Monona Grove was headed to “State” and the Silver Eagle fans went insane. The coming games would not be played in monotonous high school gyms erected in the 1950s. They were off to the University of Wisconsin’s colossal Kohl Center where they would play before a crowd of 12,000. The games would be broadcast to a statewide television audience of millions, as a battery of newspapers and stations would be begging for interviews. The Kohl Center was just a short drive from Monona, technically in the same city.
The thieves must have had a field day that afternoon in Monona, for all of the district’s residents crowded into the Kohl Center to root for their team. If there ever was a home-court advantage, Monona Grove possessed it.
They had come so far in one year and no one wanted to miss out on what was hoped to be one of Monona’s greatest celebrations. An unfavorable outcome barely occurred to anyone, certainly not after the upset over Portage.
Monona Grove’s first competition in the State sectional finals was against evenly matched New London, a team with similar height and wingspan. To defend against New London’s excellent shooters, Monona Grove implemented its signature 3-2 zone defense with their big man Andy Witte on the top of the key and the other two towers at the sides of the basket.
On the wings were the guards who were only 5’10” but very quick and good rebounders. The idea of keeping Witte at the furthest point was to block 3-point attempts. The New London team oozed experience and they entered the arena with swagger and strut. The team had tremendous firepower and skill, and they were well coached.
Although a relative rookie to coaching, Dan Zweifel gave motivational speeches like a seasoned pro. Before this game he unleashed a masterpiece. Aware of the distraction of performing before over 17,000 fans, he had to make sure that his players remembered that they were high school kids, not NBA stars.
You can’t lose your poise, he stressed, for once you get nervous you take quick shots and forfeit the ball. He reviewed their strategy and which New London players they needed to stop. Zweifel then threw in, not atypically, the value of sportsmanship.
“It was a long, uphill climb to get here; let’s not lose altitude because of behavior or statements unbecoming of a sportsman. There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ ” he said with a wink. “Go show them what you can do!”
The teams took to the court and an even battle ensued in the scoring-rich first quarter. This sent the commentators into a frenzy predicting how the shooting from the field and 3-point range would tally in the second quarter. Alas, the quarter was virtually scoreless, but this still did not diminish the commentator’s commentary.
For an entire quarter both teams continued shooting at a staggeringly inept pace. New London’s only salvation and second-half hope was that while its second quarter percentage was laughable, Monona Grove’s was abysmal. Coach Zweifel had his work cut out for him to refocus his players.
Within the initial minutes of the third quarter it was apparent that the coach had done his job. The Silver Eagles had regained their rhythm and even when things did not go exactly as planned, they were still making things happen. For each bucket Zweifel leaped up and punched the air, a sign of how important these points were.
Still, the lead was traded back and forth until late in the fourth quarter. At this point the score was tied and the players began to best understand their opponents. Whoever could best capitalize on what they had gleaned would be the winner.
With three minutes to go, Scott Bashinsky from the Silver Eagles cut from the box to the elbow and retrieved a pass. Witte spun off his defender and went under the basket for a hi-low. Bashinsky went high; Witte went low, perfectly positioned to receive a high lob pass that he was able to convert into a lay-up, incurring a defensive foul in the process. Witte sunk the free throw putting his team up by three. Before New London had its chance, Monona was on the offense again and Witte sunk a 3-pointer in what appeared to be an exclamation point to the win.
But as Yogi taught so aptly… With a rash of loose balls, turnovers and bad bounces, New London was down by only three. Then, in the final seconds they hit a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime. The Silver Eagles’s motto of “32 Minutes of Basketball,” was going to have to be extended. An entire year of hard play had been unceremoniously dropped on the altar of four extra minutes.
(To be continued)
Kesivah v’chasimah tovah!
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