The angry jeers of a hostile Shawnee Mission North crowd rang in one ear — in the other, the desperate silence of faithful fans. As sophomore guard Vance Wentz stepped up to the line in this decisive moment, all the sounds faded away. It was just him and nine other players on the court. Nothing else.
As Wentz calmly sank two free-throws, silence became cheers and jeers became silence. But Wentz and his teammates weren’t celebrating yet. After all they’d been through this season, they knew better. With just over a second to go, the game was still far from over. Finally, after one last desperation heave from North rimmed out, Wentz could give a sigh of relief. For the first time in months, the Lancers had won.
With their last-minute win against North, the boys varsity basketball team (6-14) snapped a 13-game losing streak. But the losing streak wasn’t just a streak of blowout losses: it was a streak of close games, lost leads, and heartbreaking defeat after defeat.
“If you look at those 13 losses, only two were by double digits and 11 of the 13 could have been wins,” head coach Shawn Hair said.
The streak was the worst in Hair’s 23-year coaching career, a career that has been almost completely without blemish. Before the 2009-2010 season, Coach Hair had two losing seasons in his career. He has endured a losing season in each of the last two years now. The shift from being a perennial contender to rebuilding a program has been difficult for the seasoned coach.
“It’s very tough,” Hair said. “It is so hard to stay positive sometimes when things aren’t going your way.”
While Hair has struggled at times to remain positive this season, his players have not. During the losing streak, the team never quit, despite squandering late leads in several games during the streak. The Lancers reached a season low when they gave up an eight-point lead with 1:45 to go at home against Lawrence.
“We only had to do one little thing right, and we didn’t do anything right,” sophomore forward Zach Schneider said.
After the Lawrence loss, other teams coached by Hair would have given up. “He told us that quite a few times,” Schneider said. But this year’s squad didn’t.
“Probably the best characteristic that we’ve shown all year is resilience because we never really quit,” said Schneider, the team’s leading rebounder and second leading scorer.
But finally, after weeks of close games, East finally pulled through against North, thanks to Schneider who hit a crucial three to tie the game against North late in the fourth quarter.
“[Hitting the three] felt great because I hit threes in a few games during the streak and we ended up losing those games by one so it didn’t really matter,” Schneider said. “So to tie it up and follow that with a defensive stop and to win the game was a lot better.”
East followed Schneider’s three with a huge defensive stop. Scrambling to get the rebound, Junior Andy Hiett whipped a pass across court to Wentz who was then fouled hard going for the game winning lay-up.
After the North game, Hair told his players that they could finally go out and just play, without the weight of the streak on their backs. And that is just what the Lancers plan to do. Despite all of their losses, including last Friday’s loss against the Shawnee Mission South Raiders, both Hair and his players remain surprisingly confident for postseason play.
“This team is a very dangerous team,” Hair said. “This team could be a team that could make it to Wichita. It’s a team that kinda has got out of their slump. Now I think they’ll play a little bit more relaxed. And with no pressure on them, they can be very dangerous.”
At times during the season, the Lancers have demonstrated what Hair means. The Lancers began the year with a four-game winning streak before they began their catastrophic slide. The team very nearly beat a solid Olathe Northwest squad at home, losing by only one point. And against Olathe South, the former number one team in the metro, the Lancers held a five-point lead with three minutes to go before Olathe South came surging back to defeat East.
But the team’s inexperience and its inability to close out games have resulted in its struggles. With four sophomores (Wentz, Schneider, Chase Hannah, and Billy Sutherland) accounting for over 65 percent of the team’s points, the Lancers rely much more heavily on underclassmen than any other team in the league, a fact that has cost them. A lot has been asked of the younger players, and naturally they haven’t been able to do everything asked of them yet.
The Lancers have been inconsistent all season because of their youth; it has been both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Younger players tend to make more mistakes in crunch time, and the team just hasn’t been able to close out games because of this. According to Hair, the team also lacks a consistent go-to player to rely on in late game situations.
“You need somebody out there on the floor who can step up and take big shots and make big plays,” Hair said. “We haven’t got that yet.”
While it may seem like a liability now, the Lancers’ youth leads Hair to believe that they can be as good as they want to be in the next two years.
“They can make history here at Shawnee Mission East,” Hair said. “That being said, every team around here is working hard too. How much they work in the summer, how much they get stronger in that weight room will make the biggest difference from this year to next. They can be as good as they want to be.”
Armed with confidence and an underdog mentality, the Lancers headed into sub-state play this last week ready to upset any team in their way. Matched up against a strong Blue Valley North squad that had already won 15 games, the Lancers came out struggling. In a rough first half, East was plagued by turnovers and missed opportunities on offense. The Mustangs didn’t do much better; the half ended with Blue Valley North up 14-10. At halftime, Hair trounced his team.
“I was mad at them,” Hair said after the game. “We had seven possessions in a row where we traveled, turned it over, got an offensive foul, or missed a free-throw. You can’t go in a possession basketball game and have empty possessions like that.”
After Hair’s stirring halftime speech, his team surged back behind the dominant post play of Sutherland, eventually taking the lead on a pair of free throws from Schneider. With 16 seconds left, North missed two chances to tie it up, and the Lancers completed a big road upset to bring East one step closer to state. Having lost so many close games just like this one it seemed fitting that the Lancers beat North when it mattered most.
East will square up against Blue Valley West on Friday*. A win will earn the upstart Lancers a trip to Wichita. But regardless of how they will fare in the rest of the postseason, the team’s true battle has already been won. They have fought adversity and come to play in every game, no matter how out-matched they were. They have met the challenges of varsity basketball head on, and never lost confidence, never stopped trying–even when the challenges won. This team has already accomplished more in some ways than any of Hair’s more successful teams. And that’s what makes Coach Hair so proud of his team this year.
“This is their first battle of struggles, and they’re gonna be better people for it,” Hair said. “They’re going to be able to handle life’s adversities as they become men.”
*Published before scheduled game