The Kellogg Wildcat boys basketball team took third place at the Idaho 3A State Tournament last weekend when they knocked off the Gooding Senators 49-40 on Saturday at Meridian High School.
And while it wasn’t quite the end that they were looking for, it was a fitting end to a terrific season.
The Wildcats jumped out to a quick 13-3 lead, but the Senators quickly erased it and kept the game competitive until the final seconds of the contest.
Coach Jeff Nearing had mentioned the night before that this game would show how mentally tough his team was following their 61-47 loss to Snake River the night before.
“We set some goals early in the year,” Nearing said. “They were to win the Silver Valley Tournament, go undefeated in Intermountain League games, win the district championship, and to bring home a banner and trophy from state. Now, I think it was unspoken, but we didn’t exactly bring home the banner and trophy that we wanted, but following the loss on Friday we stressed to the boys that the goal of bring home a trophy and banner was still attainable and I think the boys responded well.”
Gooding was a worthy opponent though, they came out to play and their physical brand of basketball pushed the Wildcats to the brink, but it was one play during the second half that emboldened Nearing’s confidence in the outcome for his team.
After Kellogg was leading for the entire game, Gooding took a one-point lead off a wide open lay-up, but the Wildcats responded in a hurry and reclaimed their lead less than five seconds later.
“Over the course of about seven seconds I went from ‘Oh boy, let’s see how we respond to this,’ to us scoring and me thinking, ‘we are going to win this ball game,” Nearing said. “Before I had a chance to settle them down or call out a play, Chase (Jerome) took the inbound pass pushed it across half-court and found (Ryan) Morgan for two and we were up again. That kind of urgency made me confident.”
The Wildcats never relinquished that lead again, although it got close.
“There were a few possessions at the end that could have changed the outcome of the game, but we had guys diving on loose balls and fighting for rebounds because they were determined to win,” Nearing said.
Some late free throws iced the game and the players on the court (both Kellogg and Gooding) used the last 15 seconds to embrace each other and acknowledge the war they had just gone through.
The 20-3 final record posted by this team was one of Kellogg’s best ever, which is something Nearing attributed to team chemistry and a program that has been coached well over the years to create a mentality and expectation.
“A lot of these guys have been together since second grade,” Nearing said. “We lost some and gained some over the years, but the chemistry these kids have built is definitely special. Jeff Lambert is also owed some of the credit there. We were curious how the kids would respond after Friday’s loss and I think over the years the mentality that Jeff (Lambert) created that we don’t back down from anyone was right there at the forefront for us. He doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for building the program up to where it is.”
A team with 11 juniors and one senior may seem like an easy transition from one year to the next, but when that one senior is two-time IML MVP Toby Colburn the transition looks to be an extremely difficult one.
“Toby is a special player, but he is also just a good kid,” Nearing said. “He transitioned into this group of juniors perfectly and was our unquestioned leader this season. You don’t replace a player like Toby, you simply move on because that is all you can do.”
Toby and his brother Gus were both league MVPs and were big time contributors to Kellogg’s rich basketball history, but Nearing was skeptical of some of their parents’ decisions.
“Why Jeff and Angie Colburn decided to stop after just two boys is beyond me,” Nearing joked.
Looking toward the future, Nearing is already looking forward to another year of solid play from the Wildcats and although losing a player like Colburn would hurt any program, he isn’t worried about it affecting the success of the program in the future.
“We will play Kellogg basketball,” Nearing said “We will find the style that best suits our team and guys will step up. We had several games this season where guys like Tanner Mueller, Grant Nearing, and Trevor Bumgardner all showed they score the ball, we had Morgan and Jake Hammerberg show that they are capable of handling part of the interior defense and rebounding load for us. So with Jerome and Tyler Gibbons also returning we are going to be just fine I think.”
Overall though Nearing believes this season and its success were the fruits of total team effort, something that a lot of other teams are not able to achieve.
“This group of kids worked extremely hard and never complained once,” Nearing said. “There are not many other teams who have 12 players who could go to other teams and either start for them or be big time role players and we have that. Our practices, at times, were more intense than some of our games because of the talent we have and these kids gave every last bit of effort they had every time they got the opportunity to.”
This year’s third place team was the Wildcats’ best finish in 21 years.