The McDonell boys basketball team will play in the Division 5 sectional finals for a fourth year in a row on Saturday evening when the Macks square off against South Shore in Spooner.
McDonell (16-10) scored a convincing 78-51 win over Rib Lake on Thursday in Chetek while South Shore took down Drummond 56-44 at Northwestern in sectional semifinal matchups.
Unlike previous postseason foes Owen-Withee and Rib Lake, the Macks don’t have a recent history of postseason matchups with the Cardinals. South Shore (22-3) and McDonell have zero common opponents this season and have not met in the WIAA playoffs since the Macks joined the organization in 2000.
The McDonell coach staff took a trip north to watch the Cardinals play last month during the regular season and coach Archie Sherbinow said South Shore is an athletic team with many capable scorers that he believes will look to trap the Macks defensively.
“It’s up to us to pass, catch, take care of the ball and play defense,” Sherbinow said.
South Shore won the Indianhead Conference during the regular season and has four players averaging at least 11 points per game according to WisSports.net — forward Connor Sorenson (16.3 ppg), guard Dallas Williams (14.6 ppg), forward Douglas Hipsher (12.2 ppg) and guard Tristin Wilcox (11.3 ppg).
Sorenson led the team with 18 points in Thursday’s win while sophomore guard Bjorn Branham had 17 points including three 3-pointers.
The Cardinals are on a 12-game winning streak and have lost just once since the middle of December. With a short turnaround and an unfamiliar foe, Sherbinow said perpetration isn’t as much about trying to outscheme an opponent as it is about making sure his team is simply sharp on the things it does well.
“I think it’s a lot of taking care of yourself and that’s what I want to focus on. If we go out and play our best basketball and handle whatever they throw at us, we keep it simple,” Sherbinow said. “If they’re doing this, we do this. If they put pressure on us, put the ball in the middle and attack. We want to attack every time. It’s our mantra.
The Macks were certainly on the attack in Thursday’s win over the Redmen, scoring the first 27 points of their sectional semifinal contest while shooting 59 percent from the field as the team to score its most points in a single game since an 84-53 win at Cadott on Jan. 16. But their defense was also sharp in the win as they limited a Rib Lake team that averaged more than 60 points per game to just 13 in the first half.
McDonell entered the season with a roster that was largely young on varsity-level experience. The Macks started 5-6 and had a pair of losing streaks of at least three games during the regular season.
“I think some of the struggles early on were the youth we were putting on the floor,” Sherbinow said. “Eion (Kressin) having to step into a role that people maybe were accustomed to seeing Alex (Ohde) and Grayson (Knowlton) play or in 2012 Kyle Cody. When people last saw them play they were seniors and very good seniors where we’re asking Eion to step up as a sophomore and I thought he did a great job (against Rib Lake) being that back line of our defense with what we’re trying to do.”
The 6-foot-5 Kressin had seven points while fellow post player Charlie Bleskachek scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds against Rib Lake. Sherbinow also pointed to defensive improvements by senior Joey Huffcutt, junior Jaebin Bourget and sophomore JD Bohaty down the stretch as reasons for success on that end of the floor.
Even with a markedly different team from a year ago, the Macks are once again one game from the state tournament. McDonell won the Division 5 crown in 2016 and advanced to the semifinals in 2012 and 2017.
McDonell is a team that is trending in the right direction at the right time, even though it has impressed Sherbinow all season long with its resiliency.
“Right now the biggest thing is resilience, the stuff that’s been thrown at them. From the beginning of practice we’ve had some things that just kept you offguard or on shaky ground,” Sherbinow said. “They just kept fighting. Many times this year (it was wondered) ‘Is this when we’re going to throw in the towel? Is this team going to throw in the towel?’ and they just didn’t. Three or four losses in a row and we still worked hard at practice, we still had great practices.
“They just weren’t carrying over to the game. Their resiliency and sticking with it has been something that hopefully gets rewarded with that ultimate goal of getting Madison. It’s something that has got them through this nice playoff run.”