When Shane Traughber was named the head boys basketball coach at Johnson-Stanton County High School last spring, there was one thing he wanted to be sure transpired.
He wanted to arrive in the southwest Kansas community early in the summer to be on hand to take the reins of the Trojans program and get familiar with his new team as soon as possible during the summer workouts allowed by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
“We were able to get in some MAYB events, and I quickly discovered that this group of kids love the game,” Traughber said on Monday, two days following his team’s dramatic 46-42 victory over favored Spearville to win the Class 2A sub-state championship in Syracuse.
That victory propelled the Trojans into the state tournament which for the boys begins Thursday in Manhattan at Bramlage Coliseum where they will take a 16-6 record and a No. 7 seed into their quarterfinal match-up with No. 2 seeded 21-1 West Elk.
It marks the first time since 2000 for the Trojans to earn a berth in the state tourney, meaning the last time they made the trek east most of the current roster of players had either just been born or were still in the planning stage.
That trip saw the Trojans play in their first state championship game, losing a 71-47 decision to powerhouse Pittsburg-St. Marys Colgan.
This year’s trip will be the ninth in school history, making trips in 1949, 1953 and 1966 when it was a Class B (second smallest class) school. After the school was re-named Stanton County, the Trojans have made trips in 1973, 1983, 1983 and 1999, with the 1983 trip also resulting in a loss in the championship game, 75-52, to Canton-Galva.
But as far as Traughber is concerned, that was then, and now is today.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the season,” Traughber said after the Trojans dispatched of their toughest foe in the sub-state tourney in which they also manhandled Elkhart (66-36) and Hodgeman County (58-40). “This group of kids have dreamed of this moment since they were little kids. They want to be coached, and they listen to what we want them to do.”
The leading scorer and rebounder is 6-5 junior Creed Puyear at 15.9 points and 9.9 rebounds. Predominantly an underclassman-dominated roster, the Trojans’ remaining starters are 6-0 junior Michael Aleman (8.1ppg), 5-11 junior guard Victor Molina (3.8 ppg), 6-3 junior post Jalen Tucker (4.4ppg, 3.9rpg) and senior Alexis Molina, a 5-10 point guard who led the Hi-Plains League in assists at 6.5.
“It’s been exciting to see the community get behind the boys and it’s just been a great experience for everyone,” Traughber said. “But we’ve had our ups and downs, and had our challenges during the season, too.”
Learning new roles, players challenging for starting positions, to name a few, Traughber said.
“Just buying into the team and coming together was a big hurdle for us,” Traughber said. “Earning their trust last summer and building relationships has been a big thing.”
The biggest challenge, perhaps, during the regular season was when the Trojans had a bit of humble pie dished out at the HPL tournament when they crashed and burned against Cimarron, getting pummeled 48-28 and then losing the third-place game to Meade the next night,52-47.
Since then, however, the Trojans finished off the season 8-2.
“I think the kids went in thinking we were going to roll over and it didn’t turn out to be that kind of a deal,” Traughber said. “I wouldn’t say the kids quit that night, but we were certainly deflated. Our level of intensity went down and it took us a game or two to get back on track.”
A victory over West Elk would advance the Trojans into Friday’s semifinal, a 4:45 p.m. game with the winner of Pittsburg-St. Marys Colgan/Plainville game.