Throughout the 2009-10 high school basketball season, Ottawa High boys coach Jon McKowen faced what you might call a fortunate problem.
On a team packed with talented players who could seemingly score at will — the Cyclones’ Kevin Barber, Adam Hasty and Semi Ojeleye would garner three of the five spots on the All-Frontier League first team — the biggest issue facing the coach was trying to get them to shoot more.
“The only thing that those kids had negative was they were too unselfish,” said McKowen, the Journal-World’s boys basketball coach of the year. “We’d tell them, ‘We need you to be more selfish.’ I’ve never had a team that you’d have had to ask to do that.”
Thanks largely to those unselfish tendencies, Ottawa breezed to a program-best 22-4 record and second-place finish at the Class 4A state tournament, turning in the school’s best finish since the Cyclones won a state title in 1971.
Four players averaged double-figures in points this season, and, perhaps most notably, no one felt entitled to an increased load offensively.
“It was balanced every game,” McKowen said. “It wasn’t like one person went off one game, and somebody else another game. From a coaching standpoint, it was whoever had the mismatch or whoever was getting helped off was able to take advantage of the mismatch.”
The approach worked well enough. Ottawa rolled through the regular season and postseason with little problem — turning in victories of 85-25 and 73-29 in the process — before running into the buzzsaw that is Kansas City’s Sumner Academy in the 4A title game, falling, 66-45, for just its fourth loss of the season.
And while he admits that the sting of coming one victory short of a state title still lingers, McKowen also can appreciate the accomplishment of being in the rare position to battle for a state crown.
“I guarantee if you sat down at the beginning of the year, we would have signed up for second place (if it was offered to us),” said the coach. “It hurt. It still hurts today that we didn’t win it. But when you look back on it a few years from now, it’s going to be a great memory.”