Bluejay boys step up in Valley starter
Let’s just say it’s no ‘Last House on the Left.’
A formerly scary place to play has become nearly tame for the Bluejay boys basketball team.
Merrill opened up its WVC schedule with Friday’s 51-44 road triumph in Wis. Rapids.
“Any time you can win in the Valley on the road is big,” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said. “Traditionally, it’s a tough place to play, but this is the third time in the last four years we’ve won there, so I think the kids like playing there.
“It’s certainly a big confidence booster. Rapids has beaten good teams. They went to Bay Port and Rhinelander and won.”
Not like victory was a given at any point. Merrill grabbed an early edge and still led 14-13 at the end of the first quarter. But the Raiders used an 11-5 second to take a 24-19 lead.
“It was a well-played game by both teams,” Soderberg said. “We started out a little hotter and executed on offense.
“We were down by five at the half, but we chipped away at the lead a little bit and were able to gain some momentum. We tied it up going into the fourth and got a lead – not a big lead – and started to be a little more deliberate. It took some big plays, particularly going to the basket. Brandon (Bartz) was able to get to the basket and Chaz Mootz was able to finish, and get to the free throw line.”
The Bluejays knotted it up at 34-34 before the third finished with a 15-10 difference. Then they used a 17-10 fourth to put it away.
“Everybody played a very critical role, stepping up and taking care of the ball,” Soderberg said. “I think we had only one turnover in the second half. Once we were able to run some clock, they started to gamble and we were able to get some lay-ups out of that.
“I think we only shot 50% from the free throw line, so we could have won by more if we had made our free throws.”
The Jays’ execution wasn’t limited to the offense.
“Our man-to-man defense was very good,” Soderberg said. “They had a lot of one-and-dones.”
Mootz paced the squad with 18 points and 4 steals and added 4 rebounds. Other offerings came from: Bartz (13 p, 3 st); Jake Anderson (12 p, 6 r); Nick Peterson (4 p); Alex Zettler (4 p); and Matt Rekowski (3 r).
“Chaz played an outstanding game,” Soderberg said. “Brandon was really in charge. That’s becoming his m.o. Jake had a nice game, too.”
Merrill–FG: 21-41 (51%); FT: 9-18 (50%). Wis. Rapids–FG: 17-37 (46%); FT: 8-11 (73%).
Merrill improved to 3-1 with the victory.
“Other than the snafu in Antigo, the kids are finding their way,” Soderberg said.