By BRETT MARSHALL
High school coaches are always dealing with the available talent pool from the students who attend their respective school.
So when Holcomb High School boys' basketball coach Chad Novack watched seven players from an 18-5 season graduate in 2013, he knew he would have the task of a makeover for the 2013-14 season.
The Longhorns' 20-4 season, which included a Class 3A sub-state championship and a trip to Hutchinson's Sports Arena for the state tournament, only cemented the effectiveness of the job Novack and his staff had done.
That effort has earned Novack, who just finished his third year at the HHS helm, The Telegram's 2014 Boys' Basketball Coach of the Year honor.
"We knew when we lost seven seniors that we would have a lot of spots to fill," Novack said recently. "At the end of last season, we knew we would have to get the kids into the weight room, the gym and that they would have to work extremely hard."
That message was received loud and clear, and senior returner Heath Tucker, the lone starter from a year ago despite seeing limited playing time after recovering from hip surgery, provided the leadership for the youth movement of the Longhorns.
Following the 2013 summer off-season workouts, Novack said he knew that the talent was there to have a solid team.
"I thought we could be pretty good, but I also knew we had a tough schedule," Novack said.
Adapting a philosophy ingrained from his father, David, who guided the Longhorns to state championships in 1986 and 1992, Novack said it was critical for his team to play as hard as it could no matter the outcome; act right and represent the community, school and the team with pride; and play together and enjoy their teammates and do what's best for the team.
"I feel as though this group accomplished all of those things this year," Novack said. "They were an unselfish group. It really didn't matter who scored the points. Just doing the things to help the team win, that's what worked very well for us."
Tucker, a gifted three-sport standout, finished the year with a 15.9 scoring average, second only to 6-4 junior Trey Sleep's 17 points per game. But the 6-3 guard also ranked high in rebounding and led the team in assists and steals. Those two also earned first team All-Area honors by The Telegram.
What also helped, Novack said, was that his team got off to an impressive start back in early December, when the Longhorns first beat Class 5A Liberal in their season opener, and then followed it with a 2-1 mark in the difficult Southwest Classic where they defeated Wichita Trinity and Denver South, only to lose to highly-ranked Pueblo (Colo.) East by two points.
"We had three quality games in the Classic, and playing back-to-back-to-back games forced us to adjust to different styles each game," Novack said. "I felt all along that it would all depend on how we played defense that would determine the kind of season we might have."
With a lineup that consisted of the 6-3 Tucker, 6-4 Sleep along with 6-5 freshman Conner VanCleave, 6-3 junior Dalton Gottschalk, 6-2 junior Blake Richmeier, and with outside shooting threats Calen Rupp and Christian Merz, the Longhorns took advantage of their athleticism.
"We had a lot of length, and we emphasized getting in the lanes and ball pressure," Novack said of the points of focus for the team's defense. "That led to a lot of transition points. Forcing turnovers led to easy baskets."
On the offensive end of the floor, Novack said he knew that Tucker and Sleep would be effective scorers, but what developed was a balanced attack where any one of several players could, and did, lead the team in scoring.
"On any given night, Conner, Dalton, others might have a big scoring night," Novack said. "What I liked best is that we looked to make that extra pass and play unselfishly."
Critical points of the season came in a blowout loss at Scott City on Jan. 14 that continued a string of league losses to the Beavers dating back several years.
"We talked about that not being acceptable anymore, and I think we went back and started working harder on the little things," Novack said. "The kids took it (loss) pretty hard."
From there, the Longhorns moved into mid-season tournament play at the tough Hillsboro Trojan Classic, where they reached the championship game against eventual Class 3A state champion Hesston. The 'Horns competed with the Swathers before coming up short in a 57-51 loss.
That continued work ethic and belief carried through to what became an 11-game winning streak, including back-to-back wins over Class 6A Finney County neighbor Garden City (66-55) and Scott City (66-57). That win over the Beavers propelled the Longhorns to their first Great West Activities Conference title and a top seed at the 3A sub-state in Cimarron, a field that included five other schools with winning records. They survived that three-game test with a 53-50 win over Cheney to reach the state tourney for the first time since 2009.
The trip to Hutchinson was short-lived, though, as the Longhorns came up short in a second-half rally to eventually fall 76-66 to Nemaha Valley in the opening round.
"Looking back, I think the stage, the atmosphere might have gotten to us," Novack admitted. "We showed for a while that we were a young team. But I thought we played extremely well in the second half (nearly coming back from a 14-point first-half deficit) and made a game of it (closing to within three)."
Looking ahead, Novack realizes the shoes of Tucker will be difficult to fill, but he's excited about the players who do return, and there's plenty of them.
Three years into his tenure and the Longhorns have compiled a 53-17 won-loss mark (.757) under Novack. And he likes the direction the program is headed.