‘It’s a special group’: Lions’ emphasis on playing as a team has been key to strong season
photo by: Chance Parker
As a four-year player, senior standout Zeke Mayo has been on a lot of great basketball teams during his time with the Lawrence High boys basketball program.
In Mayo’s illustrious career alone, the Lions have made it to the state tournament all four seasons. They have also won three straight Sunflower League titles, including outright crowns this year and in 2018-19. LHS is 70-20 (and counting) over this four-year stretch.
Yet, according to Mayo at least, this year’s 20-1 semifinal bound squad might be the best of the bunch.
“These guys are really probably the best team I’ve ever played with at Lawrence High School,” Mayo said following Lawrence’s 52-47 road win over Blue Valley Northwest Monday night in the Class 6A quarterfinals.
“That says a lot, because I’ve been with some great groups,” Mayo added. “This team is just very, very special. We all have come together as one unit.”
To fully understand the significance of that proclamation, consider the recent run of playmakers who have put on an LHS jersey. The Lions have 13 former players currently playing collegiate basketball.
It illustrates the talent that has come through the program as of late, and why the Lions have made a program-record seven straight trips to the state tourney. But this year’s squad is the first group to advance to the Class 6A semifinals since 2017, when the LHS lost to Blue Valley Northwest in the state championship game.
“We play as a team,” Mayo said of why this year’s group is special. “Nobody has no ego or nothing. We just play basketball. When you just play basketball, things like this come out. I’m just proud of everybody.”
Lawrence head coach Mike Lewis would obviously never admit to this being the best group over the last four seasons; that’d be like asking him to pick his favorite child after all. In truth, there has been something special about each of the last seven squads — because they all ended up in Wichita.
Still, there is something to be said about how this year’s unit really bought into putting the team first during a season impacted by a pandemic.
“It’s a special group,” Lewis said. “The group as a whole is just such a pleasure to coach and work with and I haven’t had very many bad days at all this year when I’ve been coming home after practice.”
photo by: Chance Parker
Mayo was the lone returning starter entering the season, but Lawrence found immediate success because everyone embraced their role on the team. LHS won its first eight games to begin the year, seven of which were by double digits.
Junior guard Truman Juelsgaard attributed some of those instant results to the continuity of the junior class. He, Pearse Long, Jack Ryan, Grant Cleavinger and Avion Nelson have all played together since their freshman year.
Seniors Jackson Dooley, Corban Oberzan and Ntense Obono have all done their part to contribute this season as well.
“It’s definitely a role game,” Juelsgaard said. “If we are all focusing on trying to put the ball through the hoop, we are going to lose because you need to do your role.”
That was never more obvious than the final six minutes of Lawrence’s 52-47 win at Blue Valley Northwest. After faltering in the fourth quarter of a 72-50 loss to the Huskies in the same gym on Jan. 26, the Lions came together as a team down the stretch in the playoff rematch.
Everybody did their part to help hold Blue Valley Northwest scoreless over the final 5:59 of the contest. Juelsgaard and Dooley both provided sound defense down the stretch, despite the fact that both were playing with four fouls.
“I’m just so proud of the toughness and so proud of the team play,” Lewis said. “Our guys are together, and we just got it done with the eight guys that we have.”
Obono made a huge hustle play by going for the ball on a missed free throw. Long hit a pair of clutch freebies to provide some breathing room right after that. Nelson’s tenacious defensive effort led to a huge turnover one possession later.
Thanks to the effort from Oberzan and Obono on the defensive end, Blue Valley Northwest Jack Chapman was scoreless in the second half of his eventual 14-point performance. He scored 20 in the regular-season meeting between these two teams.
Ryan also provided valuable minutes off the bench for the Lions, who have had to play without Cleavinger this postseason. Sophomore Macade Lewis, senior Jabari Johnson, sophomore Kenton Simmons and freshman Zaxton King didn’t play, though their energy from the bench throughout the game was evident in what was a rare road quarterfinal matchup.
Mayo, of course, made the biggest play of the night by drawing a charge with 1:30 left to play. He also scored a game-high 27 points on 10-of-21 shooting from the floor.
“Zeke is an awesome leader, and I love him,” Juelsgaard said. “He told us in the huddle that this is the biggest minute in our life. We just stepped up and we did all we could.”
Behind Mayo’s magnificence, along with the rest of the team buying into their role and doing their part, the Lions will enter the Class 6A semifinals as the top seed remaining.
Lawrence, which was the No. 2 seed before knocking off Blue Valley Northwest, was reseeded to the top of the four-team bracket. LHS will face Blue Valley North (19-3) at 3 p.m. Thursday at Wichita State University, with a trip to the state title game on the line.
Blue Valley North eliminated LHS in the state tournament last year, and was also the only other team to defeat Blue Valley Northwest this season with a 63-62 victory on Feb. 5.
“They’re big, and they really like to get in and play high-low basketball and that’s one of their strengths,” Lewis said. “You just have to be prepared for what we’ve seen so far, but then also (be) prepared to adjust and do what you need to do to win on Thursday.”
Class 6A state semifinals
No. 1 Lawrence (20-1) vs. No. 4 Blue Valley North (19-3), 3 p.m. Thursday
No. 2 Haysville-Campus (20-2) vs. No. 3 Lawrence-Free State (20-3), 7 p.m. Thursday
• State championship will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday
Final four history
No. 1 Lawrence: 16th semifinal appearance, 12 state title game appearances (last in 2017), 4 state championships (last in 1995)
No. 2 Haysville-Campus: 4th semifinal appearance, 1 state title game appearance (1988), 0 state championships
No. 3 Free State: 4th semifinal appearance, 1 state title game appearance (2018), 0 state championships
No. 4 Blue Valley North: 9th semifinal appearance, 2 state title game appearances (2014), 1 state championship (1997)