With three starters and four letter-winners returning from last year’s 18-5 team, the Hillsboro boys are positioned for another successful run this season.
“I think we have a lot of upside on this team,” said Darrel Knoll, who is 418-146 as he enters his 25th year as head coach. “We just have to embrace that, build on our strengths and try to shore up some of the areas where we need it.”
The Trojans would have had four starters returning, but junior Christian Ratzlaff aggravated a knee injury in the first days of practice and will be lost for the season.
“I feel really bad for him,” Knoll said. “He put so much into it and was looking forward to the year.”
The loss of Ratzlaff is disappointing but not devastating for a team that brings back a lot of talent and athleticism.
Heading the list is another junior, Bret Weinbrenner, who was a unanimous all-league selection as a sophomore. The 5-foot, 8-inch guard averaged 10.2 points, three assists and 1.5 steals per contest.
“Bret brings the ability to handle the ball and I think he’s improved his footwork quite a bit over the summer,” Knoll said. “Those parts of his game will make him better for his all-around play.”
As the floor general, Weinbrenner will carry a host of responsibilities.
“He’s going to have to be on the floor a lot of minutes and embrace his role of running the offense, whether that’s getting to the basket or creating an opportunity for others.”
Knoll said Weinbrenner’s outside shot is showing improvement, too.
“He can give us the pull-up jumper as well as the outside shot, and he does have the ability to finish around the basket even though it always seems like he’s going against guys who are taller than him,” Knoll said. “He finds a way to get the ball in the basket.
“I’m looking for him to have a great year. He’s got a lot of basketball I.Q. and plays so tremendously hard. He’s not content with where he is. He wants to improve in aspects of his game.”
The two other returning starters, Shaq Thiessen and Josh Wiebe, are seniors.
Exploiting his speed and athleticism, the 5-10 Thiessen enjoyed a breakout season last year, contributing a team-high 11.6 points to go with four rebounds per game.
“Shaq can attack the basket and he gets down the floor so fast,” Knoll said. “His outside shot is pretty good, too.
“Shaq has all kinds of ability to make plays within the system,” he added. “We’re looking for him to do the same things. Defensively, we’ll continue to work with him to improve. I think he’s defending pretty well so far.
“If he keeps shoring up his game, he’s just going to get better and better.”
At 6-2, Wiebe stepped into the post position and averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per outing.
“One thing that has struck me about Josh from last year to this year is his ability to move on the perimeter,” Knoll said. “It seems like his quickness and his physical stature is just so much stronger.
“He’s going to present a tough matchup for various teams. I think he’ll be able to play a little more inside and out, and we’ll be able to move him around a little more and utilize his abilities.
“He’s a solid rebounder and good passer. I think he’s going to have a really good year, too.”
Evan Ollenburger was a starter early last season, then shifted to a sixth-man role as the season progressed. As a sophomore he averaged three points and two rebounds per game, but his impact extends well beyond traditional statistics.
“I just like how hard Evan plays,” Knoll said. “He has a way of making all the plays other people don’t. He takes charges, gets loose balls. He’s willing to set screens. He can harasss people into mistakes just because of the way he plays. He’s willing to do whatever he needs to for us to be successful.
“You’ve got to have a guy like Evan on your team,” he added. “I just really like his toughness. He plays with such desire to win.”
Judging from early practices, Knoll believes Ollenburger will be even more productive this season.
“His game has improved a ton,” he said. “We worked on his shot all summer. He’s been pretty good so far in practice.”
The loss of Ratzlaff will create an opportunity for other players to fill the void at guard. Leading candidates are seniors Tyler Proffitt and Harry Faber and junior Jesse Brown.
Proffitt is off to a tentative start as an ankle football injury heals.
“Tyler had a really good summer,” Knoll said. “We just need to get him healed up so he can play at the level he needs to. He’s one of those guys that can step into that role.
“Harry’s really a scrappy player. He’s a good offensive rebounder and plays really hard. When he gets hot, he can really light it up. He had several games last year when he put up a lot of points in a JV game.”
Knoll said Brown brings quickness to the table.
“If he can step up and find his role where needs to be, both defensively and offensively, he can definitely help the team.”
To help in the middle, Knoll has two more seniors in the mix: Josh Richert and newcomer Josh Davidson. Both are 6-2.
“Davidson is a big man who right now is trying to fit into a new system,” Knoll said. “Richert plays really hard in practice. They’re a couple of guys who are working hard and hopefully will be there.”
Knoll said all nine players—and possibly an underclassman or two—will be needed to step up when opportunity knocks.
“We want to play as fast as we can—that’s no secret to anybody,” Knoll said. “For us to do that, we need to be able to bring a few guys off the bench to maintain that level of play.”
The Trojans finished third in the Central Kansas League last season with a 7-2 record. Knoll expects them to be in the thick of things again this season.
“We should be battling for the top spot,” he said. “I would be disappointed if we’re not.”
He sees Lyons, Hesston and Pratt being in the hunt, too.
“We’ve got some challenges to overcome to get us there, but if we stay healthy with the people we have and build the depth, I think we’re going to be a pretty solid and competitive team, especially down the stretch,” he said.
With the good team chemistry and supportive attitude he’s seeing in the preseason practices, Knoll is confident of at least one thing: This team will give its best effort.
“That’s really what you want every year,” he said. “You want to win all the games, you want a great record. But what you really want at the end of the year is that we got the most out of us that we could get.”
Hillsboro will open its season Dec. 4 when the Trojans take on the host team at the Moundridge Preseason Tournament. Inman and Lyons will join the four-team, round-robin format.