Chapman: Panthers in good hands
The shock will soon wear off because this is an upbeat community. The boys basketball team inspired us all over the past four months and there’s good reason to believe it will do the same next year.
The Panthers are great examples of hard work, teamwork and a group with limited ego. The team used a variety of players, with specific skills and roles, who respected each other and humbly went 27-1.
The players are a reflection of their city, but more closely their coach. With Mike Santjer, the boys basketball program is in good hands.
Consider Santjer, 36, “Mr. Cool”. It’s easy to have fun when you’re winning, but the pressure builds with the wins and Santjer kept this team at even keel throughout. He never panicked or let his temper get the best of him. In step, the Panthers conducted themselves like gentlemen throughout an unbelievable run.
“I would hope the kids kind of feel a calmness coming from the bench,” Santjer said, “and that we’re not getting too nervous.”
When it ended there was no finger-pointing. The players accepted their awards and hung around to share the difficult moment with hundreds of fans. It was especially bitter for the team’s senior captains Jaedon Haman and Chris Hamilton. Santjer gave the pair a great deal of the credit for keeping his team grounded and playing at a high level.
“It’s big,” Santjer said. “It’s not necessarily about the stat book with those two. There’s so much stuff that they do that doesn’t get in the stats. They were able to hold some really good basketball players to some low numbers for us this year when it really counted.
“And not just because of their play. They’re just two great, great kids. They’re a blast to be around and you couldn’t ask for two better team leaders as far as captains on a team. A lot of times they don’t say a lot, but they work hard. They’re always at practice on time. They’re ready to do whatever you ask them to do.”
And they were. Hamilton and Haman were the fourth and fifth leading scorers; riding occasional hot shooting streaks, but ceding the way for the three talented junior scorers.
“Nothing was about stats,” Santjer said. “They’d give each other hard times about ‘Look at you. Look at my assists I got tonight. Good thing I passed you the ball. That’s why you scored all those points.’ It was all in great fun because this is a group that I think could live together in a dorm room and everything would be great. They’re a fun group, they love each other and they like to hang out. They were great senior leadership.”
Santjer often bit his tongue and let the players correct an issue during games. But his expectations were always clear and it didn’t take the team long to straighten itself out. Going undefeated wasn’t an expectation, but making a serious run at a state title was. Getting there wasn’t an automatic last year, but winning games at state was expected this year.
“The goals for the kids were get to state or it’s not gonna look like a very good year,” Santjer said. “It was one of those things that the kids made up their mind early in the year. This year state was not even, like, the goal. The goal was winning the whole thing.”
It didn’t happen. A 5-foot-9 wizard in the form of Oak Grove junior Carter Kretchman went on a 36-point tear, hitting shots from all lengths and angles. Kretchman was on fire and kept defenders off balance by hoisting shots before setting his feet. Rugby was in foul trouble throughout, but first-team all-state junior forward Brad Heidlebaugh paced the Panthers into overtime. The shots just stopped falling and RHS isn’t looking for excuses.
“Those are two of the top juniors, probably in the state, putting on a pretty good display,” Santjer said of Heidlebaugh and Kretchman. “The whole weekend was full of some really good games, but the state championship game to have one go to overtime and all that, if you’re a basketball fan I don’t know if it can get much better than that.”
A state title is still not out of reach for the returning players. Region 6 loses a lot to graduation, but making the state tournament three years in a row isn’t a gimme. Milnor won it all last year and retained a couple of its top players (including Senior Athlete of the Year Britton Bussman), but the Bison didn’t go back.
The chances are few and far between, and will require the next senior class to make sacrifices like its predecessors. Santjer will have changes and his top players may need to adapt.
Heidlebaugh, able and ever-improving on the perimeter, will likely be asked again to use his strength to an advantage down low. Tanner Bernhardt will need to grow stronger and get tougher on defense without the pesky seniors. Zach Miller will need to be more consistent and demand the ball as Heidlebaugh attracts double-teams.
Santjer won’t have to remind his next leaders what it felt like to lose just that one game.
“I think it’ll definitely, always be in the back of their mind and they’ll probably have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and kind of use it as a motivator to try and get back to the same level,” Santjer said. “It’s a lot of work. There’s always a lot of ‘You’ll be back next year,’ but it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort on everybody’s part to get all the pieces back together again.”
For now we can reflect proudly on the way Rugby was represented by a dedicated group of boys. And we can fondly reflect on the healthy place and direction of the program under the fifth-year coach Santjer and his assistants Brian Olson and Mike Heidlebaugh.
“They always say, ‘Success breeds success,’ ” Santjer said. “It’s one of those things, it’s exciting. I know the community is excited, so (we want) to just foster a basketball program that continues to be able to play at that state-caliber level and to develop kids that love to play basketball. There’s gonna be lots of years where you don’t make it to state, but if the kids love to be in the gym and love basketball, I guess that’s your only goal.”
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