NESS CITY, Kan - Ellinwood finished 6-15 last winter. This year, senior David Hammeke knew the Eagles could be much improved. Ellinwood returned five seniors, all whom had played together since at least fourth grade. As well, the Eagles had standout freshmen Britton Dutton and Tyler Stuhlsatz, who have made an immediate impact.
Ellinwood has opened 6-1, including a 61-44 road victory against Central Prairie League foe Ness City on Saturday, the team’s first game back from holiday break. Ellinwood has won six straight since a season-opening 50-45 road loss to La Crosse.
Ness City, the defending 2A champion, had captured four in a row against Ellinwood. However, NC was one of several elite CPL squads, including two-time defending 1A titlist Central Plains, to suffer heavy graduation losses entering this season.
On Saturday, Dutton, known for his excellent ball handling and calm demeanor, enjoyed another big game with 23 points, seven rebounds and five steals. Hammeke also collected 23 points, along with six rebounds and a pair of steals.
“I knew that the league was down from last year, and I knew that we were going to be a lot better team,” Hammeke said. “I think that we were all kind of shocked with the La Crosse loss. We weren’t expecting that. I know people didn’t expect us to be as good as we knew that we could be this year. But we knew after that La Crosse loss, that we will be all right. We will fix things.”
Veteran coach Derek Joiner, though, believes Ellinwood can be even better. The Eagles have consistently battled injuries throughout the winter, and have not had its full roster yet.
Senior Luke Wondra, whom Joiner called the team’s best defensive player the last two years, had suffered an ACL injury. Wondra has practiced in non-contact drills and is expected to be cleared Monday. Ellinwood is at Claflin-Central Plains on Tuesday.
“He’s been moving pretty well,” Joiner said. “I think he’s going to help our defense a lot, too, because he’s a very sound lanky defender, so it’s exciting that we are off to a good start. It’s more exciting about how much better we can get, with our freshmen that obviously are going to get better every five games, and then we are also going to have these seniors who are now getting healthy.”
Hammeke suffered a knee injury in Week 2 in football. He returned and then broke his left ring finger and required pins. Hammeke had the pins removed just before the La Crosse game, though couldn’t play in the first two contests. Then, Dutton rolled his ankle early against La Crosse.
“He didn’t have the movement right,” Hammeke said.
Senior Kyler Doll appeared in just the first two games, and then missed four straight contests with injury. He returned to the starting lineup Saturday. Doll tied for the team-high with five steals, and helped Ellinwood create 25 turnovers.
“We are close,” Joiner said. “From five weeks ago, from our first game of the year, we are light years better on defense than we were. We still make the mental errors that can be eliminated.”
Joiner said senior forward Tyler Knop suffered a “really bad sprained ankle” two days ago.
“We didn’t even know if he was going to play,” Joiner said. “In fact, we weren’t going to play him.”
Senior Ryan Niles had to step in and play the 5 position on offense.
“We have got to get it figured out, and Ryan is the exact kind of guy that you need,” Joiner said. “He’s very smart. He’s usually the one telling some of our guys who don’t get it as fast where to go.”
Then, freshman Parker Scheck picked up two early fouls. Knop told Joiner he could play. Knop recorded a rebound and a steal. He helped limit Ness City standout sophomore forward Taylor Cable to just 11 points, under his season average of 16 a game.
“Does a great job in there filling a role,” Joiner said.
Ness City (5-2) missed sophomore starting guard Jose Guzman. He suffered a concussion in a 52-39 loss to Hodgeman County on Dec. 17 and has not yet cleared KSHSAA concussion protocol. Senior Easton Seib led Ness City with 14 points. Guzman averages nine points and a team-high 2.6 steals a contest.
“You have to be at so many practice dates, and then get cleared by a physician,” Ness City coach Brandt Rogers said. “And he just hasn’t been at enough of those practice dates to be cleared, so we are expecting him to go to the doctor on Monday and get cleared.”
Ellinwood had an advantage with its speed from Hammeke and Dutton. Entering the contest, Dutton was at 19.2 points per contest, while Hammeke stood at 16.8 per game. Stuhlsatz tallied 12.8 points a contest.
“Over break, we put in a lot harder work than we do most seasons,” Hammeke said. “A lot of guys kind of got after it. This team, I think we did a really good job on film. We watched them. We knew what plays they were running.”
“We knew the press - that they were going to play hard up front, and that if we were able to get out of it pretty quick that we would have layups on the backside,” he added. “That kind of showed well for us tonight.”
Ellinwood forced four turnovers in the first 1 minute, 43 seconds. Then, Dutton picked NC sophomore Jackson Seib for a steal and went in for a layup and 9-0 lead. Ellinwood led 23-18 after the first quarter.
“They found open gaps, and we didn’t rotate very well,” Rogers said. “And that combination definitely hurts. Credit to Ellinwood, because they just attacked the basket. Hammeke is a great player. The Dutton player is a great player, and he is only a freshman. He has got some really good talent coming, and if can get Wondra back, then they are going to be a really solid team at the end of the year.”
Overall, Dutton finished 11 of 24 from the field, though 0 of 3 from 3-point range and 1 of 1 from the foul line. Dutton was a combined 4 of 10 from beyond the arc in his last two contests.
“We did pretty good,” Dutton said. “I think we needed to move the ball a little bit better, and obviously if we shoot better, we will get more wins.”
Several times, Hammeke, playing with high hustle and emotion, went full court and drove through multiple defenders, part of the team’s plan. Early in the second quarter, he had a steal that led to a foul and two made three throws, part of a 13-2 run that gave Ellinwood a 40-22 at halftime.
“He gave me the green light before the game, so I put that in the game, and it worked awesome,” Hammeke said. “But the guys played really well today, got the ball to each other. It was a lot of fun.”
Ellinwood girls 47, Ness City 42
Last season, the Ellinwood girls had 138 steals in an 8-13 season. This winter, Ellinwood has opened 5-2 after a 47-42 road win versus Ness City on Saturday. Ellinwood had 92 steals in the first six contests for 15.3 per game, fifth-best in Kansas, according to MaxPreps statewide rankings.
This winter, Ellinwood (5-2) has no seniors and has adopted the motto of “Play Angry,” that Wichita State University men’s basketball has long used. The Eagles graduated post Madison Ward and changed their defense in the summer.
Ellinwood often gambled on balls and picked off multiple passes. Ellinwood forced 32 turnovers versus 2-5 Ness City. The Eagles recorded 20 steals, including six from junior point guard Ashtin Klepper.
“We have a lot of speed and a lot of length,” Ellinwood coach Andrew Cherry said. “So we are really trying to push the pace defensively and get our hands in passing lanes, and this group really has a defensive mindset.”
Junior Mya Maxwell, the team’s leading scorer, led with 23 points, along with nine rebounds and four steals. Maxwell played with a mask because of a small fracture in her nose suffered in a 45-40 road loss to Ellis on Dec. 20, the final game before holiday break. Ellinwood has no seniors, and Maxwell has picked up her leadership skills this season.
“We were a little bit nervous about the aggressiveness for her, but that’s not her mindset,” Cherry said. “Her mindset is ‘I am going to continue to do it, and I have got this thing to protect me,’ and that’s really gone out well.”
Ness City, paced by a career-high 18 points from senior Makenzie Flax, led 13-9 after the first quarter. Ellinwood scored the first eight points of the second quarter and had a 24-21 advantage at halftime and 41-28 entering the fourth.
“Our practices, we put a lot of stuff in,” Cherry said. “And it didn’t turn out the way I wanted to here. We were a little bit sloppy on some things, and missed a lot of shots, but I liked our energy. I feel like we have really picked up where we left off, and so I was happy to see that. But we’ve still got a long way to go.”