Scottsbluff ’s Trent Harris and Gering’s Austin Hoffman competed against each other a number of times in high school. Now, the two are teammates for the WNCC men’s basketball team, helping the Cougars capture a regional title and national tourney berth.
The Cougars will open the NJCAA national tournament on Monday when they face Holmes Community College at 1 p.m MST in Hutchinson, Kansas.
Harris, who is in his third year at WNCC after red-shirting his first year, said going to nationals means a lot.
“It means a lot to be going to the national tournament for me as well as the city of Scottsbluff,” he said. “All of our hard work definitely payed off.”
Hoffman, who transferred back to WNCC after a year at Nebraska Wesleyan, has just one year at WNCC. Hoffman said winning a regional title for him is special since he never won a championship in high school.
“It means a lot to go to the national tournament, and represent the community here,” Hoffman said. “This is something the community has been waiting for a while and to be a hometown kid and to have this opportunity means a lot.”
Hoffman said winning his first title is something special.
“The championship means a lot, especially to do it with this group of guys,” Hoffman said. “We all come from different places, and when you see us together you would never know. The bond between this team is crazy.”
The Cougar men will be making their first trip to nationals since 2001. The 17-year hiatus of not winning a regional title has come to an end and the team is hoping to make annual appearances to the tournament. For now, the task at hand is Monday against Holmes with the winner advancing to the next round against Northwest Florida State College, the second-seed who earned a first round bye on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
Holmes earned the No. 18 seed for the tournament while the Cougars are No. 15. The two teams bring contrasting styles into the contest. WNCC is a 3-point shooting team that ranks 13th in the nation in scoring. Holmes is one of the top defensive teams in the nation in holding their teams down in 3-point shooting.
Something has to give when the two teams battle it out on Monday. WNCC head coach Cory Fehringer said it will be an interesting match-up.
“Defensively they play really hard. They rebound hard and they are going to get out and full-court pressure you,” Fehringer said. “They (NJCAA selection committee) pitted two teams that one is highly offensive in Western Nebraska and one that is highly defensive in Holmes. I guess they are going to let the offense and defense bang it out and I am confident in ourselves to play both sides of the basketball.”
Fehringer said they are not changing anything that they have done so far this year when they head to nationals.
“We are going to be aggressive. We are going to to be committed. We are going to confident,” he said. “We are going to go out there and full court press and go out and run and gun. We are not going to hold no punches back. You don’t want to leave the national tournament in Hutch with no regrets as far as being aggressive and confident and committed in your actions and choices.”
This season has been a landmark year for the men. Fehringer told the team before they left for the regional tournament to stay positive and that is what happened where the Cougars defeated Central Wyoming, Sheridan, and Otero for the regional title.
“Before we left, we told the guys we expect to come home with a title, we expect to leave our legacy up on a banner, and we expect to be in Kansas playing basketball,” Fehringer said. “We will continue to expect to play basketball until someone comes out and beats us. I told our guys that we want to love this journey. This is a part of it. The preparation is a part of it, but when you have some success, it should be celebrated in the right form.”
While the team celebrated after winning the regional title, they are ready for nationals. For Hoffman, he is glad that he transferred back to WNCC to be part of this offensive-minded team.
“I’m so glad I transferred back. This community, the guys, and the coaching staff have all really made it special for me to come home,” he said. “Being a part of this team has led me to create a bond with my teammates that will last a lifetime. These guys are some of my best friends, and are like family. I wouldn’t change a thing. Also being able to come away as a champion is a pretty special thing to take away too.”
When the Cougars hit the court at 1 p.m. MST on Monday, they are hoping this dream continues as long as possible at the national tournament.
“At nationals we definitely have to come to play because every team is going to be good,” Harris said. “We just have to do what we are used to and that is defend and knock the net out.”
Hoffman said they just need to keep playing like they have and not change anything.
“We just have to play the way we do, and rebound the ball,” he said. “When we defend and rebound, there is no doubt in my mind we can bring this home.”
The two high school rivals turned teammates and best friends have made a lot of 3-pointers not only in high school but college. Harris has made 89 3-pointers this season, second on the team. He is averaging 13.4 points a game. Harris has made 136 treys in his two seasons at WNCC and scored 721 points.
Hoffman, in just one season, has made 15 3-pointers in a back-up role. But both players know their roles and take their roles on the team with pride. Hoffman said the team is having a great season, since basketball is a team game.
“We are having a great season. I’ve had nothing but fun with this group of guys, and I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything,” he said. “I’ve grown so much as a player this year with the quality of players that we had on the team. The players and coaches push me to be my best every single day.”
Harris said he has grown as a player and that red-shirt year has paid dividends.
“I feel like I’m having my best season ever,” he said. “Sitting out a year definitely helped me a lot and I feel like I keep improving my game every year.”
And, by Harris red-shirting one year, that gave him a chance to be teammates with Austin. Both say it is weird that crosstown rivals are not teammates and heading to the national tournament.
“Playing against Austin in high school was always a challenge because we knew he was a scorer so the plan was always to stop him but I never would have thought that we would be playing together in college,” Harris said. “He has become one of my best friends I’m glad that he came to WNCC.”
Hoffman said it is weird to be teammates with Harris.
“It’s kind of crazy actually because we had so many games that were fun to play in but we’ve always been opponents so to have the opportunity to win a championship with somebody who had been my rival for as long as I can remember is something really special for both of us.”
Both players have respect for each other, too. Harris said Hoffman is a great player and he gives is all in practice.
“Austin is definitely a great player,” he said. “He is a challenge to guard every day in practice and he always puts the team before himself.”
Hoffman describes Harris as a very supportive teammate.
“Trent is a great player and great teammate,” he said. “He is always rely supportive of all of us guys. He is a great scorer and defender. He plays hard every time he is on the court that is why he is a special player.”
The two reflect back on their high school days and they remember many games when the two sharpshooters went head-to-head.
“I remember most playing against him my junior year when his team was really good,” Harris said. “I talk trash to him all the time about how we beat them in the district championship that year.”
Hoffman said playing Scottsbluff was always intense.
“It was intense. Trent and I had quite a few games where we went back and forth”, he said. “Trent was always somebody I looked forward to playing against because he is a great player and it made for a really fun atmosphere and great competition.”
While Harris had many high school celebrations and Hoffman not, the two got to celebrate together when they came back to knock off the homestanding Otero Junior College Rattlers 86-78 for the regional title.
Harris said the hard work during the season paid off.
“When the final seconds ticked off the clock, I couldn’t believe we had won,” he said. “I just remembered how much work we put in during my two years and everything that Coach Cory talked about came true.”
For Hoffman, he was cheering his team from the bench and he just wanted to celebrate a championship.
“The only thing that was running through my mind was that we were champions,” Hoffman said. “All I wanted to do was celebrate with my coaches and teammates.”
Well, the two did celebrate. And for Harris, he got a Region IX championship just
like his dad, Anthony Harris, did when he played for the Cougars in 1993.
“My dad always tells me the stories about his old Cougar teams,” Harris said. “He was just as happy as we were when we won the championship.”