By everybody’s memory, it would have been difficult to predict the future of one of southwest Kansas’ best high school basketball players.
Even his coach had difficulty knowing if the physical size and athleticism would catch up to the basketball savvy of his young player.
Certainly understandable when the player was simply a gangly 5-foot-7, 145-pound guard as a freshman.
By the time he joined the varsity team as a sophomore, he was 5-10 and about 170 pounds, eventually growing to 6-0 his junior season and then blossoming into a 6-2, 195-pound senior.
That’s how Glenn O’Neil remembers Ron Baker, who would eventually go on to star at Wichita State University and is now playing for the NBA’s New York Knicks.
The former Scott City standout had finally matured into a man-sized guard his senior season with the Beavers, and it was his leadership with a relatively young supporting cast of players that lifted his team to the Class 3A state championship in his senior season of 2011, the only time he played in a state tournament.
Baker’s stellar season earmarked him for greatness, and through the past decade, only a couple of players have approached the dominance that he demonstrated during his final two seasons with the Beavers, and especially in his final year when the Beavers went 25-1, losing only to Class 6A Dodge City in the title game of the Dodge City Tournament of Champions on the Demons’ home floor.
For his performance, The Telegram has named Baker as the Boys Player of the Decade, a time frame that covers the 2008-09 season to the just recently completed 2017-18 campaign.
“The thing with him is that he always had the skills,” O’Neil said recently in a telephone interview from his Topeka home, where he now coaches football at Topeka Seaman High School. “He always had the passing, and shooting skills and the court sense, but he made the big jump his senior year.”
O’Neil said Baker’s dedication in the weight room was instrumental in the physical development.
“To go from no dunks his junior year, to be able to dunk it pretty easily his senior year, was honestly quite amazing,” O’Neil said. “He was a little bit of a late bloomer.”
O’Neil described Baker as a nice player when he was a sophomore (9.5 points per game in just 13 appearances).
“He caught up with everybody his junior year and then he passed about 95 percent of the kids in Kansas his senior season. He always had great leadership skills," he said.
But there was always the one thing that bothered O’Neil, and that was Baker’s unselfishness on the floor.
“Halfway through his junior year, we had a talk and I told him, ‘You gotta kind of take over. You’ve been at the varsity level and you’re so unselfish, you’re hurting us. Nobody’s gonna have hard feelings if you take more shots," O'Neil said.
O’Neil insists as good as Baker was his junior (19.6) and senior (20.4) seasons, he could have scored so much more.
“His stats could have been better,” O’Neil said. “We had a lot of blowouts where Ron didn’t play much in the fourth quarter of games. He always wanted to get other people involved, but at crunch time, he wasn’t afraid to take over.”
The biggest moment of what became a storied career, one of which legends are made, came in Baker’s final high school game, the Class 3A state championship in 2011 against Minneapolis.
With the score tied at 53, and the Beavers in possession of the ball and a timeout with six seconds showing on the clock. The Beavers had the inbounds play come from their sideline. Baker took the pass, dribbled toward the left elbow of the free-throw lane, and being well-defended, passed to teammate Brett O’Neil in the far left baseline corner. The shot came up short and bounced off the rim toward Baker, and a teammate tipped the ball out, Baker grabbed it and powered his way in for a winning layup with 2.6 seconds left and clinching Baker’s first state title in his only state tournament appearance.
“That’s what the great players do,” O’Neil recalled of the big-time play. “I told him it was his time. It was appropriate that he finished it for us.”
A brief look at the remaining top 5 all-decade team:
Drew Kite/Trey O’Neil
With two other Scott City players on the top five, it is easy to understand how a team could be so dominant over a five-year period. From 2011 to 2015, there was Baker, then Drew Kite and Brett O’Neil sharing POY honors, and then a two-year Trey O’Neil atop the all-area list.
“Drew had a late growth, also,” O’Neil said of Kite. “Not a lot of people could play with him 1 on 1 in the low post. He was 6-4, 220 and just a tough, tough inside presence. He was surrounded by good players, too, and I think they all just fed off each other.”
Kite was the singular POY his senior season when the Beavers claimed their third consecutive 3A state title, averaging a double-double to cap off a stellar career.
"He became a very good inside force for us," O'Neil said of Kite. "He was so strong that once he got the ball on the low block, he was pretty tough to stop. Plus, we had other players who complemented him so well, that it was difficult for anybody to double team our kids."
And of the youngest of his two sons to star on his Beaver teams, O’Neil paused, and then described the strengths of his standout guard.
“He was so streaky with his shooting that he could get a lot of points in a hurry,” O’Neil said of Trey. “He’d try to get everybody involved. He’s a good passer and has good court sense and could take over when he needed to. He could have the big nights when we needed them, but his focus was more on the team getting wins.”
O'Neil had an eye-popping 40-point plus outing his senior season, and was a sharp-shooter from the 3-point arc.
"I haven't had too many players that enjoyed just being a gym rat anymore than Trey," coach O'Neil said. "I think the thing that helped him the most was him being a little younger than Baker, Brett and Drew and they toughened him up. Plus, he simply didn't like to lose."
If there was another player that can be spoken of in the same breath as Baker, it would be Holcomb’s VanCleave.
A three-year starter, and a four-year varsity player who played in three state tournaments with a pair of state championships on his resume, VanCleave was the dominant player of 2016 and 2017.
The 6-7 forward, who had the ability to post-up on the inside, or slip out to drain a 3-pointer, versatility would be the best way to describe VanCleave’s basketball skills.
“There really wasn’t many things he couldn’t do on the floor,” Holcomb coach Chad Novack said at the end of VanCleave’s senior season in 2017 following the team’s second Class 4A-II state title in three seasons. “Whatever weakness a team had, we’d be able to put Conner somewhere to be able to take advantage of that.”
Novack said VanCleave was just one of those “special” kids that comes across once in a lifetime.
“The approach he to practice with every day and he had a vision that he wanted to win every single possession is something you don’t coach,” Novack said. “He wanted to outwork every single person. We’ve had a number of wonderful players here, but his ability to make others better around him sets him apart.”
Whether it was inside or outside, Novack said the fact he could insert him anywhere made the Longhorns that much better and was a vital part of the two state championship teams on which VanCleave played.
“There’s not many 6-7 high school kids who can bring the ball up the floor, shoot the 3, post-up, or drive to the bucket,” Novack said.
VanCleave scored more than 1,400 career points and had more than 1,000 rebounds in his four-years, averaging 14.6 points and 10.6 rebounds for his prep seasons. His senior season, he saved the best for last, averaging 18.8 points and 13.9 rebounds in capturing his second straight player of the year honor.
“If you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it to the best of your ability,” VanCleave said at the conclusion of his senior year. “Give everything you’ve got. That’s what I’ve always grown up knowing.”
For nearly four decades Mark Applegate has had his share of outstanding basketball players. Multiple state championships have been won, but his teams had never accomplished one item until the just completed 2017-18 season, and that came in the form of a 25-0 unbeaten state championship, the first in school history.
Heading that group was the latest POY for the Rebels in Peters, a massive 6-7 inside presence, who also could shoot the mid-jumper. Rebounding also proved to be a strength for Peters, who averaged 16.6 points and 10.8 rebounds in leading the Rebels to their dream season.
“This year, he worked really hard and in the offseason he worked to get in better shape than he was last year,” Applegate said of his towering inside defender. “He’s worked to make the players around him better, too, and that showed all year long.”
Over the past decade, the Rebels have had another POY in guard Chase Clancy and several other all-area selections, but none dominated in the way Peters did.
He averaged nearly four blocks a game his senior season, but also displayed a wide array of skills by recording 76 steals and handing out 74 assists.
“Gilbert bought into the idea and realized real quick that, when he got the ball, he was going to draw a crowd. Somebody was bound to be open, and he had the ability to find that person. He was more mobile and more of a leader this year.”
The All-Decade Top 5
Ron Baker, Scott City
Career Stats: (3 yrs). Points: 1,103 (17.8ppg); Rebounds: 367 (5.9rpg); Steals: 263 (4.2spg); Assists: 192 (3.1apg). Senior season avg. 20.4ppg; 7.5rpg; 4.6spg; 3.0apg.
Team Record During 4 years: 71-20.
State Tournament: Defeated Minneapolis 55-53 for Class 3A state title; Scored 26 points in championship game.
Honors: Wichita Eagle and Topeka Capital-Journal All-State, All-Class Top 5.
College: Walk-on and then scholarship player at Wichita State University (2012-15); Now playing with the New York Knicks in the NBA.
Conner VanCleave, Holcomb
Career Stats: Points (1,416, 14.6ppg); Rebounds: 1,024 (10.6rpg); Double-doubles: 52 career; Senior season averaged 18.8ppg, 13.9rpg.
Team Record During 4 years: 88-9
State Tournament: Class 3A, 2014, lost first round; Class 4A-II state champions, 2015; Class 4A-II state champions, 2017.
Honors: Class 4A-II KBCA Player of the Year, 2017.
College: Baseball scholarship to the University of Kansas.
Drew Kite, Scott City
POY: 2012/2013 (Co-Player of Year with Brett O’Neil in 2012)
Career Stats: Points (1,122); Rebounds (699). Averaged 19.9 points, 10.1 rebounds senior season; Shot 69 percent from the field, 75 percent free throws.
Team Record During 4 years: 92-9
State Tournament: Played on 2011-12-13 Class 3A state championship teams, beating Minneapolis, Nemaha Valley and Humboldt.
College: Basketball scholarship to Fort Hays State University (3 years); played football at FHSU, 1 year.
Trey O’Neil, Scott City
All-Area: 2014/2015 (2nd team, 2013)
Career Stats: 1,519 points; 422 assists; 391 rebounds; 260 steals. Senior year, 22.6ppg; 4.7rpg; 6apg.
Team Record During 4 years: 96-7.
State Tournament: Class 3A state champions, 2012/2013/2015; Class 4A-II state runnerup, 2014.
Honors: 2015 All-State, All-Class, Wichita Eagle and Topeka Capital-Journal.
College: Scholarship to Fort Hays State University (Has played 3 seasons for Tigers; entering his senior year for 2018-19).
Gilbert Peters, So. Gray
All-Area: 2018 (2nd team, 2017; 3rd team, 2016)
Career Stats: 1,181 points (12.1ppg); 721 rebounds (7.4rpg); 185 blocked shots; 172 steals; 213 assists.
Team Record During 4 years: 86-8.
State Tournament: 2018 Class 1A-I state champions, undefeated 25-0 record, 1st in school history; 2017 Class 1A-I state runner-up; 2016, Lost 1st round, Class 2A state; 2015, Lost 1st round, Class 2A state.
College: Undecided at this time. Also is defending Class 1A shot put and discus champion in track and field.