Trojan boys return experienced group

This group of seniors and returning letter-winners will form the nucleus of the Hillsboro boys’ team this winter. Pictured are: back row (from left), Preston Loewen, Joe Knoll, Garrett Funk, Carson Herbel, Wes Shaw; front row, Elliot Ollenburger, Darian Ratzlaff, Braden Vogt and Elias Werth.
This group of seniors and returning letter-winners will form the nucleus of the Hillsboro boys’ team this winter. Pictured are: back row (from left), Preston Loewen, Joe Knoll, Garrett Funk, Carson Herbel, Wes Shaw; front row, Elliot Ollenburger, Darian Ratzlaff, Braden Vogt and Elias Werth.
Hillsboro boys’ coach Darrel Knoll welcomes eight players returning with significant varsity experience from last year’s 15-8 team.

Four of those veterans are returning starters, including three seniors: Preston Loewen (5 feet, 11 inches), Braden Vogt (6-1) and Carson Herbel (6-2). Elias Werth (5-10) is a junior.

“Both Braden and Preston are in their third year of playing varsity,” Knoll said. “They’ve got a good amount of experience. Preston was honorable-mention all-league last year. He shot the ball really well and does some nice things.

“We’re looking for him to be one of our leaders on the team,” he added. “He’s a senior guy who loves the game, loves his team and can lead us in a positive way.”

“Braden has continually gotten better as he’s been playing,” Knoll said. “He had a really nice year in football, and I would see no reason why that wouldn’t continue in basketball.

“He’s a guy who plays hard and has a really solid role on the team in many facets. He’s really good at taking charges and some of the other little things that you need to be really good.”

Herbel improved as the season progressed a year ago.

“The more confident he gets, the better he gets,” Knoll said. “He has a lot of athletic ability to make things happen. He fits in nicely with a team game, and is a solid part of who we are.”

Werth is a three-year varsity contributor as well. A year ago, he averaged nine points and nearly four assists per game.

“Elias had a solid year last year,” Knoll said. “He’s really quick, he’s got a lot of ability to find guys when he drives, and also finishes really well. We’re looking for good things out of him this year.”

Knoll added, “The good thing about those four is that they’re going to be upperclassmen. Physically, they’ve matured a little bit, so all those guys will be improved from what they were last year.”

Gifted underclassmen

The Trojans got a huge boost last season from a talented group of sophomores and freshmen who will contribute even more this year.

Heading the list is sophomore guard Darian Ratzlaff (5-11), who was named second-team all-league and received honorable mention on the Wichita Eagle’s Class 2A team even though he played a “sixth-man” role for Hills­boro.

“Darian has gained a lot of respect from our opponents in terms of being able to handle and understand the game, and being strong in the paint,” Knoll said.

Ratzlaff averaged 10.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and three assists per game last season.

“He’s strong to the basket, he has a nice shot and is a good free-throw shooter,” Knoll said. “He’ll be a good leader at the point, or wherever he ends up playing.”

Classmate Joe Knoll (6-0) also saw a lot of varsity time as a freshman.

“Joe shot the ball really well last year and was a pretty good part of the team, especially down the stretch,” said his coach and father. “He’s grown a couple of inches over the year and just loves the game. He’s always going to play to win and play hard.”

Another classmate, Wes Shaw, played sparingly a year ago but made an impact late in the season. At 6-2 and 250 pounds, Shaw will be called upon on occasion to fill the void created by the graduation of Trojan big man Austin Cross (6-7).

“He has some real athleticism for his size,” Knoll said of Shaw. “He should be able to bang in the paint. Once he learns to use his body, he could be a real force in the paint as the year goes along. He has a good outside shot, too.”

Completing Knoll’s primary rotation is junior Elliot Ollenburger (5-8).

“Elliot is a quick, hard-nosed player,” Knoll said. “He will add to our defensive toughness, add to the depth of this team. He should fit in really nicely with this bunch of guys.”

He added, “The thing about this year’s team is that we have enough guys who can handle the ball and carry themselves well. I don’t think it has to be on one guy to bring the ball down, which may help us get the ball down the court a little quicker.”

Teamwork

Coach Knoll said he likes the chemistry and character of his team in addition to its skills and experience. Playing as a team will be critical to their success.

“The more we play together, the more we move the ball, and when we’re moving the ball well we shoot it really well,” he said. “(Opponents) can’t say we have to defend that guy or that guy, because they can all shoot. It forces teams to spread out a bit more, which helps us to do some other things.”

Even with its youth, last year’s team shot close to 40 percent from behind the arc and had several players over 40 percent with multiple threes. The Trojans also shot around 75 percent from the free-throw line—one of the best team marks in a while.

“As we get tougher and continue to mature, we should be able to use our quickness and maybe be a little more aggressive defensively than we were last year,” Knoll said.

Season outlook

As he begins his 29th season as coach, Knoll is both optimistic and realistic as he considers a challenging Central Kan­sas League schedule. He rated his Trojans fourth in the 11-team league behind only Hesston, Pratt and Haven.

“We should be able to compete well,” he said. “There won’t be any games taken off, we understand that. I think the guys are up to the challenge.

“Another thing about this team is that they love the game and they like playing together. They’re going to compete, they’re going to do the best they possibly can. When it comes down to it, that about all you can ask of any team.”

Hillsboro opens the season Friday, Dec. 2, by hosting Sterling, which moved from the CKL to the Heart of America league this year. Game time is projected for 7:30 p.m.

Next week, the Trojans will compete at the Mound­ridge Pre-Season Tourna­ment. They will take on Lyons at 5:30 p.m. Tues­day, Inman at 5:30 p.m. Thurs­day and then Mound­ridge at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9.