‘It feels pretty nice’
3-sport standout ranks among Trojan greats
Every now and then, a certain athlete comes along who you just know will do good things before he or she ever sets foot on the field, court, diamond, track, or mat.
Such athletes give off an aura of greatness and will leave a lasting impact for whichever team they play for.
Hillsboro’s had an abundance of them, but only a select few are regarded as one of the school’s greatest before all is said and done.
Such can be said for current Hillsboro High School three-sport standout, senior Matt Potucek.
The Trojans are in full swing of a basketball season and look as if they’ll be the one to beat for a second consecutive Class 2A title, their sixth overall.
Baseball is months away, and Potucek is fresh off closing the books on a high school football career the likes of which few from Hillsboro have ever had.
It was apparent, the moment the 6-foot 190-pounder set foot on the field as a freshman in 2018, that he’d be a future force to be reckoned with.
Before Potucek’s arrival, Hillsboro’s football had fallen on hard times since going 10-1 in 2012. A 4-5 finish a year later had been its best season.
The Trojans simply didn’t have enough players to compete in Class 3A against Central Kansas League juggernauts such as Halstead, Hesston, Smoky Valley, and Hoisington. That often resulted in Friday night debacles.
Hillsboro got a stroke of luck in the 2018-’19 school year with the state reclassifying schools and expanding the playoffs to all schools, regardless the record, instead of just district winners.
The drop from 3A to 2A paid dividends, and the Trojans opened the season winning six out of their first seven games.
Potucek broke into coach Devin Metzinger’s starting defensive backfield right away, also picking up several starts on offense at wideout and handling returns.
Metzinger had a team already robust with weapons like quarterback Jorge Hanschu; workhorse running back Brooks Gardner; Darian Ratzlaff; Matt’s brother Caleb, two years ahead; and lineman/linebacker Wes Shaw.
Hillsboro once again graced the state’s Top 10 throughout the year, rolling into the postseason for a first-ever meeting with one of 2A’s premier powerhouses, the Pittsburg-St. Mary’s Colgan Panthers.
The Panthers rose to prominence in the mid-’80s and early ’90s under the legendary National Hall of Fame Coach Chuck Smith, winning seven titles from 1974 to 2003 and second only to 3A giant Silver Lake in title game appearances with 15.
Potucek’s freshman year ended with Hillsboro tumbling to the Panthers, 45-20, but the tide started to turn with the Trojans going 7-3.
Metzinger left town the following season, and tragedy struck not only Hillsboro High School but also the entire community in early June of 2019.
Potucek’s teammate and classmate, Demarius Cox, lost his life while failing to wake up because of a blood clot during a trip to summer camp in Colorado.
Cox’s heartbroken father, Demetrius, had recently been named Metzinger’s successor, and the loss left a dark cloud over the Trojans’ season.
Graduation had taken its toll on Hillsboro, too, leaving Demetrius in need of a new quarterback.
The stable wasn’t empty, with Potucek and incoming freshman Nick Smith as candidates to replace the all-2A honorable mention selection Hanschu. Sophomore Potucek won the job.
The 2019 season began with the Trojans taking a knee with 10 players on the field as a tribute to their fallen teammate and friend on the first play of the year.
The season was bumpy with the Trojans going 6-4, but the Potucek brothers wreaked havoc on opponents with their big-play ability and posed a serious threat with Caleb at slotback.
“I played with my brother my whole life, so we had a pretty good idea what we were going to do on the field and court,” Matt said. “It was cool because we were quarterback and running back.”
Hillsboro’s season would end against the same opponent that put the brakes on it a year earlier — at Colgan again in the second round. But the Trojans fared better in a 29-21 loss.
Caleb earned all-2A honors from both the Wichita Eagle and Topeka-Capital in his final year, and Matt started the first of three consecutive years of notching all-state honors as an honorable mention.
Tragedy would strike again in March of 2020, but this time it was nationwide with COVID cancelling school while basketball tournaments were down to their Final Four, with Hillsboro still in contention.
The quarantine dashed any chances of the brothers being able to play for their father, Clint, who’d been named to take over the Trojans’ baseball program.
The pandemic left uncertainty surrounding Potucek’s junior season, but it happened with Hillsboro once again going 6-4, bowing out this time in the second round to Garden Plain in a 25-20 loss.
The Trojans made up for football shortcomings and having the season dashed a year earlier in March of 2021, adding a fifth state basketball championship, with Potucek one of three Hillsboro players tabbed for all- 2A honors.
The ’21-’22 season would be an emotional one for Cox in what would have been his son’s final year and Potucek down to his last call.
Hillsboro opened the year as a Top 10 team again for Class 2A, snapping 10 years of grief courtesy from bitter rival Hesston, 25-14, in the second game of the season.
The fast start wouldn’t last long, though, and an unbeaten year went up in flames the following week to perennial 3A nuisance Smokey Valley, 14-8, in a game in which the Trojans never got on track.
Hillsboro forged on with a loaded arsenal. Jamari Harris joined Potucek in the offensive backfield with a trio of Smith, Frank Wichert, and Duncan Duell at wideouts.
The Trojans breezing through the first two rounds of the 2A playoffs rekindled memories of Hillsboro’s legendary 2006 team, which made the Final Four — Hillsboro’s best run since 20 years earlier.
The sparkplug of the Trojan team 15 years earlier was hotshot quarterback Spencer Brown, a Minneapolis transfer with the ability to punish opponents not just with his arm but also his legs — very similar to Potucek.
That team had a chance to make it first-ever appearance in a state football title game but lost 32-26 to top-ranked Garden Plain and highly touted running back Logan Dold, ending Hillsboro’s historic season at 9-4.
Dold was a one-man wrecking crew, stinging Hillsboro for all five scores and 275 yards rushing.
In ’21-’22, Hillsboro had another batch of Trojans standing in its way — the black and orange Trojans of Beloit.
Beloit had held a curse in football and basketball over not only Hillsboro but Marion County as a whole since 1977.
The last meeting between Hillsboro and Beloit in football field ended on a swinging gate play in overtime in 1998 in a 14-6 loss.
Word that Hillsboro was looking for a Final Four appearance this season never made it to Beloit or running back Benson Berndt.
The 5-9 170-pound junior struck fast and often, leaving Hillsboro, scoring all five of Beloit’s touchdowns en route to a 241-yard outing and a 32-7 halftime lead.
Beloit coach Brad Gober was leery about Hillsboro’s offense, mainly Potucek, and he had good reason to fear.
Potucek put the Trojans on his back in the second half, sparking 20 unanswered points with passes to Duell and Smith and running for one touchdown.
Hillsboro’s longest run since 2006 ended by a nearly identical 32-27 score and a 9-2 finish, closing the book on Cox’s historic class.
”It was a really fun season just being able to play with all the guys one last year and then making it as far as we did was great,” Potucek said. “We had a lot of success just because everyone was working as hard as they could and everyone was focused on just playing the best they could and winning came with that.”
Beloit eventually advanced to the Class 2A title game, but the Rossville Bulldogs mauled the Trojans, 36-6.
The Trojans’ phenomenal season led to five players being selected to the Eagle’s all-2A team.
Harris and Potucek were first-team choices as defensive lineman and defensive back, respectively, with Smith, Wichert, and Duell snagging honorable mention as receivers.
Potucek’s heroics rewarded him with a selection to the Kansas Shrine Bowl to be played July 23 at Pittsburg State’s Webb-Carnegie Stadium. He is just the seventh Hillsboro player chosen, the first since Jacob Yoder was named in 2008.
Chad Duerksen was the first in 1999, and such Hillsboro greats as Tyson Ratzlaff, Jeremy Loewen, Adam Woods, and Lucas Hamm would follow, but Potucek was the first quarterback selected.
“It feels pretty nice to join those guys,” Potucek said. “I didn’t know how many guys made it, but it’s an honor.”
Potucek’s storybook high school career hasn’t ended, however.
He still has at least one more chance at a repeat in basketball as one of top-ranked Hillsboro’s “Big Three” along with classmate Grayson Ratzlaff and junior Brekyn Ratzlaff.
Potucek is hoping to continue his favorite sport, football, at perhaps the NAIA level, with interests coming from Mid-America Nazarene and KCAC schools Kansas Wesleyan and Tabor.
A Hillsboro High School sports Hall of Fame hasn’t become reality yet, but if it ever does, Matt Potucek will likely be there.