two games to reach the state tournament. Under the old, two-tiered system, a team would have to win minimally four games.
But don't try and tell Greeley County coach Jeff Starkey the state tournament has lost its glitter.
"It's exciting to be going back," Starkey said. "The administrators wanted to give as many schools a chance to go to state as the other classes. It is what it is. The schools that make it to state, the communities are still going to be excited and support their kids."
Starkey said that from a basketball purist's standpoint, the tournament definitely has a different feel.
He pointed to the fact that Baileyville B&B is sitting at home in Division I with an 18-4 record.
Of B&B's losses, three came against defending 1A champ Hanover and the other came at the hands of 2A Washington County, which was scheduled to face Syracuse today in the opening round of its state tournament in Manhattan.
"We just play wherever the state says to play," Starkey said. "I'm sure we voted for it, there's no doubt in my mind. It's kind of like everybody getting a ribbon from the science fair. Before, you win four or five games to get there, and go through regional and then re-seed. It's all about geography, but there's got to be a better way."
When the season got under way in early December, Starkey knew he had to find replacements for graduated seniors Kellum Schneider and Isaac Wilson.
He found a point guard in senior Clay Robertson to go with his top two returning scorers in forward Jonathan Miller and guard Stephen Houston, both seniors.
Miller leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points and rebounding with 6.8 per game with Houston not far behind at 14.5 points.
"I'd say the play of Clay has been the biggest reason for our improvement," Starkey said. "He hasn't missed a beat. I trust him and I've got to have him on the floor all the time, taking care of the ball.
"He just knows what to do. If it's a man press, I don't worry. I let him bring it (ball) up. He doesn't turn it over. If you think of a point guard you want without the scoring, somebody who shoots 40 percent from three-point range, then you want Clay."
Early on, the Jackrabbits struggled, losing three of their first five games.
Two of those losses came at the Scott City Invitational against private school Wichita Defenders and 3A Scott City, the top-ranked team in that class.
The other was a six-point loss to 2A Syracuse on Dec. 14, a night when Starkey was not present due to the birth of his first child earlier that day.
The Jackrabbits have been perfect in the 15 games they've played since that loss to Syracuse. Against 1A competition this season, they have averaged winning by a margin of 24.8 points per game, picking up wins over 2A Stanton County, Wichita County and St. Francis.
Starkey was happy to have drawn Healy in its sub-state final at Dighton on Saturday night.
They had only faced their Western Kansas/Liberty League foe once during the season.
Had Weskan won the semifinal against the Eagles, it would have been the third time for the Jackrabbits to face the Coyotes.
"Nobody likes to play somebody that many times," Starkey said. "Healy does a good job of keeping you out of your transition. Once we started wearing them down, I think John (Miller) really started taking over in the post."
The last time the Jackrabbits won a state basketball tournament was in 1968 when they won the Class B state title in Emporia.
See pairings in Scoreboard, Page B2.