Steve Blue, Melvin Herring, Mitch Fiegel and Kurt Kinnamon have seen the future, and the future is now.
“It’s great to have really good players who are seniors,” said Kinnamon, in his 21st season as McPherson’s boys basketball coach. “But it makes you feel even better when you have really good players who are younger because you know they’re only going to get better.”
It’s a great year for sophomore basketball players in and around Wichita and those coaches are reaping the rewards.
Kinnamon has 6-foot-6 Ben Pyle, the latest from a family that has produced outstanding Bullpups since the 1960s.
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Eisenhower’s Blue has a sophomore point guard, Dylan Vincent, who averages nearly 18 points and would have big-time value even if he averaged 10 fewer points.
Israel Barnes, who plays for Herring at Southeast, is one of the best prospects to come along in the City League in a while and another whose family basketball heritage is strong.
And Cody McNerney, a key component to Fiegel’s Collegiate team, is the son of Jim McNerney, who played basketball at the University of Wichita in the 1950s.
What these players have in common is work ethic, determination and an inordinate skill level rarely seen by their coaches, who have seen a lot.
“Cody is special and Cody’s been special as a basketball player since he was a little boy,” Fiegel said. “It’s no surprise where he is today but it sure is nice to be able to watch him develop and mature and turn into the guy we thought he could be.
“When guys are little, it’s all about potential. But to watch that potential turn into reality, that’s something that’s always very satisfying to see.”
None of the coaches bristled at the term “super sophomore” to describe their player. How could they? All are instrumental on teams with a combined 71-9 record headed into sub-state games this week.
McNerney averages 12.9 points, shoots 63 percent and takes only eight shots per game. On a team with eight seniors, he understands his place, Fiegel said.
“What is it that makes some guys just different? It’s guys that know when to pass, when to shoot and how to consistently make the right decision,” Fiegel said. “And if you’re going to fall into a category of ‘super,’ then you’ve got to be able to make baskets in a variety of ways. You’ve got to be a shooter, a driver, an assists man and you’ve got to be able to guard.”
McNerney, Fiegel said, has an innate understanding of basketball and the desire to become the best he can be.
“He has the ability to blend in but also to pop out when he needs to,” Fiegel said. “And that’s a pretty unique trait.”
Barnes, whose father, Todd, and uncle, Val, were outstanding players at South, averages 19.7 points. And if there’s a can’t-miss player among these four sophomores, it’s probably him.
“There’s still room to grow, most definitely,” Southeast’s Herring said of the 6-3 Barnes, who also averages seven rebounds and three assists. “He’s just tapping into how good he can really be. But this is a kid who puts in the work, even after practice. He’ll stay for an hour or two after we’re done and shoot. He’s all about basketball, grinding every day.”
Ditto for Eisenhower’s Vincent, a guard who has an uncanny way of making shots in big moments. He made a three-pointer this season to send a game against Andover Central into overtime, a game Eisenhower won.
“We’ve been watching Dylan play since he was in the seventh grade and we always knew he had a lot of skill,” said Blue, in his 12th season as a head coach. “He’s a great kid who listens and does everything you could ask of him from a coaching standpoint.”
Vincent averages 6.6 assists and shoots 45 percent from three-point range.
“His skill level and feel for the game as a sophomore — you pretty much don’t get that during a coaching career,” Blue said. “He has such great feel for basketball already.”
Coaching players with this kind of ability and the potential to become even better is a responsibility. But you can tell from listening to these coaches that they consider themselves lucky.
“The beauty about Cody is that he’s embraced our older players,” Collegiate’s Fiegel said. “A lot of really good players like that don’t think they need anybody to help them. But Cody isn’t shoving his game in anybody’s face. The great players don’t have to shine when you’re playing against a team you’re going to beat by 25 points. But when push comes to shove, guys like Cody are going to be there.”
McPherson’s Pyle also knows when it’s time to step forward and when it’s time to defer to the Bullpups’ veterans. That might be because his senior brother, Drew, is averaging 22.9 points.
“There’s a pretty good comparison to be made between the two of them,” Kinnamon said. “Drew started for state championship teams as a sophomore and a junior and I’m seeing similar development with Ben.”
The Pyle basketball legacy in McPherson started in the 1960s and Kinnamon is hesitant to start naming all of the Pyles who have contributed to the Bullpups’ success for fear of omitting someone.
Ben Pyle, though, has a chance to be one of the best.
“I think his ceiling is probably wherever Ben wants to set it,” Kinnamon said. “He’s a gym rat and the thing he has that Drew doesn’t is about three inches.”
Ben, who averages 14.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and shoots 52 percent, is already an outstanding perimeter shooter, Kinnamon said, but has to learn to be more effective with his back to the basket.
“He has to recognize that when he’s being defended by a guard, he’s able to take those guys inside,” Kinnamon said.
In other words, Pyle isn’t yet perfect. Nor are any of the other super sophs. But they’re closer than a sophomore should be.