Huskie hoopsters felt hoop-la and heartbreak

Mike Tupa
Pawhuska High’s Easton Kirk drives against a Dewey High defender during boys basketball action in the 2018-19 campaign. Mike Tupa/Examiner-Enterprise

Sweet — climbing to within an arm’s grasp of the desired prize.

Bitter — having your hand slapped away just as you touch it.

Pawhuska High School head boys basketball coach Jake Christenson and his Huskies understand how short the step yet how unfathomable the gulf between sweet and bitter.

A few weeks ago, they experienced both extremities during a period of mere days.

After stunning Pawnee High School, 61-59 — a victory exquisite on many levels for Pawhuska — the Huskies moved to within one game of qualifying for the Class 2A state tournament.

Normally a special feat in any program, the prospects for Pawhuska loomed colossal — it had been almost 20 years since any Huskie boys basketball team had advanced that far.

To make the dream materialize into stark reality the Huskies needed to win just one of two games at the area tourney.

That’s where bitter came in.

Hooker zapped the Huskies, 51-34, in the area first-round game — Pawhuska’s second-largest loss of the season.

The Huskies had one more chance, in a rematch against Pawnee, this time with a coveted state berth at stake.

Pawnee extracted the win, 56-47, to shut the gate on Pawhuska’s journey just as it was about to enter basketball’s version of the Emerald City.

But, Pawhuska still could look back with pride on what it had accomplished — a 19-10 record; winning streaks of seven, five and four games; a big-time win against county rival Barnsdall, 71-35; a sweep of Dewey, 65-51 and 66-45; competing in the area tournament for the first time in 15 years; and several other noteworthy feats.

But, Christenson — a Pawhuska High graduate — hasn’t been able to erase what might have been.

“You’re one game from going to the state tournament,” he said. “That’s a big deal. But, then you don’t make it. It’s just bittersweet.”

But Christenson also likes to dwell on the positive — especially the play of his seniors Matt Miles, Easton Kirk, Evan Frye, Tre Harper, Ryan Jones and John Justus.

They energized the Huskies to the regional triumph against Pawnee — which had handed the Pawhuska football team its only regular-season loss and then had beaten Pawhuska twice on the basketball court during the regular season.

“The Pawnee kids had kind of had our number, in football, too,” Christenson said.

The Pawhuska athletes had “a chance to do something special against a team that has been a problem for us,” Christenson said.

As mentioned, during the football campaign, Pawnee broke a nine-game winning streak by the Huskies — in a contest in which the district crown was up for grabs.

Both Pawhuska and Pawnee football teams then advanced to the Class A state quarterfinals.

Some of Christenson’s hoopsters were standouts on the Huskie grid squad, which meant he didn’t get them into the gym until the season ended on the final Friday in November.

Even so, Pawhuska still opened up solidly.

It all starts with the guys

Christenson isn’t only invested in the chase for the prize.

His Huskies fell one win short of the program’s first state tournament appearance since the early 2000s, but Christenson also is invested in his players as individuals — even when circumstances require tough decisions.

One of them involved senior Ryan Jones, a gritty, athletic and determined contributor.

“On any team but this one, Ryan would have been a starter,” Christenson said. “He’s just a kid that didn’t get to play a ton, but he’s a good player. We had a ton of depth. I wanted him to know he was a big part of something special. We played him a lot early, but later in the year he didn’t get to play as much.”

Jones played an important role in helping the Huskies launch their season to an 13-2 record, Christenson said.

During that sizzling run, Pawhuska rang up five wins by 25 points or more, and knocked off four schools at Class 3A or bigger (Newkirk, Dewey, Jay and Lincoln Christian).

But, in the final third of the regular season, the Huskies bounced over a few bumps in the road, posting a 2-6 record down the stretch.

But, when the Class 2A playoffs revved up, Pawhuska peeled out again, powering to four straight wins, against Caney Valley, Nowata, Preston and Pawnee.

But, the Huskies then reached the end of the journey — albeit a game shy of their ultimate milestone — in the area playoffs to Hooker and Pawnee, both Top 10-ranked teams.

One might sense Pawhuska’s near-miss at state was like an emotional gut punch for Christenson, who is a former Huskie student-athlete and a long-time teacher/coach at the school.

“I think the heartache of being so close and having it slip away will drive those guys,” he said about next season’s returnees.

Meanwhile, Christenson feels the program has progressed naturally to this level.

He said he wasn’t surprised about how his team’s deep playoff run last season.

“In the summer and at the start of the season I kind of expected us to be in the area tournament and to give ourselves a chance to go state,” he said. “We had a little stretch there in the middle to late part of the season where I started to think, ‘Maybe we aren’t going to make this run.’”

The Huskies ended the regular season with three straight losses — albeit to quality opponents, in Woodland, Barnsdall and Pawnee.

But, once the first jump ball went up in the playoffs, “my old kids stepped up and played like I thought we would,” Christenson said. “During that earlier stretch it would have been easy for the kids to say they were done with basketball and to get ready for the next sport. But the seniors buckled down and played their best basketball at the most critical time of the year. I thought that was awesome.”

Not that the Huskies didn’t have to push past adversity.

Starters Ty Chinn and Kevin Davis both suffered late-season injuries. Chinn injured his foot in the district championship game, which hobbled him the rest of the postseason.

Davis suffered a concussion and didn’t return until late in the playoffs.

“Athletically, he (Davis) looked good, but the skill set side of it was a little rusty,” Christenson said.

Christenson pointed to wins against Pawnee, Barnsdall, Nowata and Lincoln Christian as some of the top season highlights.

Now, the focus is on the 2020-21 wars.