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March 20, 2019 - 00:00
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Attempting a Look Back at Kingfisher's Historic Run

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    Bijan Cortes
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    KINGFISHER HEAD coach Jared Reese hugs Jett Sternberger as the latter walked off the court for the final time in the state championship game. Looking on are assistant coaches Chris Combs and Danny Green as well as several of Sternberger’s teammates as KHS beat Heritage Hall 59-39 for its second state title in three years. [Photo by Kaitlin St. Cyr/]

Where do we even begin?

That’s the question that’s baffled me every time I’ve sat down to collect my thoughts on Kingfisher’s latest state championship.

In case you’ve missed the last several editions of The Times & Free Press and have no forms of social media or any friends in the entire county, Kingfisher defeated Heritage Hall 59-39 in a thorough lashing in front of a packed State Fair Arena crowd to win the Class 4A boys basketball title on Saturday, March 9, 2019.

It was the perfect ending to a near-perfect season for KHS and quite the thrilling two weekends at the Big House for four Kingfisher County teams. You can read my thoughts on the other three in the previous edition.

But what about Kingfisher? Where do we start? Where do we finish?

There are so many storylines, so many thoughts, so many tidbits. There’s no way I can remember them all (even though I’ve written most down to try to avoid that fate) and many others I can’t do justice with my words.

But, I will try.

Here goes….

• • •

First, a correction.

Kingfisher was 84-5 over the last three seasons.

My story in the March 13 edition stated the Jackets were 74-5.

That was simply a case of my finger not making it over far enough to the “8” and me not catching it after the fact. Both numbers are impressive, but only one is correct.

• • •

It had to be Heritage Hall.

Way back in 1993, Royce Gracie defeated Ken Shamrock with a rear naked choke in the second round of the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship (back then it was a one-night, eight-man tournament format).

Gracie went on to win the tournament and Shamrock was left to sulk for months over the fact he’d lost a fight: (a) to a fighter he thought he was better than; and (b) in which he thought he was on the verge of winning with a heel hook moments before things went wrong.

For nearly a year, Shamrock had the singular focus of defeating Gracie once he got his rematch.

That was seemingly set to happen at UFC 3 when both men were set up on opposite sides of the bracket and managed to win their two fights and reach the finals.

However, when Gracie defeated Kimo in his semifinal match, he injured his knee to the point he was unable to continue, so he withdrew from the tournament.

Once Shamrock learned he wasn’t going to fight Gracie in the finals, he also withdrew.

Winning the UFC championship would have been nice, but for Shamrock, it had to be against Gracie.

When it couldn’t be the latter, the former didn’t matter.

That’s the best analogy I could come up with when it comes to Kingfisher getting its crack at Heritage Hall in this year’s title game.

The Chargers beat Kingfisher 61-56 in the 2018 4A championship to derail the Jackets’ hopes of a repeat title and a perfect season.

Ever since then, Kingfisher has wanted nothing more than to get another shot at the Chargers.

The fact it came in the state championship? The fact Heritage Hall had a chance to repeat? The fact Heritage Hall was undefeated?

That was gravy…or icing on the cake, however you want to phrase it.

But it had to be Heritage Hall.

Of course, had John Marshall defeated Heritage Hall in the semifinals, Kingfisher wasn’t going to bow out of the tournament.

But, if the Jackets weren’t given the chance to avenge the 2018 title game defeat, the 2019 championship would have felt fantastic….but it wouldn’t have been complete.

This one was certainly complete.

• • •

Interesting note from head coach Jared Reese.

In his six seasons as Kingfisher’s head coach, the Jackets have lost 21 games.

In his first season as a head coach - at his alma mater, Blackwell - his team was 2-22.

For the record, Reese is 145-21 here, a winning percentage of .873.

• • •

I don’t think it can ever be overstated the job Reese, Chris Combs and Danny Green did - and have done - as a collective coaching staff.

There’s their record together ever since Green joined the staff three years ago: 84-5 (I got it right this time).

There’s the hardware: Two state championships and a state runner-up.

That’s the easy stuff…the stuff we can see.

But what about the stuff behind the scenes?

First of all, those three guys (mostly Green and Combs) had to put their egos aside.

It’s been chronicled in these pages that Combs was let go as the KHS girls coach, but given the option to return to the boys program, a post he’d held before accepting the girls job. A lesser person would have said “thanks, but no thanks.”

But Combs put his pride to the side and has benefitted the boys program unlike any assistant before him (and I’m willing to bet after).

Green turned down multiple head coaching offers - therefore more money - before coming to Kingfisher with the notion that it was the best thing for his son.

I’d say it’s worked out well.

And having two former head coaches on your staff might be threatening to some, but Reese never flinched.

Whether consciously or not, by putting their own egos aside, the coaches could look their own players in the eyes and ask the same of them.

The coaches knew this crop of Kingfisher players was talented. That much was evident to even the most casual observers.

But could they be great as a team? That would take sacrificing individual glory.

And because this collection of Yellowjackets - undoubtedly the most talented group of players this program has ever put on the court - put their own egos aside, sacrificed for the greater good and worked as a team, they became historically good.

56-2 in two seasons good.

That’s not good, that’s great.

• • •

Jett Sternberger got a lot of the individual accolades. That comes with being a four-year starter during the most successful four-year run the program has ever produced.

He won 103 games, scored over 2,000 points, which is the most in the program’s history, and hauled in numerous player of the year and MVP honors.

He averaged 7.2 3-point attempts per game this season, but literally could have doubled that.

But that wasn’t best for Kingfisher.

What was best, other than sharing the wealth, was Sternberger becoming a better defender and rebounder.

If you paid attention to those aspects of his game, you saw them improving exponentially right before your eyes this season.

Did you notice the eight rebounds in the title game? Huge.

He finished third on the team in that category…and he’s a guard.

He led the team in steals.

Sure, Sternberger scored, but his willingness to become a better all-around player helped bring home that gold ball.

• • •

If the individual honors weren’t going to Sternberger the last three years, they went to Green. Some of them - like the Canadian Valley Conference MVP award - they even shared.

When you look at the history of KHS basketball players, few if any will rank as high as Green when it comes to being complete basketball players.

Scoring? Led the team.

Rebounding? Second on the team.

Shooting? He shot 56.2 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3-point range.

Assists? Second on the team.

Defense? He could guard on the perimeter and muscled every post player he went up against.

Toughness? See the 2018 championship game.

Literally, Trey Green can do it all.

Few things were more fun to watch than Green sky for a rebound, start his dribble up the floor, outrun smaller guards who were chasing him and then overpower someone at the rim to finish on the other end.

And we saw it happen often.

Green could have averaged 25 points a game. EASILY.

But that wasn’t best for Kingfisher.

• • •

Of the five Kingfisher starters, Reece Lafferty got the fewest shot attempts - 4.2 a game, as a matter of fact.

That meant he had to make the most of them.

And he did.

But it also meant he had to sacrifice as much as anyone.

On most Kingfisher teams of the past, Lafferty is averaging a dozen points or more.

On a lot of former KHS teams, he’s the leading scorer.

But Lafferty was a starter among Sternberger, Green and a pair of talented sophomores (freshmen last year).

So he mostly deferred to them and took his assignment guarding the opposing team’s best player.

And that’s where he shined and nowhere was it brighter than in the state championship game.

That’s when Lafferty got his due and was paid back for his sacrifice. His value to this historic team was proven right there in front of thousands of people.

Yes, he could have taken more shots and scored more.

But that wasn’t best for Kingfisher.

• • •

When Bijan Cortes had the ball in his hands, people sat on the edge of their seats.

What would he do next?

That’s what we all perked up to see.

Dominique Wilkins already has the nickname “Human Highlight Reel,” so we’ve got to come up with something different for Bijan, but that’s a fitting one.

Whether he was making a defender fall down with his slick handles, making a pass that no one even thought he’d have the vision to make, gliding to the rim through a sea of defenders for a trademark finger roll or even dunking over opponents, Bijan brought us to our feet.

And that’s just on the offensive end.

He did similarly amazing things on the defensive side of the ball and his overall feel for the game makes us all wonder how he’s only a sophomore.

Bijan could have commanded the ball more, chewed up defenses on his own and scored twice as much as he already did.

But that wasn’t best for Kingfisher.

• • •

Matthew Stone is a freak.

He’s got size, skill, athleticism, basketball smarts and a motor that won’t quit.

Think Trey Green, only taller and with the chance to get even bigger.

Like Green, Stone has been asked to do many things for this Kingfisher team and has excelled each time.

And like Green, he showed his toughness a year ago when he had his appendix removed during the playoffs and returned two weeks later to play in the state tournament.

Unlike Green, we get to watch Stone develop for two more years, which is a treat in and of itself.

This year, more was asked of Stone on the offensive end. He answered with 13.6 points a game while still leading the team with 6.1 rebounds.

And like all the other Jackets, he was busy playing stellar defense on the other end.

If you’ve watched Stone, you’ve noticed his ability and have seen how hard he plays every second he’s on the floor.

You know he could have commanded more.

But he was busy setting screens, working for rebounds and diving for loose balls.

He could have averaged two dozen points a game and done less dirty work.

But that wasn’t best for Kingfisher.

• • •

Declan Haub and Colton York made way for younger, taller and - honestly - more talented players. Of course that’s not saying those seniors were without talent.

However, both came back for their senior seasons knowing their playing time was going to be diminished.

Still, they busted butt in practice every day and tried to make the most of the minutes they got.

Was it what they wanted from an individual standpoint? Probably not.

Did we hear or see them complain? Never.

If those two don’t embody what this team was about, I don’t know who did.

• • •

This team we were fortunate to witness the last two years was historically good.

The record and trophies and talent and sacrifice tell us that.

But if you think Kingfisher basketball is about to fall off the map, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Bijan and Stone: If you’re not excited to see what happens when this becomes “their team,” then you don’t appreciate basketball.

But that’s not all.

Jarret Birdwell would have already been a two-year starter on a majority of teams in Class 4A.

Then there’s the large cast of other contributors to get excited about:

Maverick Ridenour. Harrison Themer. Aryan Haro. Cade Stephenson. Mason Mecklenburg. Case Simon. Riley Myers. Jayden Newkirk.

All those names return next year.

Kingfisher will, without a doubt, be a top-five team entering the season. Maybe top-three.

And beyond that?

Kingfisher’s current crop of eighth graders lost one game in two years of junior high ball.

Historically, the last two years will be tough to top.

But to think the glory days of KHS basketball have come to an abrupt end would be a mistake.

• • •

I briefly touched on what each of Kingfisher’s most significant contributors was capable of doing this year.

However talented, though, nothing that’s happened in the last two or three years would have been possible had they not been willing to work.

And I’m not just talking about the willingness to put in extra time in the gym, which most of this group did and does (see my interviews with Reese on YouTube to view his thoughts on that).

I’m talking about the work this group put in on the defensive side of the ball.

Offense is fun. Offense makes the YouTube clips. It gets the retweets and the likes on Twitter. And it gives opposing coaches something to lose sleep over.

But defense makes the difference between good and great.

This team was great because it put in the work to be great on defense.

I talked to all five starters after the title game and each of them mentioned how much time in practice was spent on the defensive end.

It paid off all season.

Kingfisher gave up an average of 41.8 points per game this year. It’s tough to win when you’re barely scoring 10 points a quarter.

When it mattered most in the playoffs, the defense got better.

Kingfisher gave up 52 and 50 points in the first two rounds of the playoffs, many of those coming late in 38- and 42-point wins.

But after that, when the stakes were growing, the defense put the clamps on.

Regional finals: 39 points.

Area finals: 39 points.

State quarterfinals: 38 points.

State semifinals: 32 points.

State championship: 39 points.

Simply amazing.

Credit the coaches for selling it and credit the players for buying it.

Again, it’s part of what’s made the great.

• • •

While Kingfisher’s opponents averaged just over 40 points a game, the Jackets were putting up 70.9 points.

That means they beat their foes an average of 29.1 points.

That isn’t skewed by some crazy, early-season blowouts. The Jackets outscored their seven playoff opponents by 190 points, an average of 27.1 a game.

No playoff foe, including the three state tournament teams, played KHS within single digits.

• • •

Part of what probably hurt Kingfisher in the 2018 contest against Heritage Hall was its lack of a tough schedule.

That really wasn’t the Jackets’ fault. They played the teams put in front of them and several of those teams weren’t as good as they had been even one year prior.

Heritage Hall, meanwhile, had beefed up its schedule (including dropping out of Kingfisher’s tournament to play elsewhere) and was well prepared for everything KHS had to offer in the title game.

The Jackets tried to remedy part of that issue in the 2018-19 season by taking part in the Tournament of Champions in late December.

It also helped that most everyone in the Canadian Valley Conference was improved over 2018, some of them significantly. A handful of teams were able to push the Jackets well into the second half, which was a rarity last season.

• • •

Speaking of the Tournament of Champions…

It was there the Jackets beat Kingston 68-62, lost to Booker T. Washington 65-61 and beat Putnam City West 77-56 to earn a third-place finish.

How’d those teams do this year?

• Kingston beat Millwood by 30 points to win the Class 3A championship. It’s only other loss this year was to Putnam City West.

• Putnam City West reached the 6A state tournament where it lost by six points in the quarterfinal to…Booker T. Washington.

• Booker T. Washington went on to win the 6A championship.

• • •

I mentioned Green’s toughness above and said to reference the 2018 title game for proof.

However, you don’t have to go back that far if you want more.

Green played the entire season with a foot injury that required surgery, one that was performed last Friday morning, and will require four to five months of recovery.

Basically, an injury Green suffered as an eighth grader didn’t heal properly and came back to haunt him. A part of his bone that should have been attached to the rest of his foot wasn’t, at least not properly.

And it hurt.

“It pretty much hurts when I’m just laying down,” Green said earlier this year.

So playing basketball on it REALLY hurts?

“Oh yeah,” he said.

If Green wasn’t playing basketball, he was in a walking boot.

But when he was playing, if you didn’t know….you didn’t know.

Yet more proof of his sacrifice.

• • •

By the way, that crowd at State Fair Arena on Saturday night….wow.

There was no doubt the OSSAA was expecting the Kingfisher-Hall matchup when it gave 4A boys the 7:30 p.m. (ie. prime time) slot for the title game on Saturday night.

They didn’t disappoint and neither did the fans.

Sure, there were a lot of Kingston and Millwood fans on hand early for the final game of the night, but State Fair Arena was filled to the brim with people wanting to see No. 1 vs. No. 2, public vs. private, the rematch, the battle of the last two champs, the team vs. Trey Alexander.

However you wanted to bill it, the OSSAA got paid for that game.

• • •

Speaking of the OSSAA…

The state’s activities association catches a lot of heat and gets a lot of blame when things don’t go the way some people expect.

It’s, perhaps, sometimes deserving.

Often times, though, it is misguided.

But I’m not here to take up for them.

I am here to thank the collective group for their hospitality.

If I have a question, need some assistance, have a request or just want to bother someone, folks like David Glover, Chris Wilfong, Van Shea Iven, Amy Cassell, David Jackson and more always seem eager to help.

Usually, they go above and beyond.

In fact, I get better treatment on press row than I deserve. I’m not sure why….maybe it’s because when I look down the line, very few people have been covering every day of the tournament on a yearly basis as long as myself.

That of course means I’m…..gasp….an elder statesman on press row.

I’ve certainly got the gray hair and gut to back it up.

So maybe they just feel sorry for me.

Regardless of the reason, that crew is beyond good to me and I appreciate every bit of it.

• • •

As I said, I’ve been covering the state tournament for a long time. This year was my 22nd.

While Kingfisher County teams take up more than their share of space on the state tournament brackets, I’m usually there covering for someone else as well.

In the “old days,” it was for

More recently, it’s been Skordle.

To do that, I need to spend a lot of my time with my butt in a seat at State Fair Arena watching basketball that doesn’t pertain to Kingfisher County.

That’s despite the fact my time could be more wisely spent helping produce a paper here in Kingfisher.

I’m there because I have a boss who allows it…no other reason. If Barry Reid said no, I’d have no leg to stand on.

But he doesn’t. He knows my passions and allows me to spend my time working on them, often at the expense of me being at the office.

While I still handle the “SPORTS” page from a far, others have to pick up the slack when I’m gone.

I have no doubt I get cussed hourly when that happens, but they still allow it. For that, I’m also eternally grateful.