Cougars back in district title game, looking for different result

Feb. 23—College Heights is in the boys' Class 2 District 12 championship again in 2024. Last year, the Cougars fell to Marionville in the contest. The Comets moved up to Class 3 this year, so the Cougars don't have to worry about them again.

But in the way this time is an Ash Grove (19-7) team that is led by Brady Nicholson's 26 points per game. The Pirates have an array of weapons, though, as Bryce Davis tallied 28 in a semifinal victory over Liberal on Thursday night.

The championship game is set for 6 p.m. Saturday inside the College Heights Athletic Complex.

"I heard from somebody a long time ago, 'You can't stop them. You can only hope to contain them,'" College Heights head coach Stephan Harrel said of Ash Grove. "So that's what we plan to do. The one kid is averaging 26 points a game. ... He's a really good player. I told my kids he loves to elevate, and he can elevate and shoot from all kinds of angles. We have to get it out of his hands early. He can't be allowed to get into his rhythm.

"But what they showed the other night is that they're more than him. ... You can't go in there thinking that's all they got. They're a good team coached by a good coach."

Now, it wasn't an easy trip back to this spot by any means. College Heights struggled to a 5-6 record early in the year but has been able to turn that around for a 17-10 record now.

"First of all, I've got to give all glory and praise to God," Harrel said. "A lot of young teams, because we have a young team, could have folded and could have gotten mad at each other and start causing problems within the group."

That youth is mostly due to inexperience because the underclassmen weren't able to get many minutes on a senior-laden team last season. Harrel knew he just had to keep at it with his team and things would change.

"One thing that God put on my heart to continue to preach to them was to trust the process," Harrel said. "Everyone wants to be good, but no one wants to go through the process of how to be good."

The Cougars eventually bought into that, and things started to improve. They started a streak with a 63-40 win over Pierce City on Jan. 11. From that point on, they only lost one more game the rest of the month and were sitting at 12-7 entering February.

As a first-year head coach, Harrel talked about what it meant to him to get this team on the winning side of things and now into a district championship.

"It means everything because ... the talk was that College Heights graduated everybody and they are done," Harrel said. "I've been preaching to them we still have a lot of talent."

Harrel says his three seniors — Quade, Colsen Dickens and Ethan Ukena — helped to galvanize the team with their leadership during the early struggles.

"It was a process for them too. I'm not going to act like it happened overnight," Harrel said. "But they bought into the process and once everybody saw that they bought in they did as well."

Coach Harrel believes his team can match up well with Ash Grove. The Cougars and Pirates did not meet in the regular season but had seven mutual opponents.

Both teams lost to Greenwood — College Heights by 11 and Ash Grove by 15. CHCS lost to Crane by 1, while AG beat Crane. Both teams played Miller in the regular season, and the Pirates won that game by 24. The Cougars lost to the Cardinals by 7 back in December but avenged that with a 25-point win in the district semifinals Thursday night.

Those matchups appear pretty even and so do the point-per-game averages. Ash Grove scores the ball a little better at 66.5 compared with CHCS' 60 ppg. But the Cougars are a little tougher defensively, allowing 47.6 ppg in comparison with the 54.6 from the Pirates.

Ash Grove shoots a lot of 3-pointers, and coach Harrel says a key will be grabbing long rebounds and using that to get out in transition.