Editor’s Note: In preparation for the rst trip to Lincoln for the Hartington-Newcastle boys and the ten-year anniversary since the Wildcats last made the trip, the Cedar County News reached out to a couple of players from the 2009 team to reminisce on that season, talk about the upcoming State Tournament, and discuss any similarities between the two teams.
HARTINGTON — Since the Hartington and Newcastle school districts merged together five years ago, the school has not qualified for the boys’ or girls’ state basketball tournament.
That all changed last week when the Hartington-Newcastle Wildcats boys’ basketball team upset Kenesaw in the District Finals to earn the #7 seed in the Class D1 State Tournament starting on Thursday.
It marks the ten-year anniversary since Hartington High School last qualified for State.
That year ended with the Wildcats losing, 37-35, to Humphrey St. Francis in the opening round.
This year, HNS faces a similar opponent, but not quite the same. Humphrey/ Lindsay Holy Family.
Both the ‘09 and ‘19 teams opened the season against Ponca. Phil Wiebelhaus was a senior on the 2009 team and felt the season-opening win against the Indians signified the team’s potential that season.
“I think our first game of the year against Ponca kind of set our tone for the rest of the year, as we won in the last few seconds of the game,” said Wiebelhaus. “That was a huge win to start the year out with.”
Hartington won that game, 55-52, and it opened the gates for a season where the team went 19-4.
A loss to Coleridge in the third game launched an 11- game winning streak before a loss to Emerson-Hubbard gave the Wildcats the second setback of their season.
HNS would not lose again until Districts against Humphrey St. Francis.
In 2009, the playoff format was different than now. A decade ago, a team could lose in the District Finals and still earn a trip to State with a wildcard slot.
Now, four wildcard seeds are selected to play in the District Finals game, with the champion of the eight District games going to State.
Hartington lost, 68-47, in the District Finals to Humphrey St. Francis before facing the team again in the first round of the state tournament.
“We had a rough going in our district game against Humphrey. If I remember, one of their players [scored] 45 I think on us,” said Nathan McPhillips. “It was kind of an eye opener for us and we realized when we had to play them again in the first round of state that we had to be much more focused on job responsibility and locking down good shooters.”
McPhillips was a sophomore on the 2009 team and has a unique interest in this year’s team considering his younger brother, Lincoln, is a senior on the Wildcats squad.
“I followed every game this year,” said McPhillips. “With my brother being a senior, it’s fun to be at the game yelling and cheering. [I’m] going to miss that feeling of having someone personal to cheer for.”
Nathan has been in the stands, cheering for his brother throughout the year. He was down in Albion for the District game against Kenesaw, where his brother Lincoln had a steal and layup late in the game to give HNS a two-possession lead and help seal the victory.
Both Wiebelhaus and McPhillips understand what it is like to be an unfamiliar team down at Lincoln, and both offered advice on how to handle the big atmosphere.
“Play it like it’s just another game and get the win,” said Wiebelhaus. “Don’t let the nerves of a big-time game get in your head.”
McPhillips advice was similar, but he did add in one key for victory in any basketball game.
“Communication is huge, to be able to hear each other talk in those bigger gyms,” said McPhillips. “Be vocal, stick to your game, and don’t play theirs.”
A place where the 2019 team differs from the 2009 team is the youth on the team.
The Wildcats have just three seniors on the team - Lincoln McPhillips, Ethan Lammers, and Ross Fischer - but the team also utilizes a lot of its youth.
McPhillips and Lammers start alongside two juniors and a freshman, with more underclassmen rotating in off the bench.
Wiebelhaus had advice for the young players, saying to learn from the trip to State this year so they can lead by example down the road and continue to succeed with the program in the years to come.
“The underclassmen need to be ready to fill in the leadership roles once the season is over. So I would say, enjoy the experience while you’re there, be ready to step up in the following years and set a good example for future underclassmen.”
Many of these underclassmen will be expected to contribute this year if the Wildcats hope to make it beyond Thursday’s game. McPhillips sees the potential for big things this weekend.
“I just like to see good basketball teams make it,” said McPhillips. “The ’09 team, we were good, we deserved to be in State, but this years team can do much more than we did, I’m seeing a first-round win in these guys.”
Hartington-Newcastle is the #7 seed and would need to pull off an upset to defeat #2 seed Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family, but the Wildcats upset #5 seed Kenesaw in the District Finals to advance to State.
If there is one thing to bet on though, is that the support Wiebelhaus mentions from the trip in 2009 will be back in Lincoln again on Thursday afternoon.
“I’d say the biggest thing I remember about that game at State is the support of the community and to see how many people came out to cheer us on. It was definitely the biggest and loudest crowd I’ve played in front of and I’ll never forget it.”
Hartington-Newcastle faces Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family at Lincoln East on Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. The winner of this game faces the winner of 3 seed Paxton and 6 seed Wauneta-Palisade in Friday’s State Semifinal game at the Bob Devaney Sports Center.