From Hays to Topeka is a straight shot about 200 miles on Interstate 70. But Indians head coach Rick Keltner knows tho road to the 5A State basketball tournament in Topeka is actually a little more complicated than that.
"(Hays) went in 1956, went in 1975, when we got here it took us about four or five years, went to the final four in 1996, 2000 and 2003" said Keltner. "So I kinda thought we would go more regularly, maybe every three or four years."
But the Indians had not been to state since that 2003 season.
Hays came into Saturdays Sub-State Championship game as the host school and the favorite to beat the Liberal Redskins. The Indians had already beaten Liberal, a state qualifier a year ago, twice this season.
"One of the things that worried me about that is people go around telling kids it's hard to beat people three times," said Keltner. "I think it's hard to beat people three times when you have people telling them that."
Neither teams came out with its hair on fire, but the Indians did work their way to an 11-2 start. Liberal pulled it together and cut the lead to 16-8 by the end of the first quarter.
The two teams played toe to toe in quarter number two and the Indians lead was still eight at the break.
"They were very scrappy," said Hays senior Derek Bixenman. "We just had to keep our composure and just be tough with the ball, just like coach told us to do and that's exactly what we did."
Both teams found themselves in foul trouble in the second half, but Hays was able to take advantage of its deeper bench to run the lead out to double figures. Again Liberal had an answer cutting the lead to seven after three.
"Once we got ahead 10 or 12 in this game it didn't matter," said Hays senior Adam Deterding. "(Liberal) was going at it all night. They definitely knew what was at stake and you could tell that by their play tonight."
And that was the theme of the night, everytime Liberal made a run, Hays had an answer. The Redskins gave it one more go of it in the forth, cutting the lead to as few as two. But the Indians were once again able to stretch it back out to the 73-64 final.
"It's awesome it's something we have been focusing on all year," said Deterding. "But now its not just getting to Topeka, it's actually doing something once we get there."
Keltner says the win was a total team effort.
"Today we had some kids step up and help us," said Keltner. " And I don't care who it is as long as they have Hays on their shirt."
It's quite a turn around for Hays. The Indians won just six games a season ago.
"I told those kids last year I was proud of them and I though they played hard every night out," said Keltner. "It's just we weren't very good. We were young. We looked like a JV team. I think we've gotten better and we are going to continue to get better."
Bixenman is proud of the turn around as well.
"It feels amazing. I mean it's a ridiculous feeling I don't even know how to explain it."
Deterding had 16 points off the bench for Hays, one of four Indians in double figures. Lane Clark also had 16. Bixenman had 15 and Brady Werth 12. JaVanta Lewis of Liberal lead all scorers with 22.