HUTCHINSON — Barton Cougar basketball coach Craig Fletchall swept away a few happy tears when he hugged his starters at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
Happy homecomings are like that.
Things grew emotional in the final seconds when Fletchall achieved a life-long goal of coaching Barton to a victory in the 2018 NJCAA Basketball Tournament. The Cougars downed Tyler, Texas 86-63 in Monday’s opening round at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
“Fletch” grew up with the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, begging players for autographs with the wit and wisdom of a cartoon character.
“It was emotional when I took my starters off the court,” Fletchall said. “To do this in front of my family and friends is pretty cool. Having my 94-year-old mom (Mary) here was special. There are different eyes on you at this tournament. It’s a unique tournament.”
Mary Fletchall, Fletch’s 94-year-old mother, offered her son no guarantees, although she knew who the smartest coach was.
“May the best team win,” she predicted. “He’s been blessed to work at something he really loves.”
Fletch is one of those rare coaches who has never messed with “happy.” He treasures Great Bend, his lifestyle and the friendly people in central Kansas.
After serving as a head basketball coach in junior college for 18 years — Fletch returned home.
He was greeted like a rock star, taking time to share a moment with well-wishers and friends he sees annually in Hutchinson.
However, this time was different. Fletch was coaching his team, not simply watching the festivities. Listening to Fletchall coach is priceless with his endless quips to referees, players and anyone close by.
“Hopefully, I can enjoy it a bit,” he said. “I want my team to experience everything I’ve experienced the past 35 years.”
Three times, Fletchall was one victory away from coaching in his hometown at the NJCAA Tournament.
This time, Fletchall’s basketball team was invited to the NJCAA party as one of eight non-district champions.
“We’re blessed to be here. Hopefully, we’ll represent our region well,” Fletchall said. “We’ve talked about playing hard and enjoying the moment.”
As usual, Barton trailed 10-4 at the outset. The Cougars employed a 13-0 scoring run to take control for a 43-29 halftime lead.
“We finished the half strong, which is not common for us,” Fletchall said.
Honestly, Tyler had little chance with its one-on-one basketball approach. Tyler featured bigger, stronger players.
But the Cougars were too quick and too elusive for the Apaches.
Barton’s 22 assists keyed by “Squeaky” Wilkins six showed off teamwork that Tyler was unable to handle. The Cougars featured five players in double figures with Wilkins (21) and Hutchinson native Noah Webster (18) keying the offense.
Sparkplug Marvin Cannon grabbed 14 rebounds with 10 points. He blocked four shots, seemingly appearing out of nowhere to swat away shots. Wilkins was everywhere, driving, dishing and scoring at will.
Webster’s highlight-reel dunk against Tyler’s Cameron Johnson capped the Cougars’ festive morning.
“The crowd we had here really helped us,” Webster said. “I grew up with this tournament. It’s crazy we’re here to get this opportunity. I had a lot of friends and family here.”
Barton’s reward for winning is a 2 p.m. Tuesday game against No. 1 Indian Hills, Iowa (33-0). Indian Hills features powerful players built on the backs of full-ride scholarships that offer books, tuition and room and board.
On paper, the Cougars are bigger underdogs than UMBC was against the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers.
We all know that one turned out.
Jim Misunas is Sports Editor of the Great Bend Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.