One step short of state
The Bluejay boys basketball team avenged another regular-season loss when it knocked off Shawano in Thursday’s WIAA sectional semi-final in Stevens Point, winning six of its last seven with the only loss to second-ranked SPASH.
But last year’s state runner-up Rice Lake – quite likely the best team in D2 – turned a 27-25 game into a 44-32 triumph in Saturday’s final in Marshfield.
“I told the kids, ‘We didn’t get beat by a better team. We got beat by a great player with some good kids around him,’” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said. “I believe we were the better team.”
Rice Lake counts on Henry Ellenson – a 6’ 10” post player who has signed to play for Marquette and is currently ranked fifth in the nation by ESPN. He didn’t disappoint with 27 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
“In my time in Wisconsin high school basketball, he’s the best I’ve seen,” Soderberg said. “He’s a legitimate high D1 college player and likely an NBA player. Our guys would be in excellent position and they threw it up to him and there’s nothing we could do. He really asserted himself.
“We held him to 16 the first time we played them – he averages 30 – but we let other guys score. Our plan was if he gets 30 and we keep the score around 45, we had a chance to win. So defensively we were right on target, holding them close to 20 points below their average.
“Our problem was we didn’t shoot well behind the arc, with Jake (Anderson) making the only three-pointer.”
Merrill lost 51-41 at Rice Lake on January 24.
The Jays had hung within 25-21 at intermission, and cut it further to 27-25 with four minutes left in the third quarter on a Chaz Mootz drive and a Scott Wallace fast-break lay-up.
But the Warriors made a huge 9-0 run to the end of the third to grab a 36-25 lead.
“We felt like it spun out of control for 2-3 minutes where we couldn’t get a basket,” Soderberg said. “It was really a chess match. We could have put a team out there with a better chance to score, but that would have been a trade-off to not having the people in there that could stop Ellenson inside. In the first half, Chaz had a couple of real nice passes to Jon (Gruetzmazcher) for easy baskets, but we weren’t able to get those in the second half.”
The Jays weren’t able to get closer than 11 the rest of the way as they missed five three-pointers in the quarter. Gruetzmacher did put one back for a bucket and Keenan Stellingworth and Trey Stevenson made the only other baskets. Merrill finished just 1-of-15 from long-distance.
“You put in three or four more threes, it’s a whole different ball-game,” Soderberg said.
That’s not to say Merrill didn’t excel in other facets of the game.
“I thought our guard did a really nice job of taking care of the ball,” Soderberg said. “We had nine turnovers for the game. That’s really good for a high school game, especially with that kind of (full-court) pressure and the amount of weight on that game. I thought the team showed very well for Merrill and our basketball program.”
Merrill was paced by Mootz (13 p, 6 r, 2 a), Anderson 3 p, 8 r), Gruetzmacher (6 p, 2 r), Austin Reissmann (4 p, 2 r), Stellingworth (2 p, 2 r), Wallace (2 p, 2 a), Drew Hoff (2 r) and Stevenson (2 p).
Merrill–FG: 13-40 (33%); FT: 5-7 (71%). Rice Lake–FG: 17-40 (43%); FT: 7-15 (47%).
Never underestimate the power of pure desire.
The Merrill boys basketball team probably had no business being in Thursday’s WIAA sectional contest with Shawano, much less winning it. Yet that’s exactly what the Bluejays did, by a 43-41 margin in the final seconds.
The Jays rallied from a 40-29 deficit with just 6:08 remaining, and took their first lead of the game with 3.4 seconds left.
“It means a ton,” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said. “It means we get to move on and play again. It demonstrates a will and toughness that our kids have, led by Chaz (Mootz) and Jake (Anderson). I thought they willed us to that victory. But to have many times during the game where you felt like this is not going to happen for us tonight, to have it happen, that says a lot. It means the world to me and now the plan is to get those guys focused on Saturday.
“I couldn’t be more proud of those kids and more proud of the student section and our fans. It’s a blessing to win the game and be able to coach these kinds of kids.”
Amazingly, Shawano (19-6) had beaten Merrill (16-9) 54-34 back on December 5, and Merrill had trouble getting closer than seven points for almost the entire game.
“This win was huge,” Soderberg said. “It’s good for our program and a nice reward for the kids. But we’re not done. We’ve got a huge mountain in front of us in Rice Lake.
“To lose the second game of the year by 20 to this team and come back and beat them, says a lot about our kids’ commitment, it says a lot about the time my assistant coaches put in working with them. Our preparation this week was unparalleled. At the end of the week we wanted to be able to say, ‘Our kids are ready to play.’ And everything from their full-court inbounds play at the end of the game to the inbound play underneath to set plays, they were ready.”
The rally was done in such improbable fashion it calls into comparison the painful Green Bay Packer loss to Seattle in January’s NFC championship.
A short while after Mootz was cut off for a three-second violation in the lane, he knocked down a short jumper, then rebounded a miss on the other end. Austin Reissmann lost the handle on the ball, but punched it to Anderson, who drilled a three-pointer to cut it to 40-34 with 5:38 left. Anderson pulled up for a short jumper a half-minute later to cut the deficit to less than six for the first time since late in the first quarter.
Reissmann cut it to 40-37 with 2:59 remaining on a free throw after a Scott Wallace steal, but for the next two minutes the only scoring came on a Shawano free throw. But Gruetz?macher put back a missed trey to cut it to 41-39 with :57 left, and Hoff rebounded a missed front end of the bonus with :32.8 to go to give Merrill its first real opportunity at victory.
Mootz drove to the hoop with just 7.7 seconds left and canned the basket despite taking a hard foul to knot it up at 41-41 with a foul shot to go. It could have been heart-breaking when he missed the foul shot, but he grabbed his own miss and drew another shooting foul a moment later. With 3.4 seconds left, Mootz calmly swished both tries for the 43-41 lead.
Shawano inbounded to short of half-court, but the quick pass to a waiting three-point shooter bounced off hands out of bounds, and bedlam ensued.
“When you have a group of seniors like they do and seniors like we do and they go head-to-head, those types of games are what happen,” Soderberg said. “Nobody’s willing to quit because Shawano kids and Merrill kids have put in a ton of time, and seniors more than anyone don’t want it to end.
“I think that was the difference. Our seniors stepped up and made some plays. Jake hit some big shots, Chaz with steals and finishing and getting to the free throw line, obviously. But I’d like to give a shout out to Jon Gruetzmacher, the remarkable job he did on their big guy, Trey Stevenson, Riley Sutton, Drew Hoff, those kids came in and really did a nice job for us.”
Merrill trailed 13-4 after the first quarter, and dropped behind 20-9 and 25-12 in the second quarter. Merrill probably wouldn’t have had a chance, but Mootz fed Keenan Stellingworth for a lay-up with 1:17 to intermission, and Mootz hit a free throw with :45.5 left. He also came up with a steal with just five seconds remaining and pulled MHS within 24-17 before the break.
“We got rattled early and couldn’t find out rhythm early, offensively,” Soderberg said. “I didn’t think our kids were particularly sharp early on, and perimeter jumpers were rushed. It was like a golf swing where you jerk it as hard as you can and swing quickly. It needs to be smooth and in rhythm, and I didn’t think we were doing that.
“I thought it was very physical in the lane. I thought they were the beneficiary of some calls that we didn’t get on the other end. That was very frustrating, but what can you say, the kids hung in there and battled. I was really proud of our effort tonight and the leadership we got from a number of different guys.”
Merrill was paced by Mootz (17 p, 9 r, 4 a, 3 st), Anderson (10 p, 6 r), Wallace (6 r, 3 a), Gruetzmacher (4 p, 4 r), Stevenson (4 p, 3 r), Stellingworth (4 p) and Reissmann (4 p). Shawano, a team with nine seniors, got 12 from Frederick Carl, 11 from Ezekiel Gueths and 9 from Zachary Sousek.
Merrill–FG: 17-42 (41%); FT: 7-14 (50%). Shawano–FG: 11-29 (38%); FT: 14-23 (61%).