MHS boys rally over Mosinee, fall to Hodags
The Bluejay boys may have felt the strange sensation of deja vu creeping into the end of last Tuesday’s WIAA regional opener with Mosinee, but that only made them more determined to avoid the ending of the teams’ previous meeting, a 40-39 loss on Jan. 24.
Merrill’s David Jesperson-playing in the final home game of his career-took charge. Jesperson drove to the basket twice in the final 36 seconds, the first time to cut it to 39-38 and the second with a mere 2.9 seconds left for a three-point play that gave the Jays a 41-40 lead.
A joyous celebration erupted after Nick Mootz intercepted the ensuing inbounds pass.
“The opportunity was eerily similar to the last time we played Mosinee, where we had the ball with the last chance to win it,” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said. “We got the ball in David’s hands very late. I chose not to call a time out, and David was able to squirm his way down the baseline, make the shot and draw the foul.
“He’s made so many plays for us over his career, I wasn’t surprised at all to see him get to the basket. Getting to the foul line was a bonus.
“It was a very high school basketball game. At the end of the day, I thought our kids did an exceptional job.”
Merrill had appeared content to run off as much of the clock as possible earlier in the fourth quarter, smoothly taking two minutes off the clock after Jesperson had driven the length of the court with a snagged airball for a 36-34 margin.
But Paul Theorin was called for a travel when he was tripped dribbling out of a trap. Mosinee’s Brandon Piotrowski hit a pair of turn-around jumpers in the span of a minute for a 38-36 lead, leaving just 1:55 to go.
Jesperson missed the front end of bonus free throw situation, but Mosinee would return the favor with missed second attempts on either side of his first drive.
The Jays had grabbed a 13-5 lead early in the second on Theorin’s three-pointer. Mosinee would rally for an 18-18 tie by halftime and the battle was on to the end.
“I give Mosinee a ton of credit,” Soderberg said. “It’s tough to go on the road and win in the playoffs. I have a feeling Mosinee will get better and better. They’ve got a good young team. There should be several good battles between Merrill and Mosinee in the years to come.”
Bluejay offerings came from: Jesperson (22 p, 9 r); Theorin (8 p, 3 r); Jake Anderson (3 p, 7 r); Chaz Mootz (4 p); and Nick Peterson (4 r).
Merrill-FG: 15-35 (43%); FT: 7-10 (70%). East-FG: 15-35 (43%); FT: 6-10 (60%).
Tuesday’s win punched Merrill’s ticket for Friday’s semi-final contest at the state’s 8th-rated Rhinelander. The #1 seed Hodags showed their power immediately, taking a 15-6 lead by the end of the first quarter. But Merrill wasn’t intimidated, battling back to a 21-20 edge at intermission.
“I am really, really proud of our guys,” Soderberg said. “We talked before the game we wanted to play with poise, play tough and play together. They really leaned on each other and didn’t flinch when we got behind 12-2.
“Where I thought the game swung in Rhinelander’s favor was in the second half we weren’t able to get the scores down inside like we had in the first half. It was a tight game until probably three minutes were left when we were forced to foul to have a chance.
“It was one of those games that could have gone either way, but their size wore us down. Overall, this was the biggest team we’ve played all year. They were able to get down inside with some success, and they were able to rebound better than other teams. This Rhinelander team is 20-2 for a reason and they don’t play a cupcake schedule.”
The Hodags took a 30-27 lead into the fourth quarter where they out-scored the Jays 16-8.
Merrill production came from: Jesperson (14 p, 9 r); Anderson (8 p, 5 r); and Theorin (6 p).
Merrill-FG: 15-40 (38%); FT: 3-6 (50%). Rhinelander-FG: 13-40 (33%); FT: 14-23 (61%).
Merrill closed out an 11-13 season.
“It was a tale of two seasons,” Soderberg said. “We only won one game in the first round of conference. In the second half our seniors stepped up. Even if they didn’t play a ton, their leadership helped us step up, and our younger guys like Jake and Chaz started showing up. We avenged every (WVC) loss of the first half of the season with the exception of SPASH.
“We’ll return three starters in Brandon Bartz, Jake and Nick Peterson, and we’ve got some younger guys waiting in the wings, obviously Chaz and Matt Rekowski may be ready. A number of kids in our junior class need to have a good off-season. We have a fairly large junior class and some real possibilities in the freshman class. In my six years here, I’ve never seen it as wide open as to who would play what roles.”