Kyler Kinnamon and Nathan Nutter had been here before.
But for McPherson High’s third senior, Payton Stephens, it was a brand-new world.
Kinnamon, Nutter and Stephens were the senior backbones of a Bullpup team that completed a perfect 25-0 season Saturday night with a 74-60 victory over previously undefeated Basehor-Linwood in the championship game of the Class 4A Division I State Tournament at Salina’s Bicentennial Center.
For Kinnamon and Nutter, it was their second go-around to hold the state championship plaque high in the air as they experienced the elation last year. Had the Bullpups not defeated Basehor-Linwood, they would at least have had the satisfaction of winning the state title once, but they obviously wanted to go out on top.
But Stephens may have had the broadest smile of any Bullpup on the floor when the crush of picture-taking took place following the game.
The 6-4 center had moved to McPherson with his family prior to the start of school in August after playing at Manhattan, which didn’t take it too well that he had transferred. Ironically, he wound up playing against his former teammates in the championship game of the McPherson Invitational, with the Bullpups winning in resounding fashion. He had to endure the hurtful taunts from the Manhattan student section that had so wildly cheered for him in the past, but the experience only made him tougher mentally and reinforced in his mind that he had made the right decision.
To boot, he went out for football — something he hadn’t done since his freshman year — and all he did was develop into one of the best wide receivers in the state, often making spectacular catches on throws by Kinnamon, the team’s quarterback.
But he was far more interested in catching passes from Kinnamon high above the rim so he could throw them down with authority. The two had played together on the same summer AAU team and had formed a bond. Kinnamon was probably the main reason Stephens asked his parents to make the sacrifice to leave their friends at Manhattan and take a chance on enjoying success at McPherson. It turned out be a perfect union.
Stephens was understandably nervous at the start of the season. He was joining a team that was coming off a state championship and returned three of five starters and its entire supporting cast. He was “the new kid” and all he wanted to do was fit in and be “one of the boys.”
It didn’t take him long to realize how things were done “the McPherson way.” He was just what the Bullpups needed — an athletic, big body with the ability to score and rebound. He was powerful around the basket and could run the floor like a gazelle. But he also knew he was surrounded by some outstanding players and all he had to do was his part and not try to do too much.
Stephens saved his best for last. He was the top scorer in the state tournament with 57 points, including a monster game against Basehor-Linwood on Saturday with 24, making 8 of 11 floor shots and 8 of 9 free throws.
After the game, he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“It means a lot to win a state championship,” Stephens said. “It means a lot to say I won one and that I won it here. It was so much fun. It went so fast. It was such a great group of guys and so much fun to play with them. Everyone knew what the feeling was like last year, but I didn’t. And I wanted that feeling. I trusted my teammates and we were all very close. It was a special feeling.”
Stephens was indeed the missing link for this team. Granted, the Bullpups would have been plenty good to make a run for a state title had he not moved in, but his presence took the pressure off of Kinnamon to score and allowed Nutter to play with boundless energy and not give away four or five inches to bigger players.
Nutter had one of his biggest games of the year Saturday. He came up with three first-half steals and finished the night with 10 points. As usual, he played all-out, sacrificing his body by diving for loose balls and flying through the air to grab rebounds.
“I just brought the little things that mattered, the little things that nobody notices,” said Nutter, who was maybe the most unsung player on the team. “Getting a little tip on a ball or getting back on ‘D’ in transition. I just did what helped the team win.”
Nutter said the Bobcats may have been the best team the Bullpups have faced in their back-to-back championship run, a period that saw them win 48 of 49 games.
“They were really good, they’re up there with the best teams,” he said. “They were very physical. There were times when we got down, but we kept our composure and bonded together as a team. We got nervous (when Basehor got within two in the third quarter), but we started talking on defense and got it together.”
For Kinnamon, it was his final game as a Bullpup and he’ll certainly go down as one of the best players in the school’s storied history. Two state championships, two All-State All-Class first-team selections (this year’s team will be announced soon, but he’s already been informed) and most of all the Bullpups were 85-10 in his four years. It’s a good thing they lost only the 10 games, because nobody took a loss harder and more personally than the 5-11 guard.
“I wasn’t nervous. I, personally, trusted my teammates,” said Kinnamon, who had to stew on the bench for much of the first half after back-to-back ticky-tack fouls landed him a seat as he had picked up three total. “I knew they would pick me up. The third quarter was big because I didn’t pick up my fourth foul. I was able to play a lot more aggressively in the fourth quarter.”
Kinnamon took only three shots in the game, but canned 8 of 8 free throws as he expertly ran the Bullpups’ spread offense in the final period. MHS used the fourth quarter to work on its free throws, as the Bobcats extended the game as long as they could until it was finally futile. MHS as a team made 30 of 41 for 73 percent — which was its season average.
Kinnamon, who generally is a man of few words as he lets his actions do his talking, summed it up best: “We had a core group of guys who knew what it was like how to do it and how to take care of business. It’s a great feeling. I don’t think it gets any better than that.”