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‘...What this town is all about’

March 01, 2023 - 00:00
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Warriors embody their community in return to state tournament

  • ‘...What this town is all about’
    AARON WEST talks with his Okarche boys basketball team during the regional tournament. [Photo by Russell Stitt/]

When he looks next to his seat on the bench, Aaron West can’t help but be reminded of his father.

When he looks onto the court, he sees his hometown.

Both bring him great joy.

Okarche is headed back to the Class A state basketball tournament after last Friday’s 70-66 victory over No. 3 Vanoss in an area title tilt in Shawnee.

It’s Okarche’s 17th trip to state, but the first since 2019 when West was an assistant for his father, the hallof- famer, Ray West.

The Warriors made the semifinals that season, but the elder West never coached again.

He was laid to rest in August that year after a battle with cancer.

After the final buzzer sounded on the upset of Vanoss, Aaron West hugged the likes of Brandon Treece, Hunter Frisby and Tony Williams.

The first two were former players of Ray’s who are now assisting Aaron and Williams was by Ray’s side for a number of years and carried that into Aaron’s tenure.

“Knowing they’re there would make my dad proud,” said West. “We are just trying to find a way like he always did, no matter the challenge.

“But it’s about the players, not us.”

Those players, largely a group of underclassmen, once again have the Warrior program in the title hunt.

It didn’t matter if it was Hunter Mueggenborg swiping big steals or hitting big 3-pointers in the second half or Wyatt Pinkerton locking down Vanoss’ Carter Perry, a career 1,500-plus-point scorer who was held to 11 points.

Or if it was Jett Mueggenborg answering Logan Hulbutta’s big 3-pointer with one of his own, pushing Okarche’s lead from one point back to four with 1:52 to play.

Or if it was Easton Roby grabbing a big defensive board late and making 3 of 4 free throws in the final 1:07 to help the Warriors preserve their lead.

Or if it was the lone senior, P.K. Harris, delivering his usual of 15 points and seven rebounds.

Or if it was Pinkerton, Roby and the Mueggenborgs taking turns covering Vanoss’ massive size advantage inside.

Or Caden Schieber, West’s own nephew, or Braxton Smith coming off the bench to provide valuable minutes.

All of them combined to produce the second- most points scored on Vanoss this season, behind only 2A No. 1 Dale’s 73.

“And we had 17 assists and a season-low nine turnovers in the biggest game of the year,” added West.

It’s a group West truly loves, so much so that the usually stoic coach when it comes to celebrations was found jumping up and down and hugging his assistants and players.

His button-up shirt was untucked at celebration’s end.

He couldn’t help himself. “It’s an honor to lead this group,” he said. “It means so much to me because I think this team represents what this town is all about.

“It’s hard-working people with a sense of toughness and great work ethic.”

The work ethic has been there all season and the toughness was especially on display when Okarche trailed by as many as 12.

But they marched back.

Down just four at the end of the first, the Warriors pulled within a point by halftime.

They outscored Vanoss 17-12 in the third for a fourpoint lead.

And, down the stretch, Okarche (26-2) made the plays when it needed them.

Jett Mueggenborg’s putback with about 2:30 remaining gave the Warriors a 62-58 advantage.

After a timeout, Hulbutta made his third trey of the game. He was the only Wolves player to do so as Vanoss was 3 of 13 as a team.

But Jett Mueggenborg answered right back with his clutch 3-pointer to again make it a two-possession game.

When Vanoss cut it to two points, Roby made two free throws with 1:07 left to push it back to four.

Vanoss made one free throw with 47 seconds showing, but two seconds later, Harris was at the line draining a pair of them.

The 69-64 advantage was Okarche’s largest of the game.

Perry was able to pull his team within 69-66 with 38 seconds to play. He got his points on 4 of 10 shooting.

The Wolves later had a chance to tie the game, but Roby pulled down a missed 3-pointer.

The freshman made one of his free throws to make it a two-possession game and Okarche’s defense didn’t allow Vanoss to get off another shot until the final buzzer.

The celebration ensued. “The players have worked so hard for this moment,” West said. “Doing it with this group of kids who are so unselfish and truly care about each other is a great experience.”

Okarche outscored Vanoss 21-9 from beyond the arc.

Hunter Mueggenborg was responsible for four of those treys as he led the team with 20 points and also had five assists.

Harris was 6 of 9 from the floor for his points total while Jett Mueggenborg added 13 points and a teamhigh six assists.

Roby scored 12 points and Pinkerton eight.

Brayden Cannon paced the Wolves with 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Vanoss was upset 57-54 by unranked Drummond in Saturday night’s area consolation championship.

Although Vanoss won’t get its shot at a gold ball, Okarche does.

“The guys are super excited about this,” West said. “They deserve it.”

West said Okarche deserves it, too.

“All of us just really want to do something special for the town. A lot of luck has to be on our side, but I promise you our whole team will give it everything we have.”

And, West said, there’s the extra incentive from above.

“My dad would love it if we could make some noise up there.”