By CONOR NICHOLL
HAYS – On Dec. 3, Hays High senior guard Jason Krannawitter walked out of the locker room carrying a chain. Krannawitter earned the Chain as the team’s top defensive player in a 77-55 season-opening victory versus Hugoton. Junior Jace Linenberger collected the Hammer as the team’s best offensive player.
The Hammer and the Chain are ubiquitous items for the Indian boys under second-year coach Alex Hutchins, a squad that has opened 5-0 and ranks No. 1 for all KSHSAA classes in MaxPreps statistical-only statewide rankings.
A finalist for Sports in Kansas Class 5A Coach of the Year last winter, Hutchins led HHS to a 17-6 record and eight-win improvement in ’19-20. Hays High reached the Class 5A final four before the tournament was cancelled because of COVID-19. The Indians finished the season on an eight-game winning streak.
After every contest, Hays High gathers in the locker room and awards the Hammer and Chain. A photo is posted on the team’s Twitter account.
“We always look forward to it,” Krannawitter said.
On Dec. 4, in the second contest of the Hays City Shoot-Out, HHS beat Life Prep, 71-39, with a running clock in the fourth quarter. Linenberger tied his career high with 21 points in the Hugoton victory, and delivered 16 points versus Life Prep. He and junior Carson Kieffer tied for the team best against LP. Kieffer earned the Hammer, and junior Noah Weimer the Chain.
On Dec. 5, HHS pulled away from crosstown rival Thomas More Prep-Marian in the second half for a 70-42 victory. Senior Dalyn Schwarz won the Hammer, and senior T.J. Nunnery the Chain. Linenberger set another career best with 26 points, including 13 in the first quarter.
Hays High, highly surprisingly not ranked in the Class 5A preseason coaches’ poll, finished 3-0 and won the 38th annual Gerald Mitchell Hays City Shoot-Out. Per KSHSAA protocol from coronavirus, the tournament occurred without fans. Many HHS basketball parents bought cardboard cutouts of themselves and had it in the stands.
It marked Hays High’s first Shoot-Out title since 2016. Hays High returned all but one key player from last year’s squad, and the 6-foot-6 tight end-esque Linenberger has already made a sizable jump. As a sophomore, Linenberger averaged 6.9 points and 4.4 rebounds with six double-figure performances.
Known for his ability to run the floor, Linenberger has delivered 18.4 points per game and improved defensively.
Schwarz, also 6-foot-6, was the lone Indian named to the Shoot-Out all-tournament team last winter. He was first team all-WAC as a sophomore. Nunnery was second team all-conference, and Kieffer, among the state leaders in assists, was honorable mention.
Even when Hugoton used a zone, Hutchins wanted to keep Schwarz and Linenberger in the game. Last season, Schwarz delivered 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds.
“They are such forces,” Hutchins said. “If we can get it to them on the block and the short corner, high post area, they do a really good job of getting themselves buckets, and following the other guy on dives, and kicking it out to the guards.
“They are aggressive and physical, but at the same time, I think they do a good job of taking what’s there, and taking what the defense gives them, and finding their teammates when they need to,” he added.
Against Hugoton, Linenberger scored six points as Hays High opened the game on an 18-2 run.
“I thought Jace did an incredible job of getting out and running in transition,” Hutchins said.
On Dec. 15, HHS went to Hoisington and came back to win 64-63 in overtime. The Indians beat Liberal at home, 62-34, on Friday in the Western Athletic Conference opener to close out the 2020 calendar. Hays High is up to No. 6 in Class 5A in the coaches’ rankings. Hoisington is currently fifth in 3A boys.
HHS has averaged 69 points per contest. All five opponents are at least .500 or better in games when not facing the Indians. Hoisington and TMP stand a combined 8-0 when not playing Hays High. In the team’s most recent statistical release, Hays High has averaged a highly impressive 1.16 points per possession. The Indians delivered .95 points per possession last year.
The Indians have upped their tempo from 56.1 possessions a game to 60.7 this winter. Hays High is shooting more than 40 percent on treys after 30 percent in ’19-20.
The Indians, helped by four offensive rebounds a game from Linenberger, have increased their offensive rebounding rate. HHS collected 26 percent of available offensive rebounds in ’19-20 to 32 percent this year.
The Hammer and Chain idea started when Hutchins read a long Sports Illustrated piece about the Houston Astros’ turnaround and 2017 World Series title. The story was written by Ben Reiter, who also delivered the best-selling book “Astroball” on Houston. In ’17, Houston signed 40-year-old Carlos Beltran. He had enjoyed a great career with the Royals, Astros and Yankees.
Beltran played one year for Houston as a part-time player, though was more known for his understanding of baseball’s nuances and building team chemistry. A veteran leader, Beltran had all players in the clubhouse after each contest. Any player not there was fined. Houston then gave out a championship belt to the player of the game.
“The biggest thing about it was they handed it out to someone and had to explain why,” Hutchins said. “They had to tell the rest of the team why that person got it, and why they earned it, and so it was something that I was really intrigued by. I felt like it was a good way to kind of let the team leave on a positive note, and let them hear good things from each other, not just the coaches.”
Hutchins first came to Hays High as the girls’ coach when he led a veteran-laden team to a 14-8 record in ’18-19. He instilled the championship belt for the Indian girls. Then, Hutchins, with more experience coaching boys at previous stops, took over HHS boys. He replaced Rick Keltner, who won 453 games in 34 years.
Hutchins and assistant Trey O’Neil, a former multi-year Fort Hays starter, are both Scott City graduates. Hays High’s staff includes Bryan Zollinger, former Indian standout Isaiah Nunnery and Alex’s brother, Dylan.
Hutchins didn’t want to do the “exact same thing” he had with the girls, so he switched to the Hammer and Chain. In the first game of the season, the coaches hand out the awards. For every game following, the previous winners give out the Hammer and Chain to players.
After the Hoisington victory, Kieffer picked up the Hammer and Krannawitter again had the Chain. Linenberger tallied 20 in the running clock Liberal win and again collected the Hammer. Weimer earned the Chain.
“The big thing about it is, it’s an opportunity for our team to recognize each other after the game,” Hutchins said. “…“It’s something that I definitely love as the coach. It’s fun to hear them praise each other.”
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