Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Hornets Cagers Created Special Buzz in 2019-20

Paul Sturm
The 2019-20 Chillicothe High School basketball Hornets, seen after winning the championship of the Camerin Invitational Tournament Feb. 1, produced one of the program's best seasons in a quarter-century, going 21-5, finishing second in the Midland Empire Conference and placing second in two tournaments - including district - in addition to the crown they won at Cameron.

By PAUL STURM, C- T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Given that the vast majority of high school sports teams in Missouri – regardless of the sport – finish their seasons with a defeat and the emotional “downer” that often entails, traditional postseason recognition events for those teams can help to send the season packing with the focus on positive developments and accomplishments. When a team sustains a particularly-stinging loss in its final outing, such events can help place that outcome in a better and, often, more-appropriate perspective.

A couple of circumstances this past March – one self-imposed and the other beyond anyone’s control – prevented the Chillicothe High School basketball Hornets from gathering as a group one last time, after what head coach Tim Cool still calls a “crushing” last-minute loss on their home floor in the district tournament championship game, to reset the perspective away from that setback to the bigger-picture accomplishments of as good a season as the program has had this century.

“It was really tough, because we were unable to have closure on the season,” admitted the coach last week when contacted for this article’s preparation.

The district-finals defeat – in a game in which the top-seeded CHS boys never trailed until the final basket – put a damper on what would have been an epic night for CHS basketball. Preceded by the Lady Hornets’ capture of the Class 3 District 14 crown, had the Hornets followed suit, it both would have been the first time since 1997-98 that both CHS cage clubs had won district titles and advanced to state tournament play and the unprecedented achievement of having that sweep occur on their home court.

It also put a still-dissipating sour final taste in the mouths of team members and Hornets fans alike, a taste in sharp, sharp contrast to the many sweet moments the squad consistently created and experienced.

Over a span of more than two months, the 2019-20 Hornets sustained one solitary loss – a 78-60 loss to Kansas City’s St. Michael the Archangel, a 2018-19 state quarterfinalist and 2019-20 district finalist, while racking up 16 victories. The stretch included a dozen consecutive triumphs, the longest such skein for the CHS boys’ program in 22 years, and helped pave the way to an undisputed second-place finish behind perennial champion St. Joseph: Lafayette the Midland Empire Conference standings.

“We had some big wins, including conference home victories over (St. Joseph:) Benton Maryville, and Savannah,” Cool recalls. “A Cameron Tournament championship (defeating keenest rival Maryville a second time), beating (Kansas City:) Hogan Prep at the (North Central Missouri College) Holiday Hoops event, and knocking off Camdenton in their ‘shootout’ were also exciting season highlights.”

The MEC wins cited had special aspects beyond helping the Hornets go 6-1 in conference play.

Edging Benton by three in early February balanced out a 3-points loss to the Cardinals in the championship game of the season-opening Savannah Invitational Tournament that left the Hornets 1-2 after the first week of the season. They’d lose only once in the next 10 weeks.

Similarly, the 52-25 triumph over Savannah in mid-February countered an unexpected 5-points loss to the Savages in the season opener on the SHS court. The Hornets’ runaway included allowance of only nine points in the first half on the way to that 12th-consecutive victory.

The Jan. 14 home victory over Maryville by 13 points ended a 3-seasons, 7-games victory drought against the Spoofhounds and was followed, 2-1/2 weeks later, by a 12-tallies triumph over MHS in the championship game of the Cameron Invitational – one of three tourney-title games in which the Hornets appeared.

Even with the 1-point defeat in the district final, this past season’s Hornets’ 21-5 record trails only the 22-5 mark two years ago as the Chillicothe boys’ best not only this century, but also since the 30-2 state-runnerup season of 1997-98.

“This was a special group,” Cool commented in the aftermath of the finale against Richmond. “They bought in from day one.”

Providing both leadership and production which supplied a team outline others blended their talents and capabilities into was the experienced and accomplished senior duo of Westley Brandsgaard and C.J. Pfaff, both multi-years starters and standouts heading into the 2019-20 season.

“Those guys aren’t going to take games off. They’re going to be ready to play,” Cool said during the season. “That’s a comforting thing for a coach.”

They brought not only their already-established “games” to last season’s Hornets, but upgraded levels of performance which ultimately left fourth-year starter Brandsgaard honored with Missouri Basketball Coaches Association All-State status in Class 3 and easily could have seen Pfaff given the same laurels.

Statistically, both were major-impact players in multiple facets.

The husky, 6’4” Brandsgaard, who sharpened his outside shooting considerably, both sniped and powered his way to a team-best scoring average of 20.3 points as he moved past the 1,500-points milestone for his career late in the season. He finished his CHS career with the fourth-most points by a Hornet ever, including a program-record 141 career 3-pointers (breaking Mason Hayward’s former mark of 124). With a career-high 144 foul shots made in ’19-’20, he completed his Chillicothe tenure with 456, second-most in team history to his uncle Justin Bland’s 465.

A 56-percent shooter overall from the floor and 76-percent ace at the free-throw line, Brandsgaard also averaged 5.7 rebounds, two assists, and nearly 1-1/2 steals a game during his Hornets swan song. He also often was called on to defend opponents’ best offensive player.

“Wes consistently featured his versatility as a scorer,” the CHS coach observed at the time of Brandsgaard’s All-State selection, which followed his being the top pick of MEC coaches for the all-conference team. “Whether he was hitting 3-point shots, slashing to the rim from the perimeter, or punishing opponents in the low post, Wes was always a threat to score.

“He was also one of the best defenders I have had the privilege of coaching, always capable of shutting down the other team's top threat.”

Brandsgaard didn’t content himself with statistically “abusing” opponents, either. His approach in practice both set an example for teammates and provided “iron” for them to sharpen themselves against, Cool reported at that time, as well.

“He set the tone every day in practice. His work ethic, determination, and leadership have made us all better,” the coach lauded.

Pfaff’s 3-years varsity career saw his play and impact take strides as long as his seemingly-ever-stretching frame, which appeared to have reached 6’5” by the time his senior season ended.

Coupling the guard skills he’d developed when younger and shorter with canny court sense he exploited both as a defensive ballhawk and rebounder, the lanky Pfaff – called by his coach “a next-level player and an even-better person” – emerged in his senior year as a dynamic, at-times dominating, all-around performer.

“C.J. was very special on the floor for a number of reasons,” Cool says.

“He is extremely intelligent and especially savvy which are great qualities for a basketball player. As our point guard, CJ made everyone around him better. He was also very capable of scoring at a high level if needed.”

When the final buzzer of the season finale unhappily ended the CHS season sooner than desired, Pfaff was atop team averages in rebounds (8.7), assists (3.3), steals (2.1), and shot blocks (1.9) per game, while nearly matching classmate Brandsgaard’s points productivity. He also led the Hornets in those non-scoring stats as a junior.

The twosome finished their senior years attempting exactly the same number of field goals (301) and converting them at nearly the same rate – Brandsgaard hitting 168 (55.8 percent) and Pfaff 165 (54.8). Hitting 41-plus percent from long distance, the latter had a couple more treys (49-47), meaning he produced 379 on baskets and Brandsgaard 382. Because he attempted exactly 70 fewer free throws – while hitting at the same 76 percent clip, Pfaff’s still-impressive scoring average trailed his running mate’s by a couple of points a game at 18.0.

Given his statistical superiority in the four non-scoring statistical categories, a convincing case could be made that Pfaff’s impact on the Hornets’ tremendous success – he was named all-district by area media and coaches, as well as first-team all-MEC – was equivalent to his more-veteran counterpart.

Pfaff’s terrific 12th-grade season included him posting twin figures in points and boards 10 times in 26 outings, almost-assuredly the first Hornet to do so that often since All-Stater Bland.

With his big senior season, Pfaff slipped past the 1,000-points threshold for career scoring, making it only the second time ever the Hornets had teammates who’d reached quadruple digits, career-wise. The other occasion was late in the 1995-96 season when then-sophomore Bland moved beyond 1,000, joining then-senior Eric Hemmer there.

“C.J. electrified our fans with high-flying dunks, great passes, and silky smooth 3-point shots,” Cool acknowledges. “We are really going to miss him.”

As a tandem, Brandsgaard and Pfaff rank with the best multi-seasons, 1-2 punches ever to wear the red and black, in the company of Bland and E. Hemmer and Mitch Parrish and Neil Surber and perhaps others.

“We were able to witness Wes and CJ surpass some career milestones and put their names with some impressive company in the school’s record book,” affirms Cool.

A third senior – Bradley Riley – started every game for the 2019-20 Hornets and provided valuable, multi-faceted contributions.

Having, like Pfaff, continued to grow noticeably taller throughout his high school years, the 6’4” Riley was tasked by the coaching staff with making the adjustment from playing primarily as a guard on offense to being a post forward.

While lacking the bulk to be a power player on the block, Riley blended his height and his backcourt-honed vision and passing skills to form, with Brandsgaard, an effective and interchangeable high-low presence around the paint.

He averaged almost seven (6.9) points and five (4.7) rebounds per game, both third-most on the squad, while earning 1.7 assists a night on average. He surprisingly topped the squad in offensive rebounds with 41, one more than Brandsgaard, as he gained all-MEC honorable mention.

The Hornets’ fourth 2019-20 senior was a transfer who had Chillicothe family connections.

Joseph Tullos, a 6’7” center, shifted east from Cameron to the school at which some cousins had played with distinction in the 1990s and provided inside depth and some productive work as both a rebounder and scorer. While his overall numbers weren’t large, his per-minutes productivity was healthy.

Aside from the senior foursome, this past season’s Hornets had only three sophomores or juniors, but supplemented them with four freshmen – one of whom played very extensively.

Juniors Mason Baxter and Hayden Simmer routinely joined Riley, Brandsgaard, and Pfaff in the starting five, with frosh Griff Bonderer the top reserve. Ninth grader Cayden Potter got in quite a bit of time as a backup forward, but the height and versatility of the Pfaff-Riley-Brandsgaard trio allowed Cool to mostly rotate six players in and out of the action.

Also earning varsity letters were freshmen Wyatt Brandsgaard and Landon Winder and sophomore Kyle Young, the latter two getting very sparing minutes.

Baxter, a second-year starter, helped share the ballhandling duties with Pfaff and Brandsgaard, but most specifically was looked to as a defensive force against the opposition’s best guard.

The quick, high-jumping 5’9” 11th grader finished second on the team in both assists (3.0 per game) and steals (1.5), while also chipping in about four points and 3-1/2  rebounds.

Simmer, given the surrounding cast, largely was utilized as a spot-up perimeter shooter on offense this past season, but made just as large a contribution at the other end of the floor with defense and rebounding.

Hitting 35 percent of his 3-point-shot tries, including a pair in the first 3-1/2 minutes of the ill-fated season finale, he averaged nearly six points a contest, but also provided three rebounds. At 6’1”, but with good arm length, he was able to average a shot block every other game, as well. Although he didn’t get to the line a lot, his 81 percent success rate on 32 free throws led the club.

Bonderer matured quickly in his “sixth man” role, although – with the veteran firepower around him – he didn’t have to “produce” a lot of stats, just play soundly. Still, he did have a couple of games in which he flashed his potential to be a core piece of future seasons’ teams and did finish his first year averaging both a couple of points and rebounds and nearly two assists.

While this March’s circumstances – the Midland Empire Conference’s standard policy of withholding public announcement of an all-conference team until the last league school still competing in that sport has concluded its postseason play and the novel coronavirus pandemic – prevented the Hornets from gathering as a group one last time, thus prompting this much-delayed recapitulation, they have neither corroded their overall accomplishments nor lessened the appreciation their fans and head coach have for them.

“I am extremely proud of all (the players),” declares Cool. “This is a team that, even after an incredibly tough loss, stuck together like family.”