By ALAN HOSKINS
KANSAS CITY, KAN. ------ From Worst to First? “I don’t think that’s unrealistic depending on how recruiting finishes up,” says Kansas City Kansas Community College first year men’s basketball coach Kelley Newton.
“I think the future is bright. I love the foundation we’ve laid, the direction the program is going and see us just getting better and better and better,” says Newton.
While a 7-25 overall record and winless Jayhawk Division II season was not what Newton had envisioned when he was named head coach July 8, 2013, the record belies the improvement made by the Blue Devils by season’s end.
Although down to just seven healthy players the last 11 games due to injuries and suspensions for team policy violations, the Blue Devils took four of their last five regular season games right to the wire – losing two by one point and two by two points – before avenging two earlier losses with a 69-57 upset win at Johnson County in the first round of the Region VI playoffs.
The big finish came without a sophomore on the squad – or a player taller than 6-foot, 4 inches. Lucas Smith, a 6-3 forward from Omaha, led the regular season in both scoring (11.0) and rebounding (7.4) although 6-4 Marcus Allen, a Sumner Academy grad who joined the team at the semester break, had the best average of 12.4 points in 15 games along with 5.3 rebounds.
Clay Young, a 6-4 forward from Lansing, was second in scoring (10.0) and rebounding (5.6) while 5-8 point guard Anthony Ridley of Hogan Prep led in assists (4.4) while averaging 8.9 points and 2.9 rebounds. Stephen Leimbach of St. James Academy led in 3-point goals with 70 while averaging 8.4 points; guard Nate Collins of Pembroke Hill was second in assists with 2.7 and averaged 3.8 points; and Collin Adney of Oklahoma City averaged 4.2 points.
“Throughout the course of the season, I think we grew up and when you grow up you get better,” says Kelley. “I think Clay Young really matured and became a better player and Anthony Ridley became a better basketball player just to name a couple.”
But the Blue Devils were without their one returning starter from a year ago, guard Antonio Winn who suffered a season-ending leg injury in the second game of the season, and lost a 21.8-point guard in Brandon Ward to academics at the semester break. The Blue Devils also played a gargantuan road schedule with 12 of their first 15 games on the road against top notch opponents.
“We never make excuses,” says Newton. “I never allow a team to make excuses. You start making excuses, you’ve already lost or are looking for a way out. That’s a topic for someone else. As a team, they’re told that no matter what hand they are dealt, to never give up and through the course of the season they put us in position to win basketball games.”
The Blue Devils played six two-game classics, five on the road. That won’t happen this coming season as some former opponents return to the schedule. Labette has joined Johnson County, Fort Scott, Highland, Hesston, Brown Mackie and KCKCC in a seven-team Division II conference while the Blue Devils will resume Jayhawk Conference play with Division I teams Cowley, Neosho County and Allen County at home and Independence and Coffeyville on the road.
“We played hard this year but we need to get better in a lot of different areas and we can through recruiting,” says Newton. “One of my goals is to get the school and community behind us and pack the Field House every night. I want this program to be known nationally, not just conference-wise.”