Merrill all in favor of new state format
If the WIAA was looking for documentation on the validity of its new five-division basketball tournament format, the association may have found it here Friday in the Division 2 semifinal battle between Merrill and Waunakee.
For those who missed it, Merrill rallied from a 31-22 halftime deficit and stunned the top-ranked and heavily favored Warriors, 55-52, in a tension-packed matchup of 1,100-enrollment schools that might not even have been in the state tournament as Division 1 competitors under the former system.
Merrill coach Kurt Soderberg said his community has “gone crazy” over the school’s first state appearance since an open-class trip in 1964. It was to a point, he said, where the grade schools were clamoring for a visit from the Bluejays before they (Appleton Xavier and Fox ’Valley Lutheran) that we play all the time. They’re good rivals, and I don’t have a problem with this.”
And the WIAA staff, often pestered on the issue, may be delighted to hear this:
“If schools (no matter who they are) have good players and they’re well-coached and good enough to get here to Madison, so be it. That’s the lay of the land. It’s the way it is, and I’ve never been on one side of the fence or the other.
“You take Deb Hauser and the rest of the WIAA, they’ve got tough decisions to make, and everybody’s got an opinion. But it is what is, and if those schools have good players, good coaches and a good team, then they should be here.”
Jim Bauer, who coaches a talent-rich private-school tradition at Lakeside Lutheran in Lake Miils, ran into one of those “most-deserving” teams in Thursday’s other Division 3 semifinal game, and there was no shortage of praise for the opposition after an imposing 85-52 loss to Aquinas.
“It was disappoiinting for our guys that we weren’t able to what got us here, but give Aquinas the credit,” he said. “We didn’t rebound well, we didn’t shoot well, and we weren’t able to turn them over on our press. And again, that’s because of them.”
And despite the lopsided score, some still called it a “fun game,” simply because Lakeside stuck to its appealing up-tempo game, sometimes even getting Aquinas to play faster than normal. The Warriors also probably could have stepped back into today’s trend of close-to-the-vest basketball and kept the score down, but...
“No, because this who were are,” he said of the aggressive up-tempo game that produced close to a 72-point average in carrying Lakeside to its first boys state tournament with a 25-1 record.
“That is what we have done all year, and I wasn’t about to go into the game telling these guys I don’t think we can do that against this team,” Bauer said “We’re not one of those teams that plays a slow game and keeps it close to the vest. We’re going to go out and go after people.”
And most days, nights and even years, it does indeed reap fun rewards.
“I hope the kids like playing this way and having fun,” Bauer said. “We try to play hard enough where we’ve got a chance to score 70 to 80 points every night, and I think the kids like that.
“You also have to play more people to play like that, and that’s for good morale. Not today, but most of the time.”
But the good times don’t come without a thorough commitment, especially at school like Lakeside, which draws it students from 30 congregations throughout the area, including Janesville.
“The kids work hard ... and it takes a lot of unselfishness on their part,” Bauer said. “They come from small grade schools where they maybe were the star, and they have to mesh together with kids from other grade schools.
“In our area, a lot of those schools have very competitive grade-school leagues, where they’re competing in all the sports. So that starts in grade school.”
And if the Warriors are fortunete, like this year, it culminates in a state tournament.
“This group raised the bar with all it accomplished that no team in the 50-year history of Lakeside has done,” Bauer said. “The younger kids got a taste of it, and hopefully they’ll aspire to do the same or take it to the next level.”
Aquinas, led sophomore guard Bronson Koenig, who has offers from North Carolina and Wisconsin, gave the Warriors a thorough look at that next level.
“We couldn’t get anything going offensively ... and we couldn’t contain their penetration,” Bauer said. “And that seemed to be pretty much the whole ball game.
“If you can get the game going at a faster pace, you have an opportunitty to catch up. We’ve been down like that before and been able to come back, but not today. They had answer for everything.”
And again, it’s up to the rest of the Division 3 state schools to find answers to the Aquinas, St. Catherine’s and Dominican domination. But it won’t come this year, not with the Blugolds and Angels already having a lock No. 8 and still counting.
Dave Wedeward is the Gazette sports editor.