There are few Kansas high school basketball coaches with more years of experience than Mark Applegate.
After 36 years of being on the sidelines and guiding countless teams, Applegate has pretty much seen it all.
His first nine seasons of head coaching came at Montezuma, and for that nearly first decade of guiding a program, his Indians never qualified for the Class 1A state tournament.
That all changed in the 1991-92 school year when Montezuma consolidated with Copeland to form the new South Gray High School.
Since then, it has been a regular trek for the Rebels to Hays or Manhattan (in 2015-16 when they moved up to 2A) for the big dance of the small class schools in Kansas.
In the 28 years the school has existed, Applegate has taken the Rebels to the state 15 times, winning Class 1A (when it was just one class) three times — in 1997 (65-62 over Marais des Cygnes, going 26-2); and back-to-back titles in 2007 (45-41 over Central, 27-1) and 2008 (49-42 over Hanover, 25-3).
Over the last decade, his teams have played in eight state tourneys, with two title game losses, both to Hanover — a 58-49 setback in 2010 and a 60-36 lopsided loss a year ago.
Now, Applegate has his Rebels primed and ready for another deep run, this time bringing his team to Hays and Gross Memorial Coliseum with an unblemished 22-0 record and a team that has steamrolled its way through the schedule.
“Our guards are much improved and that’s helped us a lot (this year),” Applegate said Monday, two days before the Rebels open the Class 1A-I division with a 3 p.m. tipoff against No. 8 seeded Rural Vista (13-9). “We’ve gotten a lot stronger and we’re a year older.”
While Applegate says it's never easy to forget state title games, one could not blame him for bracket watching as Hanover, the No. 3 seed, sits on the opposite side of the bracket.
“You never take anything for granted, and if we’re fortunate to get by our first game, then we know we’ve got a tough semifinal,” Applegate said.
Thus far, nobody has really provided that oh-so-close challenge that all coaches would like to experience before a state tournament. But don’t blame him for that.
His current squad could become the first Rebel team to finish a season unbeaten.
That’s pretty heady stuff considering Applegate now sports a career won-loss mark of 650-214 (.752) and there’s nothing he would enjoy more than making his career championship game record at 4-4 with a win on Saturday against, who else? Hanover.
“There’s obviously some areas where we can improve, but we’re playing awfully well right now,” Applegate said. “Our guards are doing things this year that they couldn’t do last year. They’re penetrating the lane more, and they’re still able to knock down the 3-point shots.”
If one could ask for better balance in a high school team, look no further than Applegate’s starting five. They’re big (6-7 Gilbert Peters), and they’re balanced (three starters in double figures, and two others average 6.2 and 8.1 points).
“It’s awfully hard to guard Gilbert inside without help from someone who’s on our guards and our guards do a good job of sharing the ball (the team averages 18 assists per game and account for 63 percent of their field goals with an assist).
“We can always rebound the ball better,” Applegate said. “Defending can always be improved, too.”
Applegate likes the fact that most of his current squad played in the 2017 state title game, so there’s a vast amount of experience he puts on the floor.
“They’re comfortable going there and playing in that environment,” Applegate said. “I think Hays is the best place to play a state tournament. It’s got a great atmosphere.”
Perhaps this will be the venue where somebody finally challenges the Rebels.
Thus far, only two teams have come within 20 points of the Rebels — both Spearville and South Central — and those were 18 point margins. Through 22 games, the Rebels are averaging 73.7 points while giving up just 33.1 points, a plus-40.6 winning margin.
The team is shooting 52 percent from the field overall, 36.3 percent from 3-point range and making 68 percent of its free throws. They are a plus-16 rebounding team and have a better than 2:1 ratio of assists to turnovers.
“We’re just taking much better care of the ball (averaging just 9.4 miscues while forcing opponents into 20 turnovers a game),” Applegate said.
As many outstanding teams as he’s had at South Gray, Applegate says this squad reminds him of his 1993 team on defense while the offense doesn’t resemble any previous Rebel squad.
“Defensively, we cover a large area and we’re quick and long, and move well,” he said. “We’re shooting a higher percentage as a team. I don’t think they look like any other team I’ve had, but they’re pretty good.”