It’s often said the hardest part about winning state is getting there in the first place.
Everyone knows McPherson High’s top-ranked and undefeated boys should be in the field for the Class 4A Division I State Tournament next week at Salina’s Bicentennial Center.
But there’s this little matter of getting through the sub-state this week at Hays.
The state didn’t do the defending 4A D-I champs any favors. Not only do the Bullpups make the long bus ride (as do two other teams), but Hays and Buhler probably believe they're state-worthy as well.
But this has been a dominant Bullpup team. They stepped around a potential land mine against Wichita Heights in the McPherson Invitational, then gutted out a win at Andale on a Tuesday following the midseason tournaments the previous weekend. Both teams actually appeared to be out of gas and that was the point in the season the flu was infiltrating both camps.
The Bullpups are hell-bent on getting back for the chance to defend their state title. Last year’s team relied on chemistry as much as talent, but this year’s team is among the deepest in MHS history. The second five that coach Kurt Kinnamon puts on the floor could have been competitive with much of AVCTL Division III.
Last year, the Bullpups had to have All-Stater Kyler Kinnamon score big to win. But with the addition of Payton Stephens and the development of the other players, there have been games where Kinnamon has taken no more than a half-dozen shots. He is averaging nearly three points a game less than a year ago and to date, has taken 46 3-pointers compared to 118 last year.
But he’s still clearly one of the best five players in the state — an honor he achieved last year. He has made countless passes that cause fans to say, “how did he do that?” and averages 6.6 assists and 3.5 steals a game. He’s a hounding defender and few, if any, have quicker hands. He would just as soon make the game-winning pass than a game-winning shot.
Stephens gives the Bullpups the inside muscle they lacked last year. A year ago, the Bullpups counted on the cerebral Horton twins to use their cunning and guile, as well as length, around the basket to get the job done. Stephens is pure, brutish strength, though he’s trying to overcome a knee injury.
Drew Pyle, last year’s state championship game star, has built off that momentum for a terrific season, developing into one of the state’s best 3-point shooters and can use either hand when driving to the basket. More than that, his development at the defensive end is a tribute to his determination to be the best all-around player he can be.
Nathan Nutter is the high-energy guy who brings it every night. Kinnamon never has to tell him twice about going after loose balls, every time one’s on the floor you can bet he is in the middle of the scramble.
Spenser Wine has been solid as the fifth starter, capably augmented by Avery Gabel, who got the nod until Wine returned from an injury. All of the top six players shoot it better than 50 percent from the floor.
Marcus McDaniel, Jacob Loecker, Ben Pyle and Mason Alexander give the Bullpups high-level play off the bench as Kinnamon often goes 10 deep.
The depth is the beauty of this team. If one, or even two, players aren't at the top of their game, somebody else will step up.
MHS also has a huge advantage on the sideline. No coach works harder in preparing his team for a game than Kinnamon, who studies hours and hours of game film hoping to find his team that edge that it can exploit. There's a reason he's won 400 games in 20 years at MHS, it didn't happen by accident.
Here's the hoping the Bullpups clear their sub-state hurdle this week. Given that 4A D-I may be the deepest class in Kansas, they certainly need to be in the field to prove to the best they are the best.