The year was 1986 and the McPherson High boys were the odds-on favorite to win the Class 5A state basketball championship.
The Bullpups were paced by future NBA player Steve Henson, who led a strong cast of seniors that also included Tom Pyle, Jeff Goering, Erik Berlin, Rich Manor and Mike Aplin.
They had lost their first game of the season to Hutchinson at the Sports Arena, but then ripped off 19 straight wins, most of them blowouts.
A month earlier, the Bullpups had defeated Buhler for a second time 77-58 as Henson had the best scoring game of his career with 39 points, on the road no less. The teams earlier had played in the McPherson Invitational finals, with MHS scratching out a 57-51 victory, but the 19-point win at Buhler seemingly had signaled the Bullpups should be able to punch a ticket to state.
The sub-state championship game was to be played at Buhler. MHS had advanced to the finals by romping past Salina South and was hitting on all cylinders.
Anticipation for the third meeting had fans apoplectic because this was the days before Baker Field House. Buhler’s old gym was small and cramped and MHS fans had been saying for weeks that if the teams met in the finals, there were going to be problems.
There were. It wasn’t uncommon in those days when MHS would fill more than half the gym with its fans, often more than 1,000 attending. When the sub-state finals came about, it was a mess of epic proportions as more than 500 fans were turned away. Some outraged MHS fans later contacted KSHSAA, bewildered that a school could be allowed to host a sub-state when it didn’t have the capacity to handle a big crowd.
Then, of course, MHS wound up losing 50-47 as Buhler played a tremendous game. All that did was steam the Bullpup fans even more. It was perhaps the most gut-wrenching loss in Bullpup history. To this day, it’s a game then-Bullpup coach Mike Henson doesn’t like to talk about.
Fortunately, Buhler eventually constructed a new gym. There’s far more seating and it’s been able to hold crowds for the MHS-Buhler games as fans simply don’t travel like they did 30 years ago. But that could be tested Friday.
Baker Field House still doesn’t hold nearly what the Roundhouse can. And the way McPherson fans have followed their teams this year, my advice to them is this: get there early as you can. Snooze, you lose.
I would suggest arriving no later than 5:00. There’s good freshmen games to watch as both Bullpup teams are outstanding. The varsity girls start at 6:00, but my guess is the place will be near or at capacity when tipoff begins.
The McPherson girls should be a solid favorite in their game, but as long as Buhler’s wondrous Jessica Steffen has breath in her body, the Crusaders have a puncher’s chance. She’ll join the likes of Robin Baker and Diana Miller in Buhler basketball lore as she’s been one of its all-time greats. She has the respect of all MHS fans, who have watched her for four years with her bedeviling style of driving to the basket and getting to the foul line. Next year the rivalry won’t be the same without her.
The boys’ game is major league. Buhler gave MHS a tremendous game in the first meeting and it’s the finale for Jace Williams and Noah Webster. Williams is one of the best athletes I have covered in my 40 years and Webster has transformed himself into a great player. Buhler will come out with incredible intensity, it’s up to the Bullpups to match it.
Here’s to hoping everybody can get a good seat and we don’t have a repeat of 1986.