To hear Kurt Kinnamon talk throughout the season, his McPherson High boys basketball team looked like something out of “Hoosiers.”
Kinnamon often quipped about the Bullpups’ lack of physical presence. His two tallest starters combined could be used to clean a gun barrel. If games had been decided by which team could bench press the most, the Bullpups might still be looking for their first win of the season.
But who needs to be physical specimens when you play the game like the boys from Indiana’s mythical Hickory High did? Not once did they ever get “caught watching the paint dry,” as Ol’ Shooter used to say in the movie.
This was old-school basketball and for the Bullpups, old school was cool, right down to their “Pup Cuts.” They could play fast, they could play slow. There were games they wanted to play at 78 rpm’s, but their opponents were stuck at 33. No matter, it was adapt and survive. There were no fancy dunks, no clear-outs to go one-one one, no trash talking, no woofing. It was Jay Frazier textbook basketball, Mike Henson basketball, Kurt Kinnamon basketball and, most of all, McPherson basketball.
This team will forever be known as the “B-52s.” In December, their banner will go up in the Roundhouse rafters, the 52nd banner in school history. A whopping 20 of those are because of basketball, 12 for the boys and eight for the girls.
The pros often talk about “playing for the ring.” At McPherson, it’s all about “playing for the banner.”
Unlike other schools, there are no league championship banners in the Roundhouse. This is an exclusive club, members only. This is basketball’s version of Augusta National and the Masters. This is only for the best of the best. If you’re not the best in the state, you’re not admitted. Same goes for the Wall of Fame, it’s only for the best. All that’s missing is the green jacket, in this case, the red jacket.
Kinnamon said early in the season that he thought this team had a chance to be good. It rockingly rolled into the prove-it McPherson Invitational with an unbeaten record, but he knew the Class 6A-laden competition in the three-day event would show if it was a legitimate contender or just a pretender propped up by a so-so schedule.
In the first round, this team suffered the ignominious honor of being the first McPherson team since 2001 to lose in the first round as No. 8 seed Wichita North (which actually later advanced to the 6A State Tournament) hit MHS in the mouth with a 24-point first-quarter haymaker and the Bullpups couldn’t beat the 10-count. Dismayed MHS fans stayed away in droves the next two games of the tournament and the team could be forgiven if it had felt abandoned.
But the Bullpups pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. They raced through the rest of the regular season as though they had a plane to catch. AVCTL Division III was nothing more than a 10-game formality, even though El Dorado wound up advancing to the Class 4A Division I Final Four and Winfield nearly made it three out of four teams as it lost to Paola by the closing seconds of the first round. Think of that, it could have been a D-III block party, with Hayden the only invited guest.
Before state, though, the Bullpups had one more demon to exorcise. They had to get past a tall-and-talented Abilene team that they had lost to the year before in the sub-state semifinals, still to this day the most devastated I’ve ever seen an MHS team after a loss. The Bullpups had led that game 17-3, only to see Abilene roar back to win, 59-55.
The Bullpups took care of the Cowboys this time around and then when looking at the state bracket, started to realize this was their tournament to lose. Highland Park was back in 5A and Ottawa was Semi-less, as the remarkable Ojeleye is now sitting the bench at Duke. The tournament that had been so loaded with an embarrassment of riches in 2013 was populated with teams with 12, 10, 9 and 8 losses. It was like, yikes, what happened?
The Bullpups opened with a comfortable victory over a 10-12 Kansas City Sumner team that simply couldn’t shoot the basketball once MHS went to a zone defense about a minute into the game. There were enough bricks from this one to build a house.
The Bullpups held the Sabres to nine — that’s right, nine — first-half points. MHS experienced some malaise in the third quarter, but closed it out for the expected victory.
I kept thinking during the game, though, how tight this team looked. Kinnamon said he didn’t think it was enjoying the experience of playing at state. It was playing with one hand around its throat.
Paola was next up in the semifinals. If a team ever made the Bullpups feel physically inferior, this was it. The Panthers had a 6-7 senior-looking sophomore in Mason McDow, who if Kinnamon was the coach would have been locked on the block and told not to move. McDow is so gifted athletically that you can find his highlight reel on You Tube, just Google it. Kinnamon would give his buttery putting stroke on the golf course to have a 6-7 player of McDow’s ilk. Instead, McDow spent much of the game casting away 3-pointers, much to the Bullpups’ satisfaction. He did start to charge to the basket in the second half, which sent his production soaring.
The Panthers also had a springy 6-5 forward in Lucas Wilson, who after punching his alarm clock at halftime came out and simply took it to MHS. The Bullpups had no answer.
This game, in retrospect, was for the state championship. Paola was terrific while the Bullpups remained somewhat tight. They were taken into overtime where Kyler Kinnamon somehow, some way was able to make a 9.8 out of 10-degree of difficulty shot with his off hand to put the Bullpups ahead, then Drew Pyle swooped in to block a potential game-winner by Paola’s Cole Jorgensen to clinch it.
I still didn’t think the Bullpups had shown their true colors. Going into the finals, I said to Kinnamon before the game I thought his team would come out smoking.
For a quarter, I was wrong. Hayden, a very patient and frustrating team to play because it was in no hurry, stayed right with the Bullpups, down just 9-7.
But in less than four minutes, the game was over. Pyle, just a sophomore who I just hoped would take a deep breath before the game because he had been the tightest of all, played Saturday like his pulse rate was nonexistent. It was a 1 and a 2 and a 3 — and 3 strikes, Hayden, you’re out. Pyle’s three rainbows (not to mention a layup) accounted for 11 straight MHS points. The Wildcats never recovered and MHS kept the game in double digits the rest of the way.
This was the ninth boys’ MHS title team I have covered. I’m not sure where to rank this one in the context of the others, but it is without question the best team I’ve ever covered in terms of team chemistry, even more than the perfect team of 1994.
These guys were like the Dirty Dozen and joined at the hip. Everything they did, they did as a band of brothers. The best example was at the trophy presentation when senior Keshawn Sewell, whose season ended in December when he broke his leg in the closing moments of a practice, was chosen to receive the championship plaque and the honor of being the first to hold it high over his head, a moment that he’ll cherish until he’s old when he can tell his grandchildren about it. It was not put to a vote, every player knew the emotional ride Sewell had been on, losing his final year just when he was starting to figure everything out on how to best apply his remarkable physical gifts.
This was such a fun team to be around, even for an old codger like me. The affable Horton twins were always good for laughs and the ringleaders. With MHS winning the state championship, all four Horton siblings have won state titles.
The twins have a chance to win another state championship this spring as they’ll be one of the top doubles teams in the state in tennis. Opponents don’t know which one to hit it to because they look just alike. Heck, they could switch sides during a match and their opponents probably wouldn’t be able to tell.
Sewell was the only other senior and I hope he fully recovers to win a state championship in track and field. Fort Hays State had the good foresight of signing him, not just for his ability, but for the person he is.
Kyler Kinnamon is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to Steve Henson in a Bullpup uniform from the standpoint he would rather make the great pass than the game-winning shot to put his team in the state championship game. Like Henson, he probably could score 25 or 30 points if he really concentrated on shooting. He is, however, without a doubt the best defender I’ve seen in all my years. If an opponent dribbles in front of him, it’s like putting a piece of cheese in front of a mouse, he’ll snatch it away in a blink of an eye.
Pyle, of course, goes down in Bullpup lore for his 21-point state title game. But he’s got two more years and if he could put on 25 or 30 pounds, look out. He’s got a lot of live up to given his pedigree, but he showed Saturday just how tough mentally he can be.
Nathan Nutter was the Bullpups’ closest thing to a physical presence in the starting lineup, though he shared playing time with the sculpted Spenser Wine, who reminds me of a right-handed Dwayne Chandler. Both players, who went against norm for the Bullpups physically, improved by light-years and will be cornerstones next year.
Avery Gabel was another Bullpup who charged down the stretch in terms of maturation. He had no fear in taking the ball to the basket and if he got knocked down, he got right back up and tried again.
Marcus McDaniel, the eighth man in the rotation, was like Wine and Gabel in that he could have started for a lot of teams. He gave some valuable minutes Saturday, spelling the normally indefatigable Kinnamon and hit a clutch layup during a key moment in the game.
This team had seven sophomores who saw time on the varsity and right behind them are a good group of freshmen, not to mention one of the best eighth-grade teams I have seen — ever.
Then, of course, there’s Kinnamon and his coaching staff. The steady Gordon Peck has now been on the bench for nine state titles, five under Kinnamon and four under Henson. He’s a rock who certainly someday belongs on the MHS Wall of Fame for all his contributions as he started the MHS baseball program as well. John Lujano brings unmatched fire and passion to the table, not to mention a myriad of snappy one-liners. Dustan Kanitz is the film man, breaking it all down and getting the ninth-graders ready for the varsity level.
Finally, there’s Kinnamon. As he approaches his 50th birthday shortly, he’s put together a Hall of Fame resume. And he’s not done, given what he has coming back and what’s coming up. There seems to be no signs of burnout, as he seemingly was put on this earth to coach high school basketball.
I’ve been around a lot of coaches during nearly 40 total years of sports writing and nobody is more prepared than Kinnamon. I watch him prepare for a game, pouring over miles and miles of film (now it’s actually discs). He and his staff had every team broken down going into state so there would be no surprises.
To the public, they see a coach who gets his message across in a booming manner or an icy stare that can melt an iceberg. Maybe his greatest attribute, though, is that he cares. All you needed to see was his face right after the game Saturday and the tears that once again streamed down because he was so proud of his team. He didn’t want to win the state title for himself, he’s been there, done that multiple times. He wanted it for this special group of kids. It’s happened five times while at MHS and hopefully it will happen five more times before he’s through.