MAYSVILLE, Mo. — North Platte didn’t win, but the Panthers weren’t outclassed.
Even in a 56-30 loss to top-seeded Hamilton, North Platte’s development showed Thursday, Feb. 25 in a Class 2 District 16 semifinal. The Panthers’ season ended in the same round for a third straight season, but they also finished with a winning record under coach Tim Sutton — North Platte’s third coach in a span of three seasons.
After the game, Sutton erased the final message he put on his white board prior to the game: “We will celebrate tonight.”
“I’ve erased the board,” Sutton said. “That was a little bit of a setup because we were either celebrating a victory or celebrating a really nice year for these kids.
“There’s a lot for these kids to celebrate tonight in my mind.”
Sutton came to North Platte late last spring with the program in a bit of tumult and in need of a successful transition. He inherited four seniors — Andrew Roberts, Anthony Hernandez, Kyle Ewing and Austin Reynolds — but roles were mostly undefined to start the season.
New plays and sets were being installed right up until the final practice, a work in progress that netted positive results along the way.
Roberts opened the season as the obvious focal point for North Platte, while Hernandez quickly developed into an outside threat. By the end of the season, Ewing developed into a reliable third scoring option, and the Panthers’ triumphs included a December win vs. shorthanded Hamilton in the KCI Conference Tournament and an upset of Mid-Buchanan to claim the North Platte Invitational title for the first time in a decade.
Despite a misleading 1-6 record in KCI play, North Platte finished at 14-13 — the first winning records since 2008-2009, according to Missouri State High School Activities Association records.
“I’m very proud,” Hernandez said. “There’s always expectations, and I had very high expectations for us seniors. We’ve been down in the dumps. We’ve struggled with playing to our level, and this year, that was my main focus. I wanted to play to our level and not down to our opponents.
“I feel like this year we kind of started a legacy. We left our mark and hopefully started a tradition.”
North Platte lost its last four of the regular season but found a way to top Polo in the first round to earn a third matchup with Hamilton.
Early on in the semifinal, North Platte committed a pair of turnovers — the first turned into a Telly Harper dunk and the second into an easy layup. Roberts responded with a 3-pointer to cut the Panthers’ deficit to 4-3.
“I don’t know if we came out nervous or butterflies or what,” Sutton said, “but certainly the first 50 seconds didn’t go well.”
A quick run of six unanswered forced North Platte to scramble again and despite being within five a few more times, Hamilton closed the quarter with a 6-0 run to establish a double-digit lead that remained the rest of the way.
North Platte went down as much 15 in the first half before losing touch with the Hornets after halftime.
Despite the deficit, Roberts continued to attack the rim on his way to a team-high 18 points in his final game. He continued to try and close the gap until Sutton removed the starters with just more than a minute left in regulation, allowing the seniors and regular contributors to share some emotional hugs with the result no longer in doubt.
Ewing added eight, while Bart Owens and Hernandez scored two apiece.
All but two points in the final game came from seniors. Now, the work starts over again — to build a more consistent program with more consistent leadership in place.
“Losing a really nice group of kids — great people and nice players,” Sutton said. “Hard work? That’s not exactly how I’d describe it. A privilege is what I’d say. North Platte kids, there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. They’re a pleasure to coach.”
North Platte 59, Polo 54
Hernandez’s five 3s helped assure North Platte of a winning record during a first round victory Tuesday, Feb. 23.
North Platte held on for the win with Hernandez totaling 17 points, while Ewing (14 points) and Roberts (11 points) also finished in double figures. Parker Smith scored a game-high 26 for Polo, which trailed 33-25 at halftime and couldn’t mount a comeback.