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. I don’t know if I’ve ever coached against a top-five or top-10 kid in the nation and Henry Ellenson is the real deal. He’s fun to watch, especially if you’re not coaching against him, and they’ve got a really good point guard and some rugged, tough kids around them. They run a very aggressive, pressing system and we’ve really got to be ready for it. I guess I’m not crazy for scheduling them once, because we’ve got that film to go back to and the kids have seen it.
“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. We’ll try to do the same thing with Rice Lake, but in a very short window (of time). Likely it will be an all-nighter at the Soderberg house.”
The Jay — who have won six of the last seven with the only loss to #2 SPASH — face Rice Lake, led by 6′ 11″ Marquette recruit Ellenson, at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday at Marshfield.
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 Gruetzmacher 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 25-12in 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 17 from Mootz, 10 from Anderson and four apiece from Reissmann, Stellingworth, Gruetzmacher and Stevenson. Shawano, a team with nine seniors, got 12 from Frederick Carl, 11 from Ezekiel Gueths and 9 from Zachary Sousek.