With absolutely nothing to lose, including his employment for the coming year, Dan Zweifel devised a strategy for a team that could not seem to catch an offensive rhythm and for players that had protracted shooting slumps and 10-minute-long droughts. His solution, his only recourse, was defense.
The importance of defense is something that coaches often have a hard time imparting to professional players, let alone high schoolers, for the glory always goes to the scorers. Yet, Zweifel preached that if you “bust the pipes” of the offense you can convert it into a frantic, unfocused mess.
Every night without exception, he conducted a two-hour training session focused on smothering defense. Homework, term papers, girlfriends, recreation, everything had to work around this nightly practice. Because Dan Zweifel grew up in Monona Grove, he was able to weed out excuses and be demanding and exacting.
The young coach tweaked a half-court defense that came at opponents from all angles. Hands were always in the passing lanes and steals were hunted with a vengeance. Zweifel grilled suffocating defense, rebounding, defense, physical play – and have we mentioned defense? The goal was to clog the lane, eliminate uncontested shots, and reduce open looks.
The Monona Silver Eagles defended the arc as if it were a no-fly zone, and contested jumpers so close to the face you’d think they were trying to steal corneas. Fundamentally, Monona Grove taunted their opponents into getting a good look at the basket when they entered the arena; from then on there would be no unobstructed views. The way a team plays defense when the clock is almost out and they are up by just one is the way Monona Grove played the entire game.
The strategy, however, did not choreograph well in actual games. The team lacked a grace, was in perpetual foul trouble and their play was so bruising that it just about left dents in the gymnasium floor. Zweifel’s second, and most obviously final season, began with déjà vu overtones.
That was until the team confronted Milwaukee-Washington, one of Wisconsin’s strongest teams. It wasn’t an even match-up, and no one could have predicted that the upset win would become a breakaway.
From that point on, the Monona Grove Silver Eagles began to fantasize the nigh impossible: “State.” The goal became contagious, infecting not just the high school, but the entire school district as well. Boys and girls in schoolyards, driveways and Ys began dreaming of making the winning shot at the buzzer while the folks of Monona Grove were living and dying with every bucket, rebound, loose ball and whistle. There was sweet revenge and even sweeter victory, joy and heartbreak aplenty in the Silver Eagle run to State.
With the new transition, Zweifel put even more into the practice sessions. And it was at these meetings that he, just like his predecessor, stressed sportsmanship – making it as much a part of the routine as zone defense.
The momentum and the excitement became feverish toward the end of the season when the Silver Eagles had won 9 of their last 11 games. But could they hold onto the magic and the poise as they faced Portage, the second-ranked team in the state? Going into the game they were 16-8, practically a 100 percent improvement over their record the previous year. But Portage was an intimidating Goliath, the likes of which they had never opposed before.
Despite the odds and the pressure, Monona Grove played with intelligence and verve. They duct-taped their defense and launched a motion offense that read screens and found opportunities. Resembling junkyard dogs far more than silver eagles, the team lit up from the outside and pounded the ball inside.
But for all their passion, Portage met them head-on and acquired the tempo that they wanted: slow-and-not-so-easy. The game was back and forth until the fourth quarter when Portage edged ahead. By this point everyone in the high school gymnasium was on their feet. It was now or never for Monona Grove.
Andy Witte hit a 3-pointer from the corner, narrowing the lead. On the very next offensive play Witte was on the right wing when he received the ball. He did a crossover dribble to confuse, getting past his defender, and then dove into traffic with an up-and-under reverse lay-up penetrating three defenders.
Things began to look brighter for the Silver Eagles but the clock was still not in their favor. The lead was ever so narrow, but they were trailing. With under a minute to go Monona Grove exerted a full-court press that was immediately vindicated by acquiring ball possession. Portage assembled their zone defense that took the look of man-to-man once the ball found its way into the lane. With the clock and the opportunity to make “State” evaporating, the Silver Eagles executed deliberate and misleading passes. The ball went from the wing to the corner and the Portage defense classically shifted to isolate the man with the ball.
Being suffocated in the corner, the guard threw the ball to Witte at the top of the key. The defenders immediately charged him but he pump-faked, went left and penetrated. Portage’s big men down low – and it was now one-on-two. Witte went up for a fake shot and passed to his man on the block who was open for a clean lay-up – and an upset victory for the Silver Eagles.
(To be continued)
Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!
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