By Joel Muhs
It was the end of a season, and the end of an era, for the Hutchinson Community College men’s basketball team, following an 80-77 loss in the second round of the NJCAA on Tuesday against Mineral Area.
The loss was even more crushing for Blue Dragon nation, as this represented the last game Steve Eck would coach for HutchCC, after announcing his retirement from HutchCC on April 12 following the conclusion of the season.
Although the end to this season wasn’t the storybook ending the Blue Dragons were hoping for, Eck acknowledged how proud he was of his team.
“We played a good team tonight. Probably played the best defensive team we’ve played all year long. They really pressured us and it took us awhile to get the ball inside,” Eck said. “But my guys battled hard and didn’t give up. I’m very proud of my players, proud of my coaches, my managers, and everybody gave me everything they had all year long, and I can’t ask for more.”
This was the sixth time Eck led HutchCC to the NJCAA Tournament during his 12-year tenure, but this appearance was brief after running into No. 1 seed Mineral Area. The Blue Dragons got punched in the mouth early, which led to an early 18-5 deficit.
“The first four to five minutes of the game, that hurt big time. We got down 18-5 and we had to come back, and you use a lot of energy to get back in the ballgame,” Eck said.
A lot of that energy was exerted by sophomores Stephan Gabriel and Josh Baker, who combined for 44 points. Baker dropped in 19 points, while Gabriel poured in a season-high 27 points, which included several thunderous slams that got the Sports Arena crowd to its feet.
“Of course, it always feels good playing on a national scale. Playing against good competition really shows what I’m capable of,” Gabriel said after being asked about his career night.
The last of Gabriel’s dunks cut the Mineral lead to 78-77 with one minute left, and after a Mineral layup stretched it to a three-point deficit, Baker missed what would’ve been the game-tying three with eight seconds left.
“No, there’s no real frustration,” Baker said. “It’s just that we have to just keep playing through it and keep trusting in Coach’s plan and keep playing hard, it’s no real frustration.”
Although the Blue Dragons have lost in the tournament many times before, this loss hits deeper as the realization of Eck not returning settles in. Over his 12 seasons, Eck provided stability and a powerhouse team nearly every year during his tenure. The Blue Dragons were the 2016 NJCAA runner-up, and Eck coached the program’s third national championship a year later.
Although his time on the court with the Blue Dragons is over, Eck noted that his time at HutchCC isn’t.
“I haven’t even thought about that,” Eck said about his time at HutchCC being nearly over. “My focus is on Hutch. We still got a week and a half of school left and we got to get these (sophomores) graduated, and we got finals next week. I’m getting paid from Hutch right now, so that doesn’t even cross my mind.”