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How coach Rick Keltner impacted La Crosse’s win Thursday - and season

La Crosse Leopards
La Crosse Leopards(CIK)
Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 1:02 PM CST
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La CROSSE, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - With 4 minutes, 13 seconds left, La Crosse set up for an inbounds pass on the left side, just inside the midcourt line. The Leopards led Kinsley by two, though neither team had scored in the fourth quarter.

La Crosse elected to run “Box,” a play that assistant Rick Keltner, in his 43rd year of coaching and first with the Leopards, has helped install. Sophomore Bryce Conner quickly whipped a pass for senior Blake Pierce.

Pierce came off a screen from senior C.J. Patterson and ran from the left block to the left corner, a spot he often shoots from before school. Pierce gathered the ball and sank the trey.

The play helped La Crosse pull away from Kinsley for a 44-35 home victory Thursday in Central Prairie League action. The Leopards had scored 26 points before Pierce’s trey at the 4:12 mark. La Crosse then tallied 18 points, including another key 3 and six free throws from Pierce.

“That’s coach Keltner helping us out there,” fourth-year coach Kyle Schmidt said. “We finally ran Box. We finally executed it. It’s been something that we have had all year, but we, for whatever reason, struggled to run that, and Bryce finally looked down the court instead of just trying to give it right back to the guard and made a great pass to Blake, and then Blake hit that big 3.”

Overall, La Crosse sunk seven treys against just five two-point shots. Pierce, the team’s leading scorer at 13 points a contest, finished with a game-high 24, tying his season-best. He made four 3s and went 8 of 10 from the foul line.

“It was so nice finally seeing some shots fall,” Schmidt said. “I know he thinks he’s been struggling. But in all reality, it really isn’t as bad as he makes it out to be. He’s kind of a perfectionist. He wants to do well. He wants to help the team out, and he kept shooting. In the second half, he was finally able to make a few shots.”

“Box” and La Crosse’s finish encapsulated La Crosse’s strong season with Schmidt and Keltner. La Crosse, led by Pierce, is well-known for its defense and reliance on the 3-point shot. Last season, the Leopards had a plus-12 win improvement to 16-5, the team’s best record in more than a decade.

La Crosse graduated 72 percent of its scoring, though completed this regular season 10-7. Keltner first coached at Tipton Catholic and is well-known for his 34 seasons and 453-291 record with Hays High.

“A great basketball mind,” Schmidt said. “I’ve learned more this year in basketball than I probably will in the future. He’s helped me out completely, and he’s great with the kids.”

Keltner, HHS’ all-time winningest coach, retired and did not coach last year. He joined Schmidt’s staff as assistant coach this winter. La Crosse has not made the state tournament since ’91, per historian Carol Swenson.

“It’s great,” Pierce said. “They know so much, and especially Coach K. Coaching for 43 years, every time he talks, I learn something or laugh. He’s such a great coach, and coach Schmidt, he’s been here for four years, and our first year, it’s been a process, and he has built it up every single year. So it’s great to have both of them.”

Keltner has expressed happiness with La Crosse even before the year started. He makes the 50-mile round trip commute daily and has helped the Leopard girls’ squad at times, too. Keltner called the experience a “blessing” and the people “awesome.”

“I have told people that I should be paying the people in La Crosse, because it’s been good therapy for me,” Keltner said. “I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I am enjoying retirement with my wonderful wife Paula, but I do enjoy being around kids in the gym, and I just love the game.”

Last year, La Crosse averaged .90 points per possession and shot 32 percent on treys. Forty-seven percent of the Leopards’ field goals were 3s. La Crosse permitted .80 points a possession.

“Threes and layups, nothing else,” Pierce said.

This season, La Crosse ranks in the top-six in Kansas in 3-point field goal attempts, per MaxPreps. Entering Thursday, the Leopards shot 27 percent from beyond the arc. Forty-nine percent of all shots were 3s.

La Crosse averaged .78 points a possession, though actually had a better defense than last season. La Crosse allowed .77 points a possession. Last year, the Leopards exclusively ran man. This winter, La Crosse has used man and zone to keep teams off balance and guessing.

“Our offense has been up and down all year long, but luckily our defense has been pretty consistent, but we’ve just got to make shots,” Schmidt said.

La Crosse is the expected third seed in the Ingalls sub-state. The Leopards are 3-1 against Ness City (12-6), Jetmore (10-7) and Macksville (12-5). NC and Jetmore are in La Crosse’s sub-state. However, the Leopards have taken some tough losses, especially to Victoria and St. John, teams with a combined 13 wins. At times, La Crosse has looked like the CPL’s second-best team behind Ellinwood (13-3). Kinsley dropped to 6-12.

“They play pretty good defense, but if they are making the shots, they can beat anybody,” Kinsley coach Derek Newsom said. “I mean, they really can, except maybe Ellinwood. Ellinwood’s the real deal.”

On Thursday, La Crosse led 12-7 after the first quarter, 17-16 at halftime and 26-24 entering the fourth quarter. The Leopards had solid defense, especially when Patterson took a third-quarter charge against Kinsley junior Xavier Holguin.  Newsom labeled Holguin one who is “always going full bore.” Holguin has three games of at least 18 points this year.

“C.J. does all the little things for us,” Schmidt said.

Last season, Pierce averaged 9.5 points and made 42 treys. He shot 36 percent from beyond the arc. This year, Pierce has again made 36 percent of his treys. Pierce, Patterson and Chase Schmidt (8.4 points per game) are the lone seniors. Schmidt, coach Schmidt’s younger brother, drives 66 miles round trip everyday to play for his sibling. Every morning, coach Schmidt unlocks the gym for shooting and players often come.

“A lot of us do, and that’s really the biggest thing, the turnaround for this program really,” Pierce said.

In the fourth quarter, the teams collectively opened 0 of 6 shooting, along with a pair of missed free throws and three turnovers. Keltner, who handles the bulk of the statistics and scouting, has worked with La Crosse on what Pierce called the “little things,” such as the Box play.

Before Box, La Crosse was a collective 9 of 35 shooting for the game, including 5 of 24 from beyond the arc. Patterson screened Holguin, which allowed Pierce to come free.

“We knew he was going to get it when he went down there,” Newsom said.

He made the open trey for a 29-24 advantage. At the 3:33 mark, he sunk another one from nearly the exact same spot in a half court set.

“Coach K with that experience,” Pierce said. “We are going to have plays like that, and (Box is) a great play… He’s the smartest coach I’ve been around, and it worked perfectly there.”

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