A core of the Cyclones squad — which were seniors this season — began playing basketball together in their elementary years. They were good back then.
The squad won most of their tournaments. Semi Ojeleye was the tallest and most skilled offensively at that early age.
Basketball became more serious as the group entered middle school. They went undefeated and showed a lot of promise.
The group was split up during their freshman season. Ojeleye was elevated to the varsity, while the others were on the freshman and junior varsity teams.
Those nine players stuck it out and finally made their way to the varsity last season. All returned for their senior season.
It was all about winning a state championship. A goal that eluded this group for three years and the school for 41 years.
The Cyclones put together a dream 25-0 season, culminating with a 54-45 win Saturday over Highland Park in the 4A state championship game in Salina.
Senior Alex Hasty said journey was about taking it one step at a time.
“I would not have wanted it any other way,” he said. “It is extra special. It is not like we have next year. We have tons of athletes that have been part of the program forever.
“For Semi, it is great to send him off to Duke [as a champion]. We will not see a player like him for awhile. We wanted to end it the right way.”
Senior Dallas Natt joined the group as a freshman. He fit in well.
“It is amazing,” Natt said. “A great group of guys to play with.”
The other seniors were Kaden Shaffer, Wyatt Peters, Dillon Boeh, Jordan Markley, Austin Blaue and Taylor Graf.
This group — which also included sophomores Tyler Smith and Quentin Blaue — became students of the game. Preparation went well beyond most programs. The players studied film and took notes on their opponent.
“Our film sessions revolve all around the team we are playing,” Natt said. “We know all about the other players [and plays]. Probably better then they do. We do a great job in the film room.”
The players watched Highland Park live in its semifinal win over Abilene.
Natt said all of the players wrote down lots of notes and took that knowledge to the floor.
The Scots were held to 29 percent shooting.
“We put in the extra effort,” Hasty said. “We watched film and took notes. We knew how to beat them. The whole game we stuck to the game plan.”
The Ottawa seniors began plotting their final season together after last year’s disappointing loss to Basehor-Linwood in the 4A title game.
“The night we lost, we texted to each other and told each other to focus on next year,” Hasty said. “Next year is our year.
“Basehor pushed us around. Everybody got dedicated to the weight room. We got bigger, faster and stronger.”
This team played with a business-like attitude all season.
“Do not stop until it says triple zero,” Natt said pointing to the scoreboard. “Play to the end. It is our last time together. Last time to be in these jerseys together.”
The focal point was Ojeleye, who became the top scorer in the 102 years of basketball in Kansas. He was front and center of all the opponents’ coaches game plans.
He became a celebrity, especially after committing to Duke.
But his focus was all about winning and making his teammates better.
“It was tough every game,” Ojeleye said. “Everybody knows our team is good and they’re coming after us with that target on our backs so have to come our every night and bring our ‘A’ game.”
Ottawa coach Jon McKowen said what separated Ojeleye was more than talent.
“It is because of his work ethic,” McKowen said. “Everybody gets to enjoy what he does on the floor during the game. He wanted to go to the gym after the first-round [state] game.
“It is not just skill. That is what makes him special. That is what will make him successful at Duke. I can’ wait to watch him on TV.”
Ojeleye said he appreciated his teammates, coaches and a caring community.
“It has been a great four years,” he said. “It is a blessing. I would not have wanted to play anywhere else.”