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H/LHF returns four core members of state title team

March 13, 2019 GMT

There’s been nothing like it in Humphrey for almost 40 years. After a post-game meal at HuHot and a return to Pinnacle Bank Arena for the first half of the C-2 championship game, the Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family boys basketball team eventually returned home as conquering heroes.

Waiting on the edge of town to welcome the team back was a fire engine that escorted the team bus through Humphrey trumpeting the return of the 2019 Class D-1 state champions.

Phone calls and text messages from friends and family were too numerous to count for coach Joe Hesse. Once the team arrived back at school and finally separated for the first time in four days, Hesse went downtown where almost all of the conversation had to do with H/LHF’s historic achievement.

Chances are, few remained at the local watering holes and restaurants that were also there to celebrate in 1980 when another group of Bulldogs returned with Humphrey’s only other boys state championship (Lindsay Holy Family won one of its own as well in 2005).

Just about 72 hours in Lincoln, three wins and a lifetime of memories. There’s something about bringing a championship back to a small town that folks in places like Lincoln and Omaha will never truly understand.

There’s also something about sequels to Hollywood classics. They never seem to live up to the predecessor.

Yet, while Hesse and the Bulldogs should be allowed to bask in glory of their achievement, allow me to be the one wondering aloud if this scene will play itself out all over again next year.

Sure, there’s nothing like the first one, and 39 years is a long time to wait. But wasn’t Godfather II better than the original?

Could a team that returns four core players be even better than the one that beat all three state tournament opponents by 15 points or more?

Should there be a spot left open in the trophy case for more?

“I really haven’t moved on just yet. I’ve never been in this situation before. Everybody who picked up a program and sees the kids that we bring back, you know that we’re going to be pretty good,” Hesse said. “Obviously, expectations are going to change, but I don’t want it to get to the point where we can’t enjoy having a good season.”

Buckle up coach. No matter how much Hesse will try and temper expectations, he’ll be hard pressed to keep his fan base from becoming spoiled.

As he mentioned, it’s easy to see why. A glance at the roster shows that the Sjuts brothers and starting point guard Bret Hanis will return next year.

Freshman Jason Sjuts led the team in scoring in Thursday’s victory and was the only Bulldog on the roster with an average in double figures at 11.6 per game. Twin brother Jason had the honor of scoring the most points in the championship game and hit a 3-pointer that will likely go down as the most famous shot in program history.

Hanis was the star in Friday’s semifinal game, swishing five 3-pointers.

Older brother Tyler Sjuts had his moments as well, namely a make from 3 for a 10-point lead in the win over Bergan that came just moments after Jacob’s memorable shot, seven points on Saturday and another seven two days earlier.

Those four have grown and developed together over years of competition in organized basketball and in neighborhood games on the family hoop. Their chemistry is a major reason H/LHF rose above all others for a state championship.

Jason and Jacob are only freshmen. They’re, conceivably, only going to get better.

The same can be said for older brother Tyler and family friend Hanis. This past season was the first chance all four had to be together on a varsity court.

Needless to say, they caught and exceeded what ever learning curve may have initially been in place.

But of course, things will be different. H/LHF won’t have the same kind of inside/outside threat after the graduation of true post player Ethan Hanzel. The Bulldogs will also miss the tenacity of Turner Beller and the experience and confidence of Dylan Hanzel.

With that in mind, how different will the team look when it attempts the back-to-back? Will H/LHF have to do it a different way?

“That’s going to be interesting. I don’t know if one of the twins is going to have to slide in (to play in the paint). We might actually be a little more athletic,” Hesse said. “Jason and Jacob are probably only going to get bigger, might get a little taller, probably going to fill out.

“If you have Jason in the block and he’s 6-4 or 6-5, and he can still run and move, maybe that helps you forget about a true back-to-the-basket guy.”

And there’s no guarantee anyone on the team can develop into that role. The current era of basketball doesn’t exactly lend itself to center play even when having a player like Ethan Hanzel can be a big advantage.

Then there’s the problem of potential foul trouble. Jason and Jacob came off the bench. They were the first subs in the rotation and available in emergency situations if a starter drew early whistles.

There won’t be that kind of margin of error with them in the starting lineup.

The full-court pressure defense may then have to dial it back a bit. Though H/LHF built much of its success on frustrating opponents, filling passing lanes and creating turnovers for easy baskets, the Bulldogs may not be able to play with the same kind of intensity.

If a few other freshman who Hesse planned on developing into impact players as junior reach their potential a year ahead of schedule, then that may not change at all.

Fellow state tournament teams Fremont Bergan, Paxton and Wauneta-Palisade graduate important seniors, but Nebraska City Lourdes and Hartington-Newcastle, like H/LHF, bring back several key members.

Needless to say, 2020 is filled with its questions, its challenges, what ifs, other events and elements impossible to predict at this point. Still, you’ve got to like the Bulldogs chances, even if they’re quite ready to move on just yet.

“What happened this year was pretty special, not everybody gets to do it,” Hesse said. “Man, if we win 20-plus games and we don’t make it to a championship, it would be too bad if you couldn’t enjoy it and it was disappointing to you.

“I personally don’t want to get caught up in the trophy. Our kids were playing their best basketball at the end of the season this year. That’s what you want.”

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sports@columbustelegram.com