Bearcats partying like it’s 1995

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Burlingame finished the regular season with a 20-2 record, reaching a state tournament for the first time since 1995. The Bearcats hadn’t won 20 games in a season since 1995-96.

The last time Burlingame’s boys basketball team played in a state tournament, Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” was a top-10 hit, “Seinfeld” was No. 2 in the TV ratings (behind “E.R.”) and “Seven” was a revelation on the big screen.

Twenty-two years. It’s been a long drought for the Bearcats, whose last appearance at state was in 1995. The players on the current team were several years away from being born, virtually nobody had any clue what the Internet was, and Hootie and the Blowfish was the most popular band on the planet.

Burlingame hadn’t been to a state tournament since 1950 before that season, so advancing to the Class 2A tournament in Manhattan was special. I remember it well because I was a freshman at Kansas State.

While most of the town drove the 70 miles from Burlingame to the Little Apple, my roommate Steve, also a BHS alumnus, and father walked from Marlatt Hall to Bramlage Coliseum. We arrived early enough to catch most of the opening game that day, which pitted No. 1 seed Frankfort against No. 8 seed Inman, both traditional state powers.

That game was memorable for several reasons. For starters, Inman pulled off a stunning upset, rolling past the Wildcats 78-65. The most memorable thing about that game was an athletic guard named Greg Friesen, who willed his team to the win with 37 points. Time and time again, Friesen slashed through Frankfort’s defense for short jumpers and layups.

Frankfort had a great player of its own, an all-state guard who scored 28 points on an array of floaters, long jumpers and drives to the basket. I remember watching that senior walk off the court with his head down, his high school career over much sooner than he expected.

Little did I know that I’d meet that Frankfort player in, of all places, Centre, at the end of the 2007 season. An assistant coach introduced him to me after Burlingame’s 70-65 loss to White City in a regional semifinal game. I remember talking to him about that 1995 game. All these years later, he still hasn’t watched tape of that loss to Inman.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m talking about Creighton Winters, the longtime coach who took over the program in 2005, battled through the occasional lean year and has put together perhaps the best team in school history in 2016-17.

For the longest time in Burlingame, the biggest problem was that a coach wouldn’t stick around. It’s impossible to build a program when you don’t have consistency.

About the time Winters started at BHS, the youth programs in Burlingame finally had traction. A few years later, a group of boys began playing basketball together. By the time they got to junior high, they simply didn’t lose. By the time they got to high school, Burlingame was ready to build a program. A few years later, those boys were ranked among the top five teams in Class 1A-Division I.

Going into the final weeks of the season, Burlingame appeared to be the favorite to win a tough sub-state in Olpe. The Bearcats were hot after losing in the Lyon County League tournament, using a close loss to Lebo to fuel a dominant second half of the season.

Then, of course, came a devastating injury when their starting point guard suffered a torn ACL in the final game of the regular season. I’d seen the look on Winters’ face after the game before, back in 1995 in Manhattan.

Many, including myself, felt the injury was going to cost Burlingame its first state tournament bid in decades. Fortunately, we were wrong. The Bearcats, a tough, gritty group, put on an impressive display of teamwork in sub-state, crushing a dangerous Southern Coffey County team and smothering a Lebo team with 10 seniors to end the long drought.

The community finally got a taste of success during the past two football seasons with trips to the Eight-Man I semifinals. Now, it gets another bite in the form of a three-hour drive to Hays for a state tournament.

Burlingame has ended a number of droughts in the last few years, including trips to the state semifinals in football, league titles in football and basketball, and a trip to a state basketball tournament. It’s about time another one comes to an end: winning a game at state, something the Bearcats have never done.

The last time Burlingame played in a state tournament, it played a Berean Academy team that had virtually no tradition. In the 22 years since, the Warriors have been to several state tournaments and won a championship in 2010. Let’s hope this year kick-starts a similar run for the Bearcats.