To be perfectly blunt, the senior-laden unbeaten Ripon boys basketball team had to look like a small college All-Star team to the feisty, overachieving sophomore and junior roster of Greendale Martin Luther in a WIAA Division 3 sectional final March 11 at Whitefish Bay.
The No. 4-ranked Spartans (22-4) nonetheless had the top-ranked Tigers on the ropes much of the first half, but then Ripon's strength and skill simply overwhelmed Martin Luther as the bid for a first WIAA state tournament berth came up short in a 78-63 decision.
Guard Eddie Muench devastated the Spartans with 36 points, while forward Bennett Vander Plas had 21.
"It was their physical maturity, their sheer physical strength that got to us," said second-year ML coach Paul Wollersheim. "We have decent size, but not their kind of size and that really gave us problems."
The loss ended a remarkable season for the Spartans while the Tigers (26-0) will head to a WIAA state semifinal on Friday, March 17, at the Kohl Center in Madison. It also ended a long, amazing day for Martin Luther, as many of the hoops fans were a bit late-arriving coming back from Green Bay where the Spartan girls fell in the D3 state title game to Madison Edgewood earlier in the day.
It was a sea of orange on the home side of the court at Bay for Ripon while the visiting side was an ocean of green and gold for the Spartans.
ML started all underclassmen as compared to the all-senior unit of Ripon, highlighted by the dangerous duo of the 6-8 Vander Plas (19.4 ppg.) and the 6-4 Muench (22.5 ppg.).
The pair lived up to their billing. The Tigers used Vander Plas out of the high post where he could drive and pass, pulling away from the basket the taller Spartans players like 6-5 sophomore Xzavier Jones. That opened the way for the slashing Muench to get to the basket all night. The Spartans battled gamely on the boards all evening, but offensive rebounds were few and far between against a team that was taller at almost every position.
The Spartans still grabbed an early 10-6 lead on a 3-pointer by junior guard Brenden Lewison, but a 9-0 run by the Tigers shortly thereafter gave them an 18-12 lead with 8:43 left in the half.
GML would never lead again, though strong play down the stretch of the first half by sophomore guard Ace Evans and Jones helped keep the game close at the break, 33-28. But with the Tigers bulling their way inside all evening, it was tough for the Spartans to stay out of foul trouble. Four starters wound up with two fouls each at the break.
It was still a 41-36 game with about 14 minutes to go, but then the Tigers began executing. A Muench 3-pointer kicked off an 13-2 run that ballooned the lead to 54-38 with 11:18 left. A Muench runner and trey shortly thereafter gave the Tigers their biggest lead of the night 59-40 with 10:09 to go. Martin Luther never got inside of 12 after that.
"Give him credit, he hit a lot of tough shots, but we did a poor job of defending him," said Wollersheim of Muench. "Vander Plas was a force inside and outside, and he made us pay for every one of our mistakes."
The Spartans never quit, but the Tigers never let them back in, either. Sophomore guard Trequan Carrington did his best to keep ML in the game with 24 points, while Evans had 15 and Jones 12.
Wollersheim, who experienced state-championship level success at Whitefish Bay Dominican before coming to Martin Luther, recognized the value of experience for a team like Ripon, which has a total of 10 seniors on the roster.
"We just didn't have enough against a veteran team like that," he said. "They play seven guys, six of them are seniors. They got a big scare in the sectional semifinal (March 9) against Waupun (a 3-point win). You seem to have one of those every deep playoff run, and they responded well against us."
Wollersheim was grateful for all the fans who made the trip down to the game. It was part of a magical campaign that included a share of the Metro Classic Conference title with Racine Prairie and then a big win over Dominican in the sectional semifinal on March 8.
"It was an amazing season," he said, "but the future is all ahead of us. We were picked for fourth in the conference and we didn't even make the list of 23 honorable mention teams (statewide) in the season-opening polls. So for us to win a conference title and make it to a sectional final with these guys was terrific. What a great experience for everyone."
He's already looking forward to next year as the Spartans graduate just two players off their 16-player roster.
"They're good kids, they work hard and they really try to do everything I ask of them," he said. "We're in a very good situation."