Falls City High Saturday night in Seneca, KS captured a 10th consecutive victory and the Thunder (formerly Raider) Classic Championship with a commanding 67-52 win over Jackson Heights.
Officially, it was the first annual Thunder Classic; unofficially, it was the 35th January tournament at Nemaha Central High (formerly Nemaha Central) and FCHS has participated in all but two of them, dating back to 1982. It took the Tigers 24 years to win it, but since that 2006 title, FC has been crowned two more times (‘10 and ‘15) and finished runner-up twice (‘13 and ‘14).
Saturday’s win over the 10-2 Cobras was the Tigers’ 10th in a row, dating back to a Dec. 20 loss at Class B Plattsmouth (currently 10-4). Consequently, the 15-1 Tigers have steadily climbed up the ratings, coming in fifth in this week’s Lincoln Journal-Star’s Class C1 Top 10. FC is just one of three C1 teams (unbeaten No. 7 Ainsworth, 13-1 Winnebago) remaining with fewer than two losses. Furthermore, this senior class is now 62-8 since the beginning of the 2012-13 season.
Saturday, Falls City bolted out to a 16-6 lead and took a 33-17 lead into halftime. The hot starts at this point are more than a trend — FC is averaging a 17-9 lead after one quarter and last week went up 14-7 and 33-15 in a 56-30 semifinal thrashing of Marysville, KS; Tuesday led Hiawatha, KS 14-9 and 33-24 in a 56-35 first-round victory; and the previous Saturday went up 29-10 by half in a 61-50 road win at Elmwood-Murdock.
“The kids come out ready to play – when you have mainly seniors starting, they understand what needs to be done,” FCHS Head Coach Don Hogue said. “We’re so much more focused and intense and teams struggle.
“Thursday, our transition game was unbelievable – I think teams see that and it gets in their heads. They worry about stopping this or that, which allows us to just play,” he said.
Falls City has won eight in a row by double digit margins and soundly beaten a pair of teams with exemplary resumes: 13-2 Milford, which hasn’t lost since that Saturday afternoon in Auburn more than three weeks ago; and Jackson Heights, which boasts one of the top players in the area in 6-2 junior Zane Richter. The guard only increased his 27 ppg. scoring average last week, setting a tournament scoring record with 101 points in three games, which included 40 in a 71-65 semifinal win over the hosts and 30 against the Tigers, a team with a renowned defense-first mentality and one that entered Saturday’s game holding its opponents to fewer than 44 points per night. Richter broke the three-game scoring record set by John Crider, 1998 Mr. Kansas Basketball and KU Jayhawk.
“He (Richter) made some unbelievable shots,” Hogue said, “I mean, from 26- and 28-feet out. A kid like that will put his team on his back – he shot it 19 times, which was half their shots.”
It takes more than one man, though, to beat this Falls City team, which has four guys currently scoring double-figures every time out: seniors Jack Hartman (14.7 ppg.), Weston Witt (12.1) and Jordy Stoller (10.8), and sophomore Kyle Leafty (10). Each one of those seniors makes better than 63 percent of his free throws, led by Witt, who’s shooting a team-best 74 percent from the line. Stoller was called upon to guard Richter, who, despite the gaudy total, scored just eight points in the first half.
“Richter got loose on us some in the second half – maybe we felt too good about ourselves at half – but this was a great convincing win against a very solid team; one that will win a lot of games.”
Hartman scored 24 on an extraordinarily efficient night, even for a kid making 63 percent of his shots. He was 9-of-11 from the floor, which included a three-pointer, and 7-for-10 at the stripe.
Stoller finished with 16, and Leafty scored 13 to go with seven rebounds. Senior Zach Jordening also had seven boards, four of which came on the offensive glass.
The Tigers’ playmaking was at an all-time high, with both Witt and senior Trent Pentecost dishing out six assists. Stoller, Leafty, Hartman and Jordening each also produced multiple-assist games, as FC finished with 22 — twice that of the Cobras and better than a 3-to-1 turnover ratio. Falls City’s seven turnovers was nearly half its season average. Furthermore, the Tigers owned the glass (24-15).
“Our turnovers have been down and our free throw shooting has been good, too,” Hogue said. “We came out and did what we needed to do to get the lead and then maintained it. We played super defensively in the first half against a very good offensive team. They had a good transition game and superb shooters all around.”
Thursday night, FC manhandled Marysville for the second time this month, despite an 0-for-11 night from the three-point line. The Bulldogs didn’t make any, either, and were a collective 14-of-43 from the field. The bulk of those stray shots were tracked down by the Orange and Black, who won the battle of the boards 34-18. Hartman finished with a double-double, scoring 13 to go with 12 rebounds and four assists; Leafty had 12 points and eight rebounds and Jordening scored nine and added four assists. Witt had easily his coldest night of the year shooting the ball (4-of-21), but contributed seven assists and five rebounds.
“The players came out focused and ready to compete,” Hogue said, “which was a concern of mine since we handled them so well just a couple weeks ago. We didn’t shoot very well, but battled on the boards.”
FC, the No. 1 seed, oddly had the 3:30 p.m. tip Tuesday and methodically dispatched of an out-manned Hiawatha team, using a 2-3 zone in the second half to limit the Redhawks to 11 points.
Hartman got into some foul trouble and took just four shots (making them all), but Stoller (14 points, five steals), Witt (13 points, eight assists) and Leafty (10 points, four rebounds) picked up the slack. The Tigers were 12-of-17 from the free throw line.
Falls City gets some much-needed time off, after playing six games in 11 days. The Tigers have just one game scheduled the next 10 days: They travel to Class D1 No. 6 NC Lourdes Friday. The Knights are 13-3 and last week beat Auburn by 34. The Tigers are then off until the weekend of Feb. 6-7, when they travel to Class B No. 5 and 13-3 Seward, and return home the following night to face another Class B opponent, 8-4 Crete.
“We’re basically giving them Tuesday off,” Hogue said. “It’s good for them and for the coaches to get away a little bit.”
SCORING vs. Hiawatha
FC — Stoller, 14; Witt, 13; Leafty, 10; Hartman, 8; Heckenlively, 5; Stutheit, 4; Pentecost, 2.
Hia — Smith, 8; Kunkel, 7; Lock, 6; Winters, 4; Reese, 4; Barnhart, 3; Pierce, 3.
SCORING vs. Marysville
FC — Hartman, 13; Leafty, 12; Jordening, 9; Witt, 8; Stoller, 6; Pentecost, 4; Chapple, 4.
SCORING vs. Jackson Heights
FC — Hartman, 24; Stoller, 16; Leafty, 13; Witt, 10; Pentecost, 2; Jordening, 2.