Oh, so close!
The Bluejay boys basketball team brought home the first state hardware in team history after a stirring performance in last weekend’s WIAA State Tournament, but the color of the ball shone silver instead of the gold that the team coveted.
Merrill lost a 65-49 D2 final game to Whitefish Bay on Saturday night, after knocking off the state’s top-ranked Waunakee 55-52 on Friday afternoon. Both games were played in Madison’s Kohl Center, home of the Wisconsin Badgers.
“Those of you that have been in athletics know it’s about the battle, the struggle you go through. Gold ball or silver ball, it’s the struggle that mattered,” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said. “It was really clear, what mattered to them was-obviously they wanted the gold ball-but what really mattered was the guys sitting next to them. That’s really the goal of athletics. There aren’t words to describe how proud I am of our team.”
Team captain Paul Jesperson, voted the Associated Press Wisconsin Player of the Year on Monday, added, “It’s not as good as the gold ball, that’s for sure, but we can’t hang our heads about anything. We finished out the season as good as we could except, unfortunately, for that championship game.”
The team held it together on the floor through the runner-up trophy presentation, the floodgates of emotion only opening up back in the locker room.
“The on-the-court thing was just maturity,” Soderberg said. “They understood the moment. I don’t want it projected that the kids were satisfied with second, because they weren’t. They played as hard as they could and just didn’t get it done. The game was frustrating.
“That emotion comes from not being able to be with that group anymore.”
That’s not to say it wasn’t a stupendous run, a longest-of-the-season six-game winning streak to the post-season finale for a squad that came out of the regular season with an 11-11 mark.
The 16-12 Bluejays closed the year with a Valley victory and three 15-point playoff wins, before taking the next two by three apiece.
“It was just an awesome experience for everybody-the students, the community, the players, obviously, their parents and friends,” Soderberg said. “There were so many positives from it, it’s hard to express. Being part of that team is like being part rock star, part athlete, part living your dream of being at state. It was everything we thought it would be and more.
“I am really proud of everybody from our student section to our kids on the floor. They competed hard and with class. They’ve got great families in Merrill and they displayed that in Madison.
“(Whitefish Bay) out-played us. It’s just the way it went. It certainly doesn’t take away from the exceptional season we were able to put together.”
Jesperson noted, “We didn’t want an 11-11 record going into the playoffs, but that’s the way it happened to be this year. We were able to make a great run to state and make the title game. That’s everybody’s dream. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come out with a win, but were able to come home with some hardware.”
The Jays played to 13-10 and 23-20 deficits after the first two quarters, despite making just 2-of-9 free throws and being out-rebounded 10-6.
“We played as poor of a first half as we had played in a month and we were only down by three,” Soderberg said. “So we felt pretty good about it. We were confident we were going to get it going in the second half and make a run, but we weren’t able to do that.
“I felt if we could just get the lead we could really do some damage. It’s our fault we didn’t play very well. The disappointment in that is when you get to the biggest game you want to play your best.”
Merrill did rally from that half-time deficit, tying the game 27-27 with 5:10 left in the third quarter on a Jesperson three and again at 29-29 with 3:44 to go with a pair of his foul shots.
But the Blue Dukes embarked on an 11-1 run, fueled by three three-pointers, including two in a span of 1:04 from 6′ 6″ senior Ron Patten. Jesperson’s trey with :33 to go cut it to 40-33 heading into the final period.
“It was close all game until it got a little out of hand at the end,” senior captain and center Sam Arneson said. “They’d make a run and we’d come right back. We had a couple of possessions when it was tied where we could have taken the lead, but we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
A jumper by Patten with 7:32 remaining pushed it to 42-33, and Merrill would never get closer than that the rest of the way. Whitefish Bay would push the margin as far as 22 points at 65-43 with :50 left after both teams had emptied their benches.
Sam Koebe and Mitchell Czech would drain three-pointers of their own in the final minute. Fan favorite Czech drained his first varsity bomb with just two seconds left in his career, helping ease the sting of the loss.
“Whitefish Bay was much more athletic than Waunakee,” Soderberg said. “They were able to get our hips turned around on defense. Their big kid, Patten, hitting those threes was huge. We just didn’t answer. For three quarters we did, then in the fourth we ran out of answers.
“I thought where we had trouble was defensively, surprisingly. At the end we got pretty reliant on Paul, which is OK. I dated the prettiest girl and I later married her. In this situation, the prettiest guy I’ve got, I’m going to use him.”
Merrill shot 54% from the field in the first half, but dropped to 28% in the second half, while the Blue Dukes improved from 53% to 58%. The Jays actually shot better from behind the arc (42%) than inside (30%), likely due to the inordinate amount of contact allowed on drives to the basket, although Jesperson was twice whistled for an offensive foul on a moving opponent while heading to the hoop. Arneson and Woller did foul out, while no Blue Dukes did.
Game contributions were keyed by Jesperson (22 p, 6 r, 3 st), Arneson (7 p, 4 r, 3 a), Matt Woller (8 p, 6 r), David Jesperson (3 p, 4 p), Kyle Andreska (3 p), Sam Koebe (3 p) and Mitchell Czech (3 p).
Patten (19 p, 9 r), Kelin Johnson (17 p, 4 r) and Jamie Schneck (13 p, 6 r) paced Whitefish Bay.
Merrill-FG: 15-42 (36%); FT: 11-21 (52%). WB-FG: 23-41 (56%); FT: 14-20 (70%).
Wanna key win?
The biggest triumph in Merrill boys hoops history was one that only Bluejay fans believed possible.
Especially after the local boys fell behind top-rated Waunakee 43-31 with 4:04 left in the fourth quarter, after trailing by at least 9 for the last 2:40 of the second quarter. The Warriors still led 43-35 at the end of the third.
But the Bluejays powered an incredible fourth-quarter rally, with Paul Jesperson out-scoring Waunakee 16-9 by himself after early lay-ups by Matt Thistle and Arneson. It still took a missed three-pointer in the final three seconds to secure the win.
“This was the most satisfying win I’ve been part of in a long time,” Soderberg said. “When I watch the tape the first time I won’t believe it.
“Most games we’ve seen they’ve blown teams out, but we’ve been here (in tight games) a lot of times. We got punched in the mouth at the start. Once we realized we could play that physical, we adjusted to it. We just had to clean up the glass. They were very physical and very bouncy. Ultimately we figured out a way to stop it.”
The 12-point deficit could have wilted a lesser team, especially in the pressure-cooker that is state while facing a 26-1 opponent that is the two-time defending state champ in football.
“We always just go one possession at a time,” Soderberg said. “Win that one and go on to the next one. You’ve got kids playing in front of 12,000+ people, that’s no joke.”
After the early lay-ups, Paul Jesperson forged a tie at 44-44 with a stutter-step drive and swished three-pointer. The Jays took their first lead at 47-46 with 3:03 to go on another Jesperson trey, and overcame three tough calls in a short span.
“After the birth of my first child, those were the longest three minutes of my life,” Soderberg said of this point in the game.
First, Jesperson was called for a travel after he was bullied on a full-court trap, then Woller hit the floor to steal the ball and alertly called for time out but was still assessed a travel.
Then Jesperson was whistled for a charge while eluding another stifling press with just 2:12 to go and the score tied at 47-47. But Jesperson dug deep, immediately tipping the ball into the backcourt, saving it from heading out of bounds, and taking it to the hoop. Waunakee’s Will Decorah grabbed him from behind to stop the basket, but not only did Jesperson’s desperation shot drop, but he made both free throws after the intentional foul call for a 51-47 lead.
“I realized they were throwing their bounce passes a little lazy and I thought I could jump it,” Jesperson said.
Merrill missed 3-of-4 foul shots with a chance to put it away, but Woller made up for his pair of misses with a steal with just :39 left and Jesperson was fouled a second later and connected on both throws.
“The biggest play might have been Wally’s steal,” Soderberg said. ‘We had a lot of guys with blood on the floor and contusions, and we like that.”
A Waunakee lay-up cut it to 53-49 with :29 remaining, and a turnover and Beau Murray trey made it a heart-pounding 53-52 with :17 left.
The Jays handled another press and Jesperson knocked down two more foul shots with 10 seconds left. Waunakee missed a late three try and Jesperson’s rebound clinched the 55-52 win.
Paul Jesperson finished with 27 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists and was backed by Woller (9 p, 5 r, 4 st), Arneson 6 p, 6 r), David Jesperson (7 p, 3 a) and Thistle (4 p).
Waunakee was led by 13 from Jared Staege.
Merrill-FG: 19-39 (49%); FT: 11-17 (65%). Wau-FG: 20-50 (40%); FT: 6-10 (60%).
With the season done, the Jays are already peering into the future.
“Now we move on to the next steep,” Soderberg said. “We’re going to work hard at getting back there. We’ve got the commitment of the young guys all the way down. I’m expecting good things out of this program for years to come.”
Oh, so close!