Having not played in a month, the Sonic Shootout at Neosho County Community College in Chanute over the New Year’s holiday is just the remedy for the undefeated and ninth-ranked Barton Cougars basketball team.
The Cougars open play on New Year’s night, taking on Missouri State University-West Plains at 6, followed by meeting Paris (Texas) Junior College on Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Using a blueprint of NJCAA national tournament entry Seward County’s holiday scheduling last season, Barton, currently 12-0, slated a pair of games over the break. It’s an effort to avoid what transpired a year ago: back-to-back losses to Seward — the defending Jayhawk West champion — and Dodge City to open conference play.
“Last year, we were 14-0 and we watched Seward go to the very same tournament,” said Barton head coach Craig Fletchall of the Sonic Shootout. “When we opened against Seward a couple days later, their conditioning was superior. They were game-ready, and we weren’t.
“Consequently, we got out of the gate 0-2. We’re trying to duplicate what (Seward) did. We’re trying to get a couple games under our belt. Understandably, the games will be a little sloppy. We’d like to win them both, but the goal is to get the game rust off and get back and prepare for conference.”
The Cougars travel to Liberal to play Seward on Saturday to open conference play, followed by playing host to Dodge City on Monday, Jan. 7, at brand-new LT & Sheila Fleske Court inside Kirkman Activity Center. On Wednesday, Jan. 9, Barton travels to Garden City, followed by the Cougars returning home to face Jayhawk East foe Butler on Saturday, Jan. 12.
“The neat thing about this year is that we actually have a Monday game thrown in there,” Fletchall said. “When we get back, we play Saturday, Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, so we’re going to play six games in 11 days coming off a one-month layoff.
“West Plains and Parris are as good as any of the teams we played in the first semester. We’re definitely getting a chance to play conference- and playoff-level teams.”
Because the final coat of gloss is still drying on the new court at Barton, the Cougars practiced on Friday and Saturday at the Hoisington Activities Center and plan to do so again today.
“We had a 3.1 GPA and I think the guys are anxious for conference,” Fletchall said. “The sophomores have been leaders, and I think that was lacking a little bit last year. This sophomore class really wants to win a conference title.
“They came back in good spirits and have good attitudes.”
Seward County captured the West crown with a 12-4 record, followed by Hutchinson and Cloud County, both 11-5, and Barton, 10-6. In the postseason, the Cougars advanced to the Region VI semifinals, falling to Cowley.
“Everybody thinks about how you finish, but you get out of the gate slow, I’ve seen what it has done to teams,” Fletchall said. “In a tiebreaker, if we could have won one of those games. We have talked at length about last year and the sophomores remember it, but the reality of it is, as much as I liked our guys last year, I don’t think they maximized their time over the break.
“I think this a group of kids that got in the gym and worked on their game.”
Barton guard Al Key is averaging a team-best 19.8 points while shooting 51.6 percent from the floor (83 for 161). Key and Turon Parker lead the team with 50 assists apiece, and Parker, who is averaging 12.1 points, has a team-high 30 steals. Key has 26.
Andell Cumberbatch is averaging 14.9 points. He is shooting 56.3 percent from the field (63 for 112) and 39.3 percent on 3-pointers (11 for 28).
“Individually, pound-for-pound, maybe not the best,” Fletchall said of his sophomore guard trio. “But collectively, how they feed off of each other and how unselfish they are, I think it’s the best backcourt in the league.”