A close-knit group of seniors helped lead Trinity Catholic to a runner-up finish in the KSHSAA Class 2A Boys Basketball State Tournament this season at Fort Hays State University.
Kaleb Hammeke, Alex Hammersmith, Joshua Bridgewater, Jack Neal and Zane Schroeder not only share a bond in basketball, but are also bonded in life.
"I could not ask for a better group. These guys are truly, genuinely good kids. They compete hard on the court and are even better people off of it," Celtics head coach Joe Hammersmith said about the seniors after Trinity Catholic's 67-55 loss to Ness City in the Class 2A state title game March 9 at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"They have nothing to hang their heads about. It hurts now because they put a lot of time and effort into it. They wanted to get here. They will look back on this day years from now when they are talking to their kids," Coach Hammersmith said.
The Celtics went 22-4 during the 2018-19 basketball season and 9-2 in football last fall with Hammeke, Hammersmith, Neal and Schroeder on those teams. Bridgewater competed in cross country for Trinity Catholic, which finished 10th at the Class 2A state meet, before playing basketball. Hammeke, Hammersmith, Bridgewater and Schroeder also compete in track and field.
Hammeke, Hammersmith, Neal and Schroeder met when they attended kindergarten at Holy Cross.
"We started playing together in second grade and, we had so many kids in our class go out for basketball, they had two separate teams," Hammeke said. "We played against each other for awhile but, in sixth grade, we all joined the same team. Since then, we have been on the A team and the B team or the varsity and junior varsity, but we have been together the whole time."
Alex Hammersmith said those early games were a challenge.
"It was always frustrating playing basketball against Kaleb because he's always been our best ballhandler and our best shooter," Alex Hammersmith said. "I think I always going up against Jack, as well, because he was another big player."
Today, Alex Hammersmith stands 6-foot-2 and Neal checks in at 6-3.
"I really think I was on a team with Kaleb while Alex and Zane were on another team," Neal said. "I think they divided us up pretty equally."
Playing against each other early on helped the Celtics' seniors in the long run.
"You know how the other players play and you learn their strengths because you had to defend them," Alex Hammersmith said.
Schroeder said his squad took some early lumps.
"It seemed like the only time we ever won was when Kaleb wasn't there," Schroeder said with a smile.
In addition to Trinity Catholic's varsity staff of Coach Hammersmith and assistant coach Charles Smalling, Jack's dad -- David Neal -- has been a continuous mentor to the Celtics' seniors.
"We have always expected to win when we step onto the basketball court," Hammeke said. "Jack's dad coached us early on and he's been there with us, even this season as a volunteer varsity assistant coach. He has helped with our continuity through the years."
Bridgewater, a native of the Caribbean Island of Trinidad and Tobago, came to Hutchinson in 2018, when the Celtics' seniors welcomed him into their group.
"It's been a completely different experience for me coming to the United States," Bridgewater said. "I didn't expect to meet a great group of guys who have been pushing me to succeed during practice. They made me into a better player each time we practiced, and that boosted my confidence."
The Trinity Catholic seniors love basketball so much that they play it year-round.
"It depends on the time of the year but, if it's summertime, we like to get together and play basketball in Kaleb's backyard," Neal said. "He has a big concrete slab that his dad painted the lines of half-court. We have always went over there to play."
The pickup games sometimes were played with an 8-foot rim. When 6-9 Bridgewater joined, they had to raised it up a few feet.
A benefit to attending a small schools allows the Celtics' seniors to participate in a variety of activities. Neal is the student council president. They are also Pratt Academic Olympians, have lead roles in school musicals and plays and participate in scholar bowls all while maintaining GPAs of 3.5 or higher.
"There are 250 students in our school, and all of our friends are involved in other activities," Hammeke said. "If you're not doing those things with them, it feels like we're missing out on great experiences."
Alex Hammersmith agreed.
"You have to be involved in many different activities or you will not go far," Alex Hammersmith said.