The Bluejay boys basketball team has been stacking success lately, dropping a pair of non-conference victories last week on top of their recent Valley win.
The Jays handled New London 62-48 with a strong second half last Tuesday, then topped Rice Lake – without Marquette freshman phenom Henry Ellenson – by a 52-47 tally on Saturday.
“We’re showing how to finish games,” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said. “I’m really pleased with their progress. That’s been a big focus of ours in practice. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going.”
Merrill had played with several teams early in the season only to get edged out at the end. But since the Jays hung with top-rated SPASH (D1) on Jan. 12, they’ve upped their game with three consecutive wins.
It took a little different style to defeat Rice Lake.
“Every time we play Rice Lake, it’s a very physical game and Saturday was no different,” Soderberg said. “There’s a lot of grabbing and pushing. I think a game like that helps you in the long run. It was a good, hard-fought game… entertaining.
“Our kids handled it very well. They drew 26 fouls and got them to commit 23 turnovers, while we only committed 13. I’ll take that ratio anytime.
“In the end, getting to the free throw line and finishing and controlling the ball for a long time down the stretch, paid off. I saw a lot of good energy from our kids.”
Merrill took a 31-24 lead into the locker room, and closed it out by hanging within 23-21 in the second half.
The Jays counted on contributions from Ben Tabor (11 p, 4 r), Zack Mootz (11 p, 3 r), Drew Hoff (9 p, 5 r), Scott Wallace (3 p, 3 r, 5 a), , Jared Ollhoff (7 p), Austin Reissmann (6 p) and Riley Sutton (5 p).
RL– 24 – 23 – 47. FG- 17-36 (47%), 3-pt- 7-16 (44%). FT- 6-12 (50%).
Mer– 31 – 21 – 52. FG- 14-31 (45%), 3-pt- 4-10 (40%). FT: 20-30 (67%).
More stubborn than Bulldogs
After trailing the Bulldogs 30-26 at intermission, the Bluejays exploded in the second half to double up their guests 36-18.
“We didn’t come out with as much energy,“ Soderberg said. “In the first half we gave up some easy baskets. We challenged the kids at halftime to commit to make stops and they did.
“Zach continues to score well for us, and Drew and Scottie had nice games. The biggest turning point was (6’ 8” junior) Jon Gruetzmacher went 5-for-6 and had 11 points. He showed us all the work he’s put in and had his best game on varsity.”
New London used 4-for-5 accuracy from long range to build that first-half lead, and a late Wallace three kept it within four.
A Hoff three with a minute-and-a-half gone gave Merrill a lead it would never relinquish, at 32-30. Over the opening nine minutes of the second half, the Jays out-scored the Bulldogs 22-5 for a 48-35 lead.
Twice, New London cut it to 10 in the final 2-1/2 minutes but would get no closer.
“In the first half, we got good looks at the hoop, knocked them down, and did a good job taking care of the ball and defending, which resulted in a 4 point lead at half,” NLHS coach Kurt Schommer said. “In the second half, we did not come out with the fire and energy needed to get a win. We had a hard time containing the ball. It is frustrating when we do not play complete games, so that is something we need to work on moving forward.
“I thought Merrill did a nice job of executing their sets, as well as their dribble penetration. Our guys could not keep them in front at times, and that resulted in open looks for them.”
The Jays were led by Wallace (15 p, 5 r, 3 a), Mootz (6 p, 3 r, 3 a, 2 bl), Gruetzmacher (11 p, 3 r), Reissmann (10 p, 3 r), Sutton (8 p, 5 r), Hoff (7 p, 3 a), Tabor (3 p, 3 r) and Jared Ollhoff (3 r).
NL– 30 – 18 – 78. FG- 15-37 (41%), 3-pt- 5-12 (42%). FT- 13-18 (72%).
Mer– 26 – 36 – 62. FG- 22-46 (48%), 3-pt- 6-16 (38%). FT: 12-17 (71%).