BARABOO – Darlington wasn’t going to let it come down to a last-second shot for a second year in a row.
The Redbirds’ run to state tournament a year ago came up a bit short when they were unable to get off a final shot in a 50-49 loss to La Crosse Aquinas in a WIAA Division 4 sectional final boys’ basketball game at Baraboo High School.
Back at Baraboo a year later in another D4 sectional championship game with many of the same players, the ‘Birds used a strong second-half surge to sink the #5-ranked Cochrane-Fountain City Pirates, 67-55, and earn the school’s first state tournament appearance in 27 years.
“The expectations were there all year long. It’s exciting to have those expectations, but they can be tough to live up to,” said first-year head coach Tom Uppena, who took over the team when former head coach Michael Hopkins stepped down in the off-season due to health concerns. “Our kids weren’t going to have a letdown happen. Whatever play that needed to be made, we made. The kids played their butts off once again. To be able to get this win today and move to the next level is very special moment for our kids.”
The Redbirds (26-0 overall) opened the second half on a 20-4 scoring run to erase a three-point halftime deficit, and then went 13-for-14 from the free throw stripe in the final seven minutes of the game to seal the victory over the Pirates (24-2).
“Anyone who has seen this team play over the course of the year, and especially of late, knows that they pour everything they have into the game of basketball. I’m so proud of them for buying in by listening to our coaches and playing for each other most importantly,” added Uppena.
Darlington advances to Madison where they will face 2016 D4 state runner-up Cameron (23-3) in a state semifinal contest at the Kohl Center on Thursday, March 16. Tip-off is set for 6:35 p.m.
The Comets graduated 85 percent of their scoring from last year’s state team, but they bring a lot of height with them this year sporting seven players 6’2” or taller on their roster. The Redbirds, on the other hand, have just one player taller than 6’2”.
“We’re pretty long, pretty tall and pretty athletic. We have five guys who average double figures on offense, but our defense is what has carried us this far,” said Cameron head coach Troy La Vallie, noting his team has allowed an average of 34 points per game this season.
Thursday’s winner advances to the D4 state championship game against the winner of Thursday’s other semifinal game between #1-ranked Destiny (24-1) and Roncalli (13-13) back at the Kohl Center on Saturday, March 18. Tip-off is set for 12:45 p.m.
“I’m very excited to be here. They’re not new to big stages and big atmospheres. No stage is too large for them,” commented Coach Uppena about his battle-tested team, which is made up of players who have been part of four straight runner-up finishes in football and four consecutive state titles in cross country.
“I also see in these kids the demeanor that they are not done yet. They want to keep this going. There are teams who are happy to just get to state and teams who want to win state. I think we’re the second one.”
Uppena know a thing or two about the state tournament having got there as a player twice with Cassville teams coach by his father Dennis– a runner-up finish in 1999 and a state title in 2000– as well as being a manager for several of his dad’s five other state runs.
“It’s exciting for me. I was fortunate enough to go twice as a player, so I know exactly how these guys are feeling right now,” Uppena explained.
The Pirates appeared ready to shoot the ‘Birds right off the court early in Saturday’s final as everything was coming up in threes for them. C-FC started off with three 3-pointers and added two more 3s and an old-fashioned three-point play during a 13-0 run that pushed them out to a 22-11 advantage with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half.
Darlington answered back with a 14-2 scoring burst to grab a brief 25-24 lead, but C-FC senior Tristian Schmidtknecht sank three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point try and he also connected on a trey late in the half to send the Pirates into the intermission up 30-27. It was just the third time this season the ‘Birds have trailed at the half.
“You never want to get down, especially by double digits. It was nice to see the teams respond in that situation. I don’t think we’ve been down double digits all year long. Going into the half with a three-point deficit compared to a 10-point deficit made a huge difference,” said Uppena. “I wasn’t too worried at that point because it was a long game. I knew our kids would respond and claw their way back into it.
The ‘Birds stormed out of the gates in the second half, getting 3s from seniors Trevor Johnson, Will Schwartz and Chad Golackson and a three-play from senior Ryan Glendenning to turn a three-point deficit into a 47-34 advantage.
“We made some adjustments at halftime and we were able to speed things up a little bit, and that’s when we took over. We didn’t press in the first half like we probably should have because I was a little reluctant in a big game to make that call, but as you can see our kids are best when they are out there flying around. Once we put the run and jump on, that was the game changer,” Uppena noted.
Back-to-back treys by seniors Mason Baecker and Nick Thorsell brought the Pirates back within four at 54-50 with 3:19 to play, but the ‘Birds sank nine of their 10 free throws in the final 2:16 to seal the victory. Glendenning went 6-for-6 at the line down the stretch.
“We’re not in this situation if we don’t make our free throws. At the end of games, that’s what it usually comes down to. If you want to hold the lead, you have to make them. That’s something we’ve done well as of late. I have all the confidence in the world in these kids when the game is on the line,” replied Uppena.
Schwartz finished with a team-high 15 points, while Hunter Johnson chipped in with 13 points and Glendenning and T. Johnson added 11 apiece for Darlington. Golackson scored eight for the ‘Birds.
Thorsell netted 19 for the Pirates. Baecker tallied 12 and Schmidtknecht added nine in the game.
At Evansville, on Thursday, March 9, the Redbirds used a 16-1 scoring run to erase an early 5-0 deficit, and they rolled on to a 73-59 victory over the #9-ranked New Glarus Glarner Knights in a D4 sectional semifinal contest.
Four players scored in double figures to lead a balanced offensive attack for the ‘Birds. Ryan Glendenning, Hunter Johnson and Trevor Johnson each scored 15 points for Darlington, who finished 19-for-25 from the foul line for the game.
Will Schwartz netted 14 points and Chad Golackson added eight on the night.
Jaden Kreklow scored a game-high 17 points for the Knights (20-5), who also lost to the Redbirds, 71-55, during the regular season.
Cullen Brooks and Zach Feller tallied 12 points each and Trevor Gassman added 11 for New Glarus.
WIAA D4 SECTIONAL FINAL
Cochrane-Fount City… 30 25 – 55
Darlington……………… 27 40 – 67
CFC – Baecker 12, Schmidtknecht 9, Thorsell 19, Zonick-Greenwald 7, Gabel 3, Oldendorf 2, Urell 3. Totals – 18 9-9 55.
Darlington – Hunter Johnson 13, Will Schwartz 15, Brayden McDonald 2, Ryan Glendenning 11, Josh Soper 3, Trevor Johnson 11, Stryker Fitzsimons 4, Chad Golackson 8. Totals – 21 19-23 67.
3-point goals– CFC 10 (Baecker 4, Schmidtknecht 2, Thorsell 3, Urell 1), D 6 (Schwartz 3, T. Johnson 1, Golackson 2). Total fouls– CFC 16, D 16. Fouled out– none.
WIAA D4 SECTIONAL SEMIFINAL
Darlington…………….. 38 35 – 73
New Glarus…………… 29 30 – 59
Darlington – Hunter Johnson 15, Will Schwartz 14, Brayden McDonald 3, Ryan Glendenning 15, Trevor Johnson 15, Stryker Fitzsimons 3, Chad Golackson 8. Totals – 25 19-25 73.
New Glarus – Brooks 12, Feller 12, Kreklow 17, Arnett 2, Craker 2, Runde 2, Gassman 11, Tetner 1. Totals – 19 13-19 59.
3-point goals– D 4 (Schwartz 1, Brayden McDonald 1, Golackson 2), NG 8 (Brooks 1, Feller 2, Kreklow 2, Gassman 3). Total fouls– D 18, NG 19. Fouled out– None.