Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles highlighting the Top 10 sports stories of 2017 as voted upon by The Telegram Staff.
The No. 4 story profiles the Holcomb boys basketball team winning the Class 4A-II state tournament in mid-March over Pratt.
EMPORIA — From December to January and on into February, the Holcomb Longhorns had hung their hats on some tried and true methods of winning basketball games.
Pressure defense, power rebounding, an imposing inside game with two bigs, and guards that could shut down an opposing team’s outside shooting.
And then March came around, and high school’s version of Madness began. But the Longhorns stayed true to their way of winning.
On Saturday night, in historic White Auditorium, the Longhorns (24-1) did all of that, and then some, as they pounded the Pratt Greenbacks into submission, winning 60-45 for their second Class 4A-II state title in three seasons.
If there was a redemption season, this would be it. After winning the same crown in Hartman Arena in 2015, the Longhorns were stuck at home in 2016, after losing a third game to Hugoton in the sub-state finals.
But that was erased on a special Saturday night for the seniors, who close out their four-year career with an 89-9 won-loss record.
That pressure defense limited the Greenbacks (19-6) to just 32 percent shooting (16 of 50) and only 6 of 17 from behind the arc (35.3 percent).
The rebounding tandem of senior Conner VanCleave and junior Kobe Dickson once again was dominant on the boards, going for 15 and 10, respectively, to help the Longhorns win the rebounding battle 38-24 over the Greenbacks.
And then, it was VanCleave, the 6-7 senior who seemingly plays his best in the biggest of games on the biggest stage. All he did was take the heart out of any Greenback rally, time after time, and the result was a monster 31-point explosion on 13 of 16 shots, including 5 of 7 on three-pointers.
“It’s just a great feeling to get the last one my senior year,” an elated VanCleave said afterward. “I love my boys. They’re the best. We knew we had to have our best effort. Every time we’ve had a big game, the guards have come up big in many different ways.”
Indeed, credit Michael Roth, Brandon Stegman (2 more seniors), along with juniors Devin Mader (a pair of big 3-pointers), Trey Gilbert (4 assists) and Carter Blackburn (9 points off the bench).
“They stepped up big time,” VanCleave said of his teammates. “That was a great team we played, and we just were able to settle in, and I thought we did the things our coaches wanted us to.”
Roth and his backcourt mates only accounted for 12 points, but it was their smothering defense that stifled Pratt’s outside shooters, who also had been able to drive inside.
“Our coaches told us to build a wall defensively and not let them drive into the lane,” Roth said. “We were able to do what was necessary — get the ball to our bigs, and let them do their work.”
For head coach Chad Novack, it was especially satisfying to see his team play well throughout, as they never trailed in the entirety of the 32 minutes.
“We’ve stressed playing great defense all season, and I think we did an exceptional job of that tonight,” Novack said. “We wanted to limit them to one shot, and if they had shots, we wanted them to be contested.”
And while most people obviously will look at the massive effort, Novack said this, like all the other 24 wins this season, came because of the team.
“Credit the entire group,” Novack said. “The guards find our bigs, and they did an amazing job. It just shows how unselfish they are.”
VanCleave was the lone double-figure scorer for the Longhorns, but it didn’t seem to matter to anybody. All that mattered was the fourth state title in the school’s basketball history was coming back to western Kansas.
“I may have to enjoy this one more later,” said Novack, who now has two of his own as the coach, equaling the two of his father, Dave, who took Holcomb to a Class 2A title in 1986 and a 3A crown in 1992.
The victory also erased some bitter memories from the fall football season, when the Greenbacks rallied on two different occasions, the second time in the semifinal, to hand the Longhorns their only losses of the year as Pratt went on to claim the 4A-II grid title.
The only setback suffered by the Longhorns came in their first game of the season, when they fell to Class 5A Liberal, a team ranked in the top 10 at the time. On the way, they won the prestigious Dodge City Tournament of Champions with a big win over Class 6A Derby and won the tough Great West Activities Conference with a spotless 10-0 mark.
From the opening tipoff, it was the VanCleave offensive show as he scored the game’s first 10 points.
And they came in a variety of ways. A layup, a follow shot and then two deadly treys from the top of the key.
Pratt did finally get untracked, but the Longhorns were still ahead 14-7 at the end of one.
After the Greenbacks got back into some rhythm, closing the deficit to 16-13 halfway through the second, the Longhorns went on another 7-0 run to go up 23-13 at the 3:13 mark.
Blackburn came off the bench to spark the ’Horns with seven points in the quarter. With Dickson and Stegman on the bench saddled with two fouls each, it was left to VanCleave and his bench mate, Blackburn, to put the Longhorns up 31-22 at intermission.
VanCleave was well on his way to a double-double by the break, finishing with 15 points and 8 rebounds. Included in that stat sheet was three 3-pointers.
Pratt managed to get the game back under double digits right before the buzzer when Samson Kohman drained a deep trey with 0:01 showing. He topped the Greenbacks’ scoring with 10 in the half.
The Longhorns were 12 of 20 from the field (60 percent) while holding the Greenbacks to 8 of 25 (32 percent). The turnovers were 6-4 Holcomb to Pratt.