Trying to pick the top Bullpups a difficult task

By Steve Sell
December 10, 2015

Kyler Kinnamon’s induction on to the McPherson High School Wall of Fame this Friday got me to thinking about his spot in the Bullpup pecking order of all-time hoop greats.

As everyone knows, McPherson High is at or near the top of high school basketball royalty. It has been an All-State basketball factory, many of whom were stars long before I arrived on the scene in 1979.

It’s perfect fodder for an argument. When I talk with older Bullpup fans (those even older than me who go back 50 or 60 years), they remain loyal to George Czaplinski and the original Tom Pyle, who went on to play at Iowa State. They are names some of the current generation probably can’t recognize. Dave Leach’s name often comes up as well and if you go way back, Gaylen Rodgers averaged more than 20 points his senior year in 1953 when scoring was much lower.

As sad as it seems, there’s a whole generation of Bullpup fans who probably don’t know who Steve Henson is, still in my book the gold standard whom all others are judged by.

There’s many different avenues you can take in trying to figure out “the all-time best five.” There are legitimately 20 or 25 players who could be considered. I look not just at scoring, but rebounding, defense and passing.

Even if you expand it to a Top 10, there are players who would be left off that would be No. 1 had they played for other schools.

The late, great Jay Frazier often told me that Vic Chandler, who played in the early 1970s, was the best all-around player he ever coached, which is the highest praise possible. Chandler was cat-quick and, of course, McPherson High’s first All-State All-Class football player who went on to play at Kansas State. Old-timers tell me that Czaplinski, who few probably know has the all-time MHS single-game scoring record with 44 points against Abilene in a 1958 regional game (it would have been more with a 3-point line), was the purest shooter in the last nearly 60 years.

Both could very well be in the Top 5. But my list can only deal with the players I’ve covered since 1979, though I did go to school with Jeff Kline at Independence Junior College, where he was one of the most clutch players I’ve seen in my lifetime. I don’t know how many big shots he hit for the Pirates during their glory days, but I can still remember him throwing that fadeaway jumper from the deep corner, then falling into the stands as they were right next to the out-of-bounds line.

Here’s my Top 5 in my 37 years of covering Bullpup basketball, so it’s only players from 1979 on.

1. Steve Henson — Somebody is going to have to be pretty special to ever supplant him as my all-time No. 1. Henson went on to become an All-Big 8 player at Kansas State and played several years in the NBA and overseas. What made him so special was his athleticism and I’ll never forget the first game of his career as a sophomore. Some MHS fans were annoyed that new coach Mike Henson would have the audacity to start a sophomore, especially his own son. All he did was pour in 29 points and pull down 14 rebounds (which was his career high) and won the fans over with his hustle, constantly diving for loose balls. And he was the first Bullpup I saw dunk.

2. Josh Alexander —  The last — and the best — of the Alexander triumvirate though they probably argue that among themselves. He wasn’t the shooter like older brothers Todd and Chad, but he is one of the best competitors I ever saw and simply so strong. Also, he was a terrific passer and on defense, he had hands of a cat burglar. He went on to great careers at Hutchinson Juco and McPherson College, making first-team NAIA All-American for the Bulldogs.

3. Christian Ulsaker —  A scoring machine. He went head-to-head with Perry Ellis in the finals of the 2011 McPherson Invitational and dominated the matchup with 39 points, though Heights won the game because of unconscious 3-point shooting. He reminded me of Josh Alexander in how hard he competed. He’s finishing his final season at Washburn.

4. Jordan Fithian — The most dominant big man I’ve covered at MHS. He’s the second all-time leading scorer and leading rebounder in MHS history despite the fact he was the focus of opposing teams’ defenses. He went on to play at Binghamton University before finishing his career at Emporia State.

5. Kyler Kinnamon —  This was a tough one. It was evident from his first game as a freshman he was going to be a star. Sixth man that year, a starter the last three years. If Henson is the best point guard to play at MHS, Kinnamon is 1A. He made some passes that were amazing and defensively he’s still the most disruptive force ever because of his quickness, which is what gave him the final spot because he could affect a game in so many ways. He’s stepped into Fort Hays’ starting lineup this season due to an injury and has averaged 13 points ever since.

I can’t leave it at five. Here’s six more that certainly are worthy.

1. Ryan Herrs —  If he had played for anybody else, he would have averaged 30 points a game and I make him my sixth man as I was that torn about picking between him and Kinnamon. A tremendously skilled and graceful big man. He had a nice career for Wichita State.

2. Brian Henson — Henson could flat-out fill it up when he was in the zone. He was able to carve out a nice Bullpup career even though he had the enormous pressure of growing up in his brother’s shadow. Played for a time at Kansas State, finished up at Washburn.

3. Andy Berlin — The most underrated Bullpup of all time in my opinion. Like Herrs, had he been the No. 1 option for a team, he would have scored 30 a game. He was part of a balanced team and may be the best-shooting big man I’ve ever seen. He enjoyed a solid career at Washburn.

4. Brad Underwood — Like Brian Henson, he could put up big numbers, including one year where he had 70 points in back-to-back games. Underwood, now the head coach at Stephen F. Austin, was a nightmare for defenses as he had range up to 25 feet, but was powerful on the inside as he had a great post-up game. After a year at Hardin-Simmons and a year at Indy Juco, he played his final two years for Jack Hartman at Kansas State.

5. Chad Alexander and Matt Robins —  I couldn’t decide between the two, so I just picked them both since this is my column and my rules. Very gifted offensive players and Robins reminded me so much of Steve Henson both facially and the way he played the game. Alexander later played key minutes on a Final Four team at Oklahoma State, while Robins was a solid player at Western Illinois.

So there you have it. Let the arguing and complaining begin. Remember, it’s just one man’s opinion.