Longtime Hillsboro High School boys basketball coach Darrel Knoll probably thought he had seen it all. But how could he have possibly known that the state tournament in 2020 would be canceled after the first round of games? After beating the two highest-ranked teams in 2020, the HHS Trojans were just two wins away from claiming the Class 2A title. Then COVID happened, and the state tournament was canceled.
“Needless to say, it left us feeling a little short-changed, and feeling like there was some unfinished business,” said Knoll.
In spite of the disappointment, Knoll looked at the bright side, saying, “I do know the guys were proud of their accomplishment last year, and ending the season with a win does have its perks.”
The Trojans continued to experience success in 2021 and ultimately won the Class 2A State Tournament, but no one said it would be easy. They won several games in dramatic come-from-behind fashion, including a buzzer-beating win in the sub-state finals against Hutchinson Trinity.
“We were able to grind out low-scoring wins, and also win by scoring 80+ points,” said Knoll.
On paper, it looked like Hillsboro would ultimately have to beat Hoxie in the state tournament, the only unbeaten team in 2A, but Hoxie was soundly beaten by Wabaunsee in the semifinals.
Wabaunsee entered the state tournament with an unimpressive record, but COVID-related issues set them back. “Also, anything can happen at the state tournament,” said Knoll, “so I was not totally surprised when they beat Hoxie. They were on a roll. Wabaunsee had played good competition all year and had nothing to lose. Sometimes, it is really tough to be the #1 seed in a tournament.”
Speaking of competition, the Trojans faced plenty of good competition of their own in the Central Kansas League, including Class 3A State Tournament Champion Hesston H.S. Playing such strong competition can be a good thing, according to Knoll.
“I think it is because teams have to raise their level of play to compete. It is also good to have a few games that are not down to the wire. Last year, we lost several games with a last-second shot, or that came down to the final 30 seconds or so. Everyone we lost to had five or fewer losses. So we knew we were very good; we just needed to execute better at the end of games.”
Knoll loves touting the ability of his players. Here’s what he had to say about many of his student-athletes, although I know he would and could say more if space allowed.
Brekyn Ratzlaff – Excellent point guard who makes everyone around him better. Smart on both offense and defense. A tremendous passer, big shot maker, and a true competitor.
Matthew Potucek – Athletic, tough, hard-nosed competitor. When it gets tough, Matt gets tougher. Can defend multiple positions, is hard to defend, and he is a playmaker. Shot 65% in the fourth quarter this year.
Grayson Ratzlaff – Rim defender, clutch rebounder, match-up problem for opponents, highlight-film-maker with his multiple dunks. Smart competitor. Plays to win (shot 72% in the fourth quarter this year).
Tristan Reed – Excellent defender who can guard multiple positions. Has a way of making big plays at key moments – a key steal or a huge rebound.
Dillon Boldt – Solid defender, excellent role player, hit big shots throughout his career, and an excellent teammate.
Duncan Duell – Brings energy and enthusiasm. Guarded extremely well in the post. Offensive rebounder!
Carson Linnnens – Energy guy! He has great ups and can shoot it deep.
Frank Wickert – Frank competes hard, has a great attitude, is a true team player, and continually improves his game. He makes a difference on the team both on and off the court!
“I loved the competitive nature of this team!” said Knoll. “They were resilient, mentally tough, and had a never-quit mentality—and a true TEAM down the stretch this season. They understood that teams win championships, and they played with that goal in mind. We continually improved and had fun doing it!”
One of my biggest mistakes and oversights as a sports columnist for the Hillsboro Free Press has been taking coach Knoll and his accomplishments for granted. For that, I apologize. I will attempt to rectify that by writing more about him in my next column. He deserves some special kudos.