Shortly after the Kapaun Mount Carmel boys qualified for this week’s Class 5A basketball tournament in Topeka, the inevitable topic of possible first-round opponents came up. Kapaun first-year coach John Cherne was told he definitely didn’t want to draw perennial championship contender Highland Park as a first-round opponent.
“I said, ‘why don’t we want Highland Park? We’ve been through seven Topeka Highland Parks every night this season, why don’t I want one?’” Cherne said.
Cherne’s right. By playing in the City League, arguably the state’s best boys basketball league, Cherne knows Kapaun will be ready for any opponent.
“The City League is a gauntlet,” Cherne said. “You watch the show Wipeout, and they call it a wipeout, and no way a person can get through it. That’s what we just went through.”
The City League advanced four boys teams to state tournaments — Heights and North in Class 6A, Kapaun and Bishop Carroll in 5A. And there’s no doubt that each team has been specially prepared for the difficulties of the postseason.
Take Kapaun (13-9) and Carroll (11-11), which finished fifth and sixth in the City League. They certainly weren’t the favorites from the City League to get to state, but there’s no doubt they’re more than capable because of their league experiences.
“What would have surprised me is if they performed poorly,” said Heights coach Joe Auer, whose team beat East in the sub-state final in their fourth meeting this season. “Kapaun Mount Carmel took us to overtime. Carroll made us fight tooth and nail to get both our wins over them. They both had successful years and maximized their talent. I don’t think any of us are surprised in 6A. We all appreciate how hard they play in the regular season.”
The City League continually produces top talent, but this season’s was clearly one of the best in the past decade. The talent starts with Heights senior Perry Ellis and North junior Conner Frankamp, who are largely considered two of the best players in league history.
Ellis and Frankamp are both headed to Kansas, but there’s other players who made their marks — Heights’ Terrence Moore (Emporia State signee) and Gavin Thurman (Missouri State signee), Northwest’s Craig Nicholson (Fort Hays State signee) and East’s Jalen Love (Denver signee).
Cherne, who played basketball at Carroll and graduated in 1987, most recently coached in Tennessee for seven seasons.
“We saw players of that caliber, but it was once and done,” Cherne said. “Overall, there’s a lot more college talent here.”
When Carroll played Andover Central on Friday night, Eagles coach Lonnie Lollar took from his experiences over the past season, including facing Heights and Ellis.
“It’s not like we see a trapping, aggressive defense three of 20 games. We see it almost every night, even though we don’t always handle it right, so that helped us,” Lollar said.
Facing Ellis may have helped the Eagles gameplan for Andover Cental senior Jorden Kaufman, a 6-foot-11 Oral Roberts signee.
“Our game plan, trying to guard Kaufman, was similar to what we tried to do with Perry Ellis,” Lollar said. “We did a fairly good job against Perry at our place.”
Carroll held Kaufman to nine points on 4-of-11 shooting.
City League games consistently prepare teams for opponents, no matter what they bring — transition offense, pound it inside, man defense.
“Playing that type of schedule prepares you for whatever you need to battle against,” North coach Gary Squires said. “Let’s face it, you get to sub-state and the game is not as fast. I’m not knocking other teams, but they’re not as athletic. In the City League if you overplay or try to deny or double team, you’re getting back-doored or dunked on.”