By MIKE MENDEZ
When the towns of Hesston and Hillsboro meet on any competitive field, it is never just a game. Sure, they play for school spirit, town pride and another tally in the win column, but more than anything, these games are chapters in a tale of revenge.
The next chapter will be written when the boys basketball teams meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Hillsboro.
Making your way toward a seat for any game between these schools can feel more like entering the arena for an underground pit fight than a high school sporting event. Fans can expect a three-ring circus with everything but the lion tamer. In fact, there is nothing tame about this MCAA rivalry.
Although Hesston moved to Class 4A last winter, both schools have had to go through each other for a shot at a 3A state title for more than 30 years.
Since Hesston shocked the Trojans with a screwball game in the regional semifinals in 1972, there has been no feeling quite like beating the other team. And the bigger the upset, the better. In this rivalry, upsets happen frequently.
This year, the Swathers are the No. 3-ranked team in 4A with a 4-0 record. The Trojans have a 4-2 record in 3A.
"Hesston is always a big game, but we try to approach it just like any game," said Hillsboro boys basketball coach Darrel Knoll. "Hesston is really good this year, so it's a chance for us to establish ourselves as a team that can compete with some of the best."
Before 1972, the two schools were no more than casual acquaintances. Hesston was a new public school, completing the transition from Hesston Academy to a public school district in 1965, and competed in the Mid Kansas League. Hillsboro was a member of the Cottonwood Valley League.
In 1972, the Trojans were the top-ranked team in the state. Head coach Gene Hanson's athletic guards were down the court with the ball, scoring in the blink of an eye, averaging more than 70 points per game in the regular season. Hillsboro did not need steals to score in transition. As soon as their opponents put up a shot, the Trojans were sprinting down the floor looking for the pass.
"They were run and gun," said Galen Weaver, a junior on Hesston's '72 team. "Those guys ran all day long. It would have been a long shot for us to run up and down the court with them and beat them at their own game."
The regional tournament was the equivalent of a sub-state tournament today, with the winner of each tournament advancing to state. Tabor College in Hillsboro hosted the '72 regional, giving the undefeated Trojans home-court advantage. Their semifinal game against Hesston was expected to be another bump in the road during what would surely be a championship season.
Enter Hesston's head coach, Carl Boyer. For those affiliated with Hesston, Boyer's game plan was one of the all-time genius coaching jobs, up there with the likes of Bill Belichick. In Hillsboro, Boyer's plan was a rotten display of poor sportsmanship and cheating, down there with the likes of ... well ...
"Initially, my thinking was we were just gonna kind of hold the ball on them a little bit and try to get them a little flustered," said Boyer. "I had no intention of holding the ball the whole game. But they didn't adjust, so we just kind of kept doing it."
That's just what Hesston did. Dennis Krueger won the opening tipoff for the Swathers. Hesston's Kent Hobbs carried the ball across the time line, and just stood there holding the ball. Hesston trudged to a 4-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Hillsboro's Paul Schultz answered with a half-court shot at the buzzer that brought the score to 4-2, Swathers, after the first quarter.
The second quarter played out much like the first. Hillsboro dropped down into its zone defense and waited for the Swathers to shoot. But the shots didn't come.
Amazingly, Schultz hit another half-court shot at the end of the quarter to pull the Trojans to within 1 point. Hesston's lead looked more like a baseball score at 6-5 going into the half.
Hillsboro's home crowd was not impressed with Hesston's strategy. In only about the 18 minutes that it took to finish the 16-minute half, the Trojans' loathing of the Swathers was about to boil over.
"I just remember everybody going like, What is Hesston doing?'" said Mike Unruh, a senior on Hillsboro's '72 team. "(Hobbs) just ran across the center court and just stopped and stood there and held the ball. I remember Paul Schultz looking over at Coach Hanson, kind of gesturing like, What am I supposed to do?'"
The second half played a little bit more like a basketball game and the final score in regulation was 31-31. Like any legendary game should, this one was headed for overtime.
Hesston won the tip in overtime and went back to holding the ball. Hillsboro's hopes of a state championship ended with a 36-33 Hesston victory that vaulted the Swathers to the state tournament.
In that one game, the rivalry had gone from nonexistent, to one of the most intense in the state. Hesston had to march in front of the scorers table during the start of Hillsboro's consolation game to make its way to the locker room in preparation for the championship game against Inman. The Swathers were met with a loud chorus of boos and hisses from Hillsboro's home fans.
It wasn't until several years later that Boyer felt safe enough to show up in Hillsboro.
"It took a lot of guts for (Boyer) to do what he did in that community, not knowing if the numbskulls he was coaching would be able to pull it off," said Weaver. "We were just kids so we didn't care. But when you are the adult, it's different. He took a big risk."
In a letter to the editor in the Hesston Record, a Hillsboro parent detailed the good relationships and experiences she had in the nine years her family lived in Hesston before moving to Hillsboro.
"However, what we saw Friday evening at the Hesston-Hillsboro game was unbelievable and made me ashamed to think that your school would allow itself to use unfair tactics (I understand they were legal) to rob another team of the opportunity to play a good game of ball," wrote the author.
After expressing her concern about the Christianity of what took place, or the lack of it, she ended the letter with a paragraph that had the foresight to predict how the game would affect the two towns in the long term.
"I can't believe that the people of Hesston are proud of what happened," she wrote. "What can we do now to mend the strained relationship between the two schools?"
Hillsboro Star-Journal sports writer Don Wipf wrote a column after the game that said credit must be given to Boyer for having a plan and getting his team to execute it to perfection.
But the sting of the loss hurt the Trojans just as deeply as their expectations were high.
"It was un-Christian," said Unruh with a laugh. "Hat's off to (Boyer), that he came up with a way to win the game. But you can still go, There was something cheating about that. That just wasn't right. It's not the way the game is supposed to be played.'"