Sports forecast: Cyclones
By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 2/24/2014
Isaac McCullough and Mitchell Ballocks have a competitive friendship.
Isaac McCullough and Mitchell Ballocks have a competitive friendship.
The two have played basketball together since the fourth grade when they were on the same traveling team in Overland Park, but tonight Ottawa freshman McCullough and Eudora freshman Ballocks are set to play against each other for the second time at the high school level. Ballocks and the Cardinals got the better of the Cyclones Jan. 17 in Ottawa with a 75-65 win, giving tonight’s match-up extra significance for the Cyclone boys team as it heads into sub-state action next week.
“These last two games [this week] are crucial for us to win a league title and I think that is very important for us with this team,” Clifton McCullough, Ottawa High School head boys basketball coach, said. “You graduate nine seniors, you have no experience coming back and for these guys to be competing for a league title, as good as our league has been this year, we need to win these next two games to win the league outright. These last two games build momentum going into the postseason and that is what it is all about. You want to be playing at the top of your game near the end, so you can’t afford to take time off.”
After Eudora, Ottawa’s final regular season game is scheduled for Friday at Spring Hill, but it is tonight’s game that features two of the top three teams in the league. Isaac McCullough, who leads the Cyclones averaging 18.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, said he’s excited to play against his friend again.
“We’ve become really good friends and [Ballocks] is a really good player,” he said. “He already has an offer from Creighton. We always talk on each other during the game, and I played against him in middle school, so I guess I’ve got four more years with him.”
Clifton McCullough, who also is Isaac McCullough’s father, said it’s been a treat watching both boys grow into high school athletes.
“They’ve been playing on a pretty competitive team,” McCullough said. “We’ve traveled hundreds of thousands of miles together and the team that they’ve played on is very close and all the parents are very close. I was one of those parents that I always went to every game, so Mitchell was with us a lot. Isaac and Mitch are the best of friends. Each team wants to win, and they want to win for their team, and I think there is a little competition between the two to outdo each other, but I think it is all in good nature. When the game is over, they are on the phone texting and tweeting each other and going back to the good friends that they are.”
The game will come down to more than just two players, though. The Cyclones, who are coming off a 52-40 home win over Baldwin City to take the current first place spot in the Frontier League, have a deep team, the coach said. Isaac McCullough is the lone freshman on a team filled up with juniors, and this year’s team has exceeded expectations, he said.
“You have to talk about Tyler Smith and Quentin Blaue because they came off of last year’s team and they were the only kids coming in with any kind of varsity experience,” Clifton McCullough said. “Quentin kind of stepped up to the plate [last] Friday night against Baldwin. He hit 17 of his 20 points in the first half. I think it was kind of a breakout game for him and he showed offensively what he can do. What I really like about Quentin is he has become a really good defender for us. I’ve always put Quentin on the opposing team’s best scorer and he’s done a great job and he’s only gotten better as the season progressed.
“I think Isaac has really shown some maturity beyond his years. I think he stepped in nicely, and that is really a tribute to his teammates and how accepting they were for him and he was just comfortable from the get-go and turned out to be a really good scorer for us. This team is so deep that I could go on. ... Cole Bunce is another kid that can score, Jake Matney is a kid that can score, and these kids have played together for so long, there is no selfish play on this team.”
One year after the Cyclones’ undefeated season and grabbing a long-awaited 4A state championship, the team is 13-5 and have locked up the No. 2 seed in sub-state. Now McCullough and his team have their eyes on making a return to the state tournament, he said.
“Get to Salina,” McCullough said. “That is what it comes down to. That is the expectation for Ottawa High School basketball. ... Right now, we are in a position for the league title, but really we just want to get better so we have an opportunity to get to Salina in a few weeks.”
Baldwin City, which Ottawa has beaten twice this season, plays host to sub-state, and Hayden, Wamego and Ottawa come to visit Mar. 7-8. Defense is where Ottawa needs to improve the most to travel deep into the postseason, McCullough said.
“We’ve got to get better defensively,” he said. “We’ve taken some strides in the last two or three games on our defense, but as you progress through the postseason, teams get better.”
After coaching basketball for 16 years at OHS, three as a JV girls assistant and 13 as the varsity girls head coach, McCullough transitioned to the boys head coach position this year. While he initially was nervous, McCullough said, the change has been an easy one.
“That was my biggest concern was how the boys would react to having a quote ‘girls coach,’” he said. “The transition has been so smooth. I asked for advice from a lot of coaches around the area that I know of that did go from girls to boys. One of the things that they told me was, ‘It’s not like you are a new coach there. Those guys know you.’ There was just no issues at all and there’s never been any issues.”
Girls on guard
As for the girls team McCullough left, those reigns were picked up by Kelli Fischer and her assistant coach, Dennis Darting. The Lady Cyclones are 9-9 (5-5 in league play) with two games remaining, and the key throughout the season has been improvement, Fischer said.
“We don’t want to go backwards,” she said. “After the last couple of games, we’ve shown a lot of growth. We are getting better and making people sweat just a little bit.”
The girls team graduated six seniors last year and junior Corie Fischer was the only player who returned with extensive varsity experience. Junior Brette Moore also saw limited varsity time last year.
“It is tough to graduate that many seniors and then come back and have a program ready to go,” Kelli Fischer said. “My concern was getting these kids up to the speed, intensity and physicality of the game because that is a big difference. We knew it was going to be a struggle and these girls have stepped up and improved so much. They really have exceeded my expectations. Now, am I going to quit raising the bar? No, because now they’ve shown us what their potential is and what their abilities are, so I’m going to keep raising the bar for each game and each practice.”
With just three players averaging more than three points per game, Fischer said, one of her goals is to get more point productivity from players.
“I’d really like to score five or six kids a game,” she said. “I think we scored five [last] Friday and we beat a great team. We scored three against Paola and lost. We’ve got to score five or six people so we can contend with those Wamegos, Haydens, Baldwins ... everybody.”
Corie Fischer leads the team averaging 14.4 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game followed by Moore who averages 13.1 points per game. Freshman Angel Natt also has been a scoring threat for the Cyclones, averaging 7.9 points per game.
“We have changed Corie’s game so much,” Kelli Fischer said. “I’ve got coach Darting in to help with the point guards, and he has changed her game so much, not only in the fact that he helps her and talks to her, but since she’s my daughter it is a little easier to make that transition. She’s been very receptive to it.
“I think Angel has gone from a freshman to a bonafide varsity player in the last three weeks. Now, she’s going to make some mistakes and that is OK, but next year it is not going to be OK. We are going to keep adding, so not only can we switch up our offense, but we are going to switch up our people and their jobs.
“Brette got limited minutes last year and is averaging our second leading scorer and is probably one of the best post players in the league. I haven’t had a kid that hasn’t improved.”
The girls team faces a tough pool of sub-state competition Mar. 7-8 with such teams as 19-0 Wamego, Hayden and Balwin City. While it won’t be an easy match-up, Fischer said, she has confidence in the Cyclones.
“We are talking about some big time players and some big time teams,” she said. “Do I think we can compete with them? Yes, I do because my kids have learned how to be competitors, and I think Friday night [in a 45-39 win over Baldwin City] they started getting a taste of being winners.”