It’s not easy to carve out a name for yourself in a boys basketball program that’s been as successful in recent years as McDonell.
But that’s exactly what this year’s senior class has done in leading the Macks to the Division 5 state tournament for a third year in a row.
Joey Huffcutt, Joe Schwetz, John Francis and Hayden Baughman have served as the veteran leaders for a team that entered the year without much experience. The team has faced a season with many hurdles, but following the lead of its seniors once again finds its way to the state semifinals when the Macks face Deerfield on Friday morning at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“They’re a fun bunch,” McDonell coach Archie Sherbinow said of the seniors. “The four seniors are a blast to be around and they’re a hard-working group and I think that’s part of the success that we’ve had.”
Huffcutt is appearing on his second state-qualifying sports team of the school year after starting for the Regis/McDonell boys soccer team that made a run to the Division 4 state semifinals in the fall. Huffcutt averages more than six points per game, including scoring a career-high 21 on seven 3-pointers against Eau Claire Regis last month. But it’s also been his improvement on defense that has caught the eye of Sherbinow.
“Joey Huffcutt has worked his butt off all year long in practice,” Sherbinow said. “He’s playing in a position that he might not be the most comfortable with, but it’s the best position to have him in. He’s done a great job being that silent leader and getting things done. He’s improved his defense as well.”
Schwetz has given the Macks energy and defensive intensity off the bench this winter while playing in all 27 games and has become a valuable reserve for a McDonell team that wants to play fast and pressure opponents on both ends of the floor.
“Joe Schwetz is a good energizer guy coming off the bench,” Sherbinow said. “He leads us in charges taken, he knows the importance of that and is not afraid to get in there and bang around with people.”
Francis has made the most of his opportunities this year (including a pair of postseason 3-pointers), but it’s his contributions as a whole that Sherbinow said have been so important for the program.
“I can’t say enough about John Francis,” Sherbinow said. “He doesn’t see the floor a lot, but he’s great in the locker room, he’s great in practice and he’s a talented guy. His attitude has been great in recognizing his role and he’s been great at it. He’s a good role model for some of these younger guys, the sophomores that are along for the ride. That’s how you want to handle yourself, the way that John does and he’s been great in that role.”
And then there’s Baughman. The program’s career scoring leader has been the go-to player this year and enters state averaging more than 21 points per game. The Concordia-St. Paul signee has also made strides in his rebounding game, something that was a necessity following the graduation of standout post players Grayson Knowlton and Alex Ohde, two players now playing for Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools.
“Hayden has had to step up with scoring and I think early on he was used to Grayson (Knowlton) and Alex (Ohde) getting all the rebounds. We had to make sure he got after the boards and (said) you need to go get those boards that you were accustomed to those other guys getting,” Sherbinow said.
Unlike the previous two seasons, the Macks didn’t come into the year as heavy favorites. The team took fourth in the Western Cloverbelt during the regular season and lost three of four games entering its regular season finale. The Macks also started 5-6 and played a brutal nonconference schedule that included three state-bound teams (Prescott, Clear Lake, Marathon) to help get ready for the postseason.
“We had a big senior class that graduated from last year and so we had to reconfigure the parts a little bit to get our offense and defense to work well together,” Francis said. “I think it’s really come along as the year has gone by. We’re really starting to gel as a team and that’s important to make a long playoff run.”
But the team kept its eye on the big picture and through improvements on defense has helped the Macks once again make the trip south.
“We’ve been working a lot on defense recently,” Schwetz said. “Our defense gets going, then our offense goes with it. We think once we get good defense, get a couple stops then our offense is going to lead right into that.”
McDonell has held four of five postseason foes to 51 points or fewer, most recently defeating South Shore 62-48 in the sectional finals.
“We knew we wanted to go far in the playoffs and we knew we had to play better defense and that’s really what has been helping us the last couple games,” Baughman said. “Towards the end of the season we were just playing bad defense, not rotating and now things are clicking and people are talking, communicating and moving on defense and it’s going well.”
It’s been the steady hand of the four seniors guiding the ship this season. The team didn’t enter the season with a lot of experience, but has grown quickly and now has a chance to bring more hardware back to the trophy case at McDonell.
“We peaked at the right and that’s what you want,” Huffcutt said. “We’re really emerging together as a team. I think we have a good shot at making some noise down in Madison.”
“I’m glad they’re getting this payoff at the end,” Sherbinow said. “For the adversity we’ve had to deal with this year, I’m glad they’re getting the payoff of finishing down in Madison. Hopefully we get two more games for them.”