Having tasted the sweetness of state tournament play a season ago, Coach Darrel Knoll and his Trojans are focusing on a second helping this season.
“I think we have a real possibility of being able to do that,” said Knoll, who enters his 29th season with a career coaching record of 492-185, all at Hillsboro.
The Trojans made it to the Class 2A tournament by defeating Moundridge in a 44-43 thriller in the sub-state final, only to lose a 55-54 thriller in the opening round at Manhattan against Sacred Heart, the eventual 2A champs.
But the Trojans are focused on the start of the season because they will need to overcome the early absence of two key contributors, junior Joe Knoll (6-2) and senior Elliot Ollenburger (5-8), who are still recuperating from football injuries.
“Early on, from the standpoint of having depth, it will be a little bit of a challenge,” Coach Knoll said. “But I think it will help us be a stronger team in the long run.”
Indeed, the Trojans bring back three proven contributors from last season.
Heading the list is junior point guard Darian Ratzlaff, a first-team Central Kansas League selection who averaged 10.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game to go with a team-high 89 assists.
“He does a great job of controlling the team and running the show,” said his coach.”We look for equally as good, or even better than, last year’s type of play from him. He’ll make sure he takes care of everything.”
Another pivotal player is senior guard Elias Werth (6-1), a second-team all-leaguer who averaged 10.2 points, 2.9 rebounds per game and distributed 88 assists.
“Elias has played all four years now, so he has a lot of experience, a lot of athletic ability and good basketball knowledge,” Coach Knoll said. “I think he’ll have a great year just because he loves the game and is willing to do what we do in order for our team to be good.”
One of the unexpected surprises a year ago was the play of sophomore Wes Shaw (6-2, 250 pounds), who generated 5.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 28 assists at the post position.
“Wes has a ton of potential within him,” said Coach Knoll. “He’s got a nice, big frame, he’s athletic, has ability to score and ability to rebound.
“We’re looking for great thing out of Wes. He’s got the potential to be a real difference maker this year. Last year he improved down the stretch, and I would expect him to keep getting better and better—not only this year, but next year.”
The two injured veterans, Knoll and Ollenburger, may be back in action after the holiday break.
Knoll averaged 7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game 25 assists.
“Joe is a great shooter with the ability to spread out the court for us, and he’s really good at the (free-throw) line (85 percent),” his coach said. “He’ll make a ton of difference when he comes back—plus, he’s grown quite a bit here lately.”
Ollenburger is best known for his tenacious man defense (19 steals), but he also averaged 1.3 points to go with 27 assists.
“Eliot brings a lot of enthusiasm and desire to the court,” Coach Knoll said. “If those two guys get back, they’ll pretty much round out our starting five. They have a ton of experience and have played a lot of basketball together.”
While the injured continue their recovery, the Trojans have additional resources to help fill in the gaps.
Heading the list is sophomore Caleb Potucek (5-8), who saw limited minutes a season ago, but should be a strong contributor this year.
“Caleb is a really tough, hard-nosed individual who will do anything we ask,” Coach Knoll said. “He’s very coachable, has the ability to score, is really tough, he rebounds and is really quick.
“He has great potential as he continues his varsity career over the next three years,” he added.
Senior Brodie Rathbone will be another asset.
“I like the way Brodie competes, I like the way he wants to be a great teammate, and does all the little things,” Coach Knoll said. “He’ll play solid defense, he’ll rebound, he’s got a nice shot at certain spots. He’ll do whatever he can to help us be better.
“That’s the kind of senior you like to have on your team—a great teammate and solid player.”
Also returning are junior Caleb Rempel (5-11), plus junior Avery Unruh (5-10) and senior Brooks Gardner (5-9) after taking a year off from basketball.
“Caleb played some last year,” Coach Knoll said. “He’s got good ability to shoot, he loves the game of basketball and I think he’ll find himself helping out . He’ll have a good role on the team.
“Avery’s got a nice shot, he’s another big body, so he should be able to do some rebounding and can score a little bit,” Coach Knoll said. “We’ll see how he fits in.
“Brooks is a hard-nosed player and a really good rebounder,” his coach said. “He’s a guy who understands passing lanes, and he’ll understand his role on the team as well.
“As those two work back into it, they have the potential to really help us out in certain situations and games.”
Knoll says he likes what he’s seen during the first two week of practice.
“Everybody’s working really hard,” he said. “I certainly can’t complain about that. The guys who are out love the game of basketball. We’re working really hard to do the best we can, and with filling in for the injured guys.”
With a total roster of around 30, Knoll is grateful for his assistant coaches: Demetrius Cox and Kyle Kroeker, a former Trojan standout guard.
“We have a really good staff,” Knoll said. “Coach Cox and Coach Kroeker are enthusiastic and serious about being good. I’m really happy to have both those guys this year.”
Looking to league play, Knoll has high hopes for his team, but he knows nothing in the CKL will come easily.
“Smoky (Valley) has most of their guys back, they’ll be really solid,” he said. “Hesston’s always got a lot of guys who play well and they spend a lot of time in the off season playing. Pratt’s going to be good for at least another year yet.”
That said, Knoll expects Halstead to be the dark horse in the CKL.
“Halstead has everybody back,” he said. “I think they’re going to be one of those teams that surprises the league just because they have every body back and have added a transfer.”
Knoll said it’s been a while since the Trojans have won a league title.
“It would be nice to win one again,” he said. “Last year we lost three games (in league play) and ended up fourth. When you play the type of schedule we have, it always comes down to a few things.”
The Trojans will debut their skills Dec. 1 when they open the season with a non-league contest at Sterling. With the Moundridge Pre-Season Tournament on Dec. 5, 7 and 8, Hillsboro will play four games in eight days.