By PAT SANGIMINO

Special to The Telegram

HUTCHINSON Yancey Walker, who once coached a winless girls team at Hays' Thomas More Prep in his one season as a head coach in Kansas, is back in the Sunflower State under different circumstances.

The 32-year-old Scott City High graduate is now the head coach at Missouri State-West Plains, the top-ranked men's junior college team in the nation and one of the teams on a short list of favorites to win the NJCAA tournament, which began earlier today at the Sports Arena.

Walker's journey has covered some miles and a variety of levels.

Still, his homecoming of sorts is not lost in the excitement of having the Grizzlies (31-2) in the tournament for the first time.

"I absolutely have to take it one game at a time," he said, "but if we do cut down the nets on Saturday, it would be one of those stories Hollywood wouldn't be able to properly write."

That's where Walker stops thinking about it.

Right now, it's sheer folly. The Grizzlies have to run the gauntlet and win four games beginning with tonight's 8:30 game with Region 6 champion Coffeyville. If West Plains were to survive that one, there are three more qualified teams waiting for the chance to hand the Grizzlies their first loss since a New Year's Day setback to Seward County 17 games ago.

"There are some tough games ahead for us," he said. "I would hate to lose that opportunity because I got caught looking ahead."

Instead, maybe it's better just to simply look back to gain an appreciation for where Walker has been and where he is now.

The 1997 Scott City graduate was a part of Glenn O'Neil's first Beavers team. Three days after O'Neil guided the Beavers to a Class 3A crown on the same Sports Arena court, Walker remembered a time when the Beavers, known more as a football power, got to the Class 4A tournament for the first time in 18 years.

"We still text back and forth," said O'Neil, who plans to be in Hutchinson on Thursday to see the Grizzlies play their second-round game. "He was always one of those kids who wanted to talk about basketball. He had a pretty good head for the game. You could tell he would be a good coach."

Walker played basketball at Colby Community College and Fort Hays State before being offered an assistant coaching job in football and girls basketball at TMP (now TMP-Marian).

"He is a great kid who brought energy to our program," said Gene Flax, the Monarchs' athletic director. "We were very fortunate to have him."

The following year, the head coaching job on the girls basketball team came open and Walker took over a team that had graduated all of its players from the previous year.

"The cupboard was empty," Flax said. "It was a tough situation, but he handled it with such grace and dignity."

But it was a one-and-done situation. Walker moved on to Colby Community College, where he was an assistant in the men's program, before taking similar positions at Henderson State (Ark.), Arkansas Tech and Hawaii Pacific.

Three years ago, he became the 29-year-old head coach at West Plains and was immediately humbled by guiding the Grizzlies to a 14-17 finish the first losing season in the program's history.

"That's the first thing I learned Missouri State was good long before I got here," he said. "I understand that I am very blessed to be doing what I am doing. There's no doubt about that."

It appears that the feeling is mutual.

The Grizzlies moved to the top of the poll last month for the first time and have enjoyed wearing the target, Walker said.

"They have embraced being No. 1," Walker said. "It is something we have talked about. It is something they have taken ownership of and have worked hard to protect. The No. 1 spot had been so transient, but they wanted to hang onto it for a while."

The day the Grizzlies climbed to the top of the poll began a stretch where they played road games at Moberly, Three Rivers and State Fair. Those are three traditional junior college powerhouses in Missouri.

They won each of those games.

Carrying into the tournament has brought some notoriety to the Grizzlies. Some call them the team to beat because of it. Pre-tournament projections don't amount to much once the action begins, but it still makes Walker proud perhaps even more because all this is taking place in Kansas, so close to home.

"I don't expect the town to bring a busload of people, but there might be a few," he said. "I hope Scott City feels some pride in all of this, because I would not be where I am today without the influence of the people there."