Varsity Basketball

State recap: 12 Wichita-area teams fight to state title game berths

Andover puts on an offensive showcase over Pittsburg in first 5A state tournament appearance

The Andover Central High School boys basketball team beat Pittsburg 78-61 in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Kansas Class 5A State tournament.
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The Andover Central High School boys basketball team beat Pittsburg 78-61 in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Kansas Class 5A State tournament.

A kick (or elbow) in the teeth

Bishop Carroll high school boys basketball alex littlejohn
Bishop Carroll’s Alex Littlejohn Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

Early in the second quarter, Bishop Carroll sophomore Alex Littlejohn took an elbow to the face, caught his front left tooth out of the air and ran to his coach.

He wasn’t in a panic. He handed it to Mike Domnick, ran back onto the court and scored a bucket before the next dead ball. He finished tied for a game-high 19 points and 10 rebounds in the Golden Eagles’ 87-70 win over Bonner Springs on Thursday. Domnick said when Littlejohn handed him the tooth, he wasn’t shocked to see him keep playing.

“That’s Alex,” he said.

Littlejohn is an all-City League first-team 6-foot-3 forward with the nickname “Relentless.” Domnick said he will go after any ball no matter how far away he is on the court, making him “a joy to coach.”

Senior Gunner Lynch, who shared Littlejohn’s title with a game-high and career-high 19 points off the bench, said he didn’t know exactly what was going on until he turned around during a pair of Bonner Springs free throws.

He saw Littlejohn searching the far end of the floor in front of the Bonner Springs student section. Lynch said he heard the Braves fans shout, “There it is,” and put the pieces together after the game.

“Alex will never give up,” Lynch said. “He will get on the ground for every ball and on the board for every shot. In practice and games, he’s the only one that will go up every time.”

Thursday was the second time this season Littlejohn has lost his front left tooth. He said the first one happened against Wichita South in the second game of the season. He kept playing and only afterward had it glued back on. Littlejohn said it was only a matter of time until it came out again, especially the way he plays.

“I just want to play,” Littlejohn said. “I don’t want to be taken out just because my tooth came out. I knew we were still playing, and there isn’t any time to worry about yourself.”

Littlejohn and Lynch were key to Carroll’s biggest offensive performance since a 103-102, five overtime thriller against Kapaun Mt. Carmel in the 2016-17 season.

The Golden Eagles out-rebounded Bonner Springs 44-24 with 16 coming on the offensive glass. They out-assisted the Braves 22-11. And out-shot them by 17.7 percent.

Carroll, which normally slows the game down and finds the best shot, kept up with the Braves’ up-and-down pace and got out to a 42-19 lead before Bonner Springs started to mount a comeback. It never got within eight.

With the win, Carroll reaches the state semifinals and will play the winner of Salina Central and Basehor-Linwood. A matchup with Salina Central would create a rematch of last year’s Class 5A state championship game, which Carroll won 43-41 in overtime.

“We will feed the beast inside, but then you have outside shooters like Carson Lee, Tanner Mans and Carsen Pracht,” Domnick said. “When you run the offense we do, and we share the ball like we do, we’re tough to stop.”

Fourth straight semifinal

andover central high school boys basketball xavier bell, easton leedom
Andover Central’s Xavier Bell and Easton Leedom Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

When Andover Central’s big three heard how many points it combined for Thursday, each one of them smiled and started laughing.

Junior Xavier Bell and seniors Easton Leedom and Braden Belt totaled 67 points in the Jaguars’ 78-61 quarterfinals win over Pittsburg in the Kansas Class 5A state basketball tournament. They will be rewarded with the No. 1 team in the tournament, Maize.

Bell, Belt and Leedom were 25 of 49, including 11 of 25 from three-point range. Together, they said they have helped build a brand, reaching their fourth straight state semifinal in their fourth straight state tournament appearance.

“I’ve been playing with (Belt) since third grade,” Leedom said. “It’s just cool to see all the work we’ve put in since that time is finally coming together. Being here really means a lot to me.”

Andover Central coach Jesse Herrmann has watched his big three develop from a group of wide-eyed freshman who struggled to string wins together into one of the most dominant trios in Kansas. He said it never gets old to watch them combine with some of Central’s role players like Shomari Parnell, Jerome Goosen and Ty Herrmann.

“Those three can obviously score the ball, but our other guys do so many things to fit in and make this team go,” Jesse Herrmann said. “When you don’t have players that are constantly getting theirs and can share the ball, and when you have guys that are willing to go do the dirty work, that results in a good team.”

Andover Central jumped on Pittsburg early and finished the first quarter with a 19-11 lead, capped with a threaded pass into the paint from Leedom to Herrmann.

Feeding off a packed student section, the Jaguars rained three-pointers in the second quarter and finished the half 6 of 12, including 3 of 4 from Belt. The floor opened up, and the pace increased, and though Pittsburg finished almost 40 percent from three, the Dragons couldn’t keep up.

“This is just fun; we’re just having fun,” Belt said. “We just love to go out and hoop.”

Thursday marked Central’s first state tournament win in Class 5A. Since moving up from 4A-Division I, the Jags have proven capable of hanging. The quarterfinals win showed they are apt to win it all, Bell said.

“We are capable of competing with anybody on any level,” he said. “We’re a small 5A school, and it just shows that we are putting in the work, maybe even more than anybody else and that we deserve to be here just as much as anybody else.”

During the past four years, Andover Central hasn’t made it past the round it faces Friday. Leedom said if the Jaguars make it through Maize, he will probably start to cry.

“That would definitely be the greatest moment of my life,” he said.

Thunderous statement

MAIZE high school boys basketball caleb grill
Maize’s Caleb Grill Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

Off the opening tip, Maize senior Brandle Easter Jr. tossed what looked like a corkscrewing shot.

It wasn’t. Senior Caleb Grill soared in from the left corner, snared the pass and rocked it home for what coach Chris Grill called a “showtime” alley-oop. It was that kind of day for Maize, which finished with a 83-56 win over eighth-seeded St. James Academy in the quarterfinal round of the Class 5A tournament in Emporia.

Caleb Grill finished with 23 points. The Eagles lived above the rim with a barrage of dunks, including a sweeping finish at the rim from senior center Devon Koehn.

He started on the left wing, lowered his left shoulder and drove inside for the flush. He was so in the zone, he said, that he didn’t even feel the defenders around him.

“If you get a dunk, it puts the other team’s self-esteem down,” Koehn said. “Once we get a dunk, it just gives us the energy we need on both ends of the floor to go get the dub.”

This year marks Maize’s first appearance in the state tournament since 2015. The team’s seniors have never stepped foot on as big a stage, but they handled it with grace as five Eagles finished in double figures.

  • Caleb Grill - 23 points
  • Cade McGaugh - 14 points
  • Devon Koehn - 12 points
  • Chase Schreiner - 11 points
  • Brandle Easter Jr. - 10 points

State-tournament basketball might be new to them, Caleb Grill said, but it doesn’t feel that way. Last season, Maize played in the Dodge City midseason Tournament of Champions and beat state-bound Wichita Heights and state champion Bishop Miege.

Chris Grill said going through those types of experiences have been vital for the No. 1 seed in Class 5A.

“It feels like a midseason tournament but a little bit bigger,” Caleb Grill said. “We just have that same energy that we had in that tournament and brought it out here.”

St. James Academy entered the 5A tournament as the No. 8 seed with eight losses, but Caleb Grill said playing in the tough Eastern Kansas League makes a lot of those losses understandable. The Thunder entered with losses to the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Miege and Blue Valley Northwest.

On Thursday, they shot 50 percent from three-point range, going 12-for-24. Junior Jack Moellers scored 21 points in the loss.

Maize has not cruised to the state semifinals. The Eagles have played some of the best teams in Kansas, including state qualifiers Bishop Carroll and Salina Central, Campus, Eisenhower and rival Maize South. They won those games by an average of 10 points.

Thursday was different. Their coach said the 27-point quarterfinal win might be the team’s best performance, top-to-bottom, of the season.

“We’ve played a few really good games earlier this year,” Chris Grill said. “But I think that was the best we’ve played against a really good team.”

A 6A state tournament record

derby high school girls basketball tor’e alford, jaidyn schomp, sydney nilles, kennedy brown
Derby’s Tor’e Alford, Jaidyn Schomp, Sydney Nilles and Kennedy Brown Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

The Derby girls hear the chatter, but coach Jodie Karsak said that won’t affect them again.

Derby set a Class 6A state tournament record for the fewest points allowed in the Panthers’ 60-27 quarterfinal win over Shawnee Mission Northwest on Thursday at Koch Arena. Karsak said it’s on par for them.

“Heading into the tournament, we were a defensive output of 29 points a game and averaging 50 a game offensively,” she said. “We joke around in the locker room that we were going to be a big Mack truck and that we want people to feel like they got hit.”

Derby hasn’t lost since last year’s season-opener. With undefeated Liberal going down to Olathe Northwest in the quarterfinals, the Panthers are the only unbeaten team left in Class 6A. All signs point toward a Derby repeat.

Karsak said they talk about blocking out the noise a lot.

Derby’s closest game this season came at home against Newton, a team with players the Panthers are friends with off the court. Karsak said her group lost focus in that game, and it showed.

Derby won by nine. It was the Panthers’ closest game this season. But they are committed to seeing every game through, Karsak said.

“We talk a lot about not being complacent,” she said. “Outside of the Newton game, they have just bought in, and I think they’re just having a lot of fun. You can just tell it’s working.”

The Panthers were well-balanced Thursday. Seven players scored at least six points, but none added more than 10. Senior center Kennedy Brown finished with a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. She also led the team with five assists.

With the win, Derby will play No. 3 seed Washburn Rural (21-2) at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Been there, done that

Garden plain high school girls basketball lauren danahy
Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

For the second straight year, Garden Plain is into the state semifinals.

Coach Kody Kasselman said his girls performed as if they had been there before in the Owls’ 52-40 quarterfinal win over West Elk on Thursday.

“The girls didn’t get too up tight,” Kasselman said. “Even when we didn’t play as consistently as we liked, they pulled through. They played a very mature game tonight, and I think that was the difference.”

Garden Plain point guard Lauren Danahy finished with an unheard of 18 rebounds. Kasselman said that was evidence enough that this year’s group of Owls don’t care who get on the stat sheet, only that the work gets done.

With the win, Garden Plain, the No. 4 seed at 19-4, will play top-seeded Wabaunsee (21-3). There is history between the schools, even this school year.

Garden Plain beat Wabaunsee to win the Class 2A volleyball state championship in the fall. Many of the girls play multiple sports, so there will be a lot of familiar faces when the teams meet at 3 p.m. Friday in Hays.

“Those experiences are invaluable,” Kasselman said. “Because they’ve been through similar situations, they never get too high or too low. They come out and go to work and stay the course. They’re fun to watch. Sometimes I wish they’d have a little bit more emotion, but it’s good because when things aren’t going well, they gather themselves and get back after it.”

Wednesday’s Winners

Click here to read on the Wichita area teams that clinched their semifinal berth Wednesday

  • Wichita Southeast, boys
  • McPherson, girls
  • Trinity Academy, boys
  • Augusta, boys
  • Cheney, girls

State Brackets

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Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Wichita Eagle preps reporter Hayden Barber brings the area updates on all high school sports while adding those hard-to-find human-interest stories on Wichita’s student-athletes.

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