A stretch of eight days in early February was instrumental on the McDonell boys basketball team’s season this winter.
Just not in the way the Macks thought at the time.
McDonell had three games on the schedule over the course of those eight days, with each one promising to be as tough as the last. The Macks had to face the top three teams in the Western Cloverbelt Conference: Osseo-Fairchild, Altoona and Eau Claire Regis.
The chance to climb near the top of the conference standings slipped by the Macks, who lost all three of those games to get knocked out of league title contention. Making matters worse, guard Cory Hoglund picked up an injury against Osseo-Fairchild that would force him to miss the rest of the regular season.
The losing streak coupled with the injury wasn’t ideal at the time, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise down the stretch.
Hoglund’s absence from the lineup forced the rest of the Macks to step up their game as the playoffs drew near.
“The silver lining is that Eion (Kressin) had to step up and play better. JD Bohaty coming off the bench had to play better, he really improved his defense during that stretch. Jaebin Bourget moved into a starting role, he got valuable experience and confidence,” McDonell coach Archie Sherbinow said. “We lost one guy, but we got three guys that got a lot more experience.”
Not only did they get more experience, but the Macks developed a little more maturity, too.
“You have to keep your confidence up, you have to keep your attitude there, and these kids did. In that stretch of (losses), it would have been easy to hang our heads,” Sherbinow said. “These guys did that for about 30 minutes at one practice after Cory got hurt.
“We stopped practice and talked about it and said ‘We can do this. He’s been out of games with foul trouble and things like that, we’re going to be OK. Let’s just play hard and control what we can control.’”
Since that 0-3 stretch, McDonell is 7-1 and has powered its way to the Division 5 state tournament. The Macks have found a way to be playing their best basketball at the right time.
“Now things are just kind of clicking,” senior Hayden Baughman said.
Tests against the best
McDonell has played one of the toughest schedules in Division 5 this season. Look no further than the state tournament field for proof.
The Macks faced three teams that will also be playing in Madison this week. They lost to Prescott (24-2), a Division 3 qualifier, as well as Clear Lake (25-0) and Marathon (22-4), two Division 4 qualifiers.
Playing some of the top teams the bigger Divisions have to offer gave McDonell an idea of what it takes to beat the best.
“We didn’t get away with bad habits in those games,” Sherbinow said. “If we made a mistake against one of those teams, we paid for it. Having to play at that level, I’m glad these guys kept their focus and knew that we could be a good team.”
The Macks faced Prescott and Marathon three days apart from each other, and played Clear Lake a couple of weeks later. They lost to Prescott by 14, Marathon by 21 and Clear Lake by five.
Other state tournament teams have faced each other, but none have played two or more of the other schools. Division 1 qualifier Oshkosh North squared off with Division 2 qualifier Kaukauna twice in Fox Valley Association play, and Division 1 qualifiers Brookfield East and Sussex Hamilton played twice during the Greater Metro Conference season. Division 3 Valders and Division 4 Roncalli played twice in the Eastern Wisconsin Conference.
McDonell did not face another Division 5 team until it played Loyal in the Cloverbelt Crossover, its final regular season game before the playoffs. The Macks are currently unbeaten against Division 5 competition.
Familiar with the stage
The Macks are no strangers to the Kohl Center. This is their third straight trip to the state tournament, while their semifinal opponent Deerfield is making its first-ever appearance at state.
McDonell’s players will be familiar with the routine when they get to Madison, and that should make things a little less stressful than they might be for other teams.
“We know the drill, the routine, what’s up with state,” senior Joey Huffcutt said. “They’re (Deerfield) going to be excited, but we’re going to be just as excited. We know about the pressure, and how the court feels, what the Kohl Center’s like and the atmosphere there. So I think we can handle it well.”
While many of the Macks have been on the team in the last few years to experience the tournament, only Baughman and Hoglund have actually played significant minutes at the Kohl Center.
“You’ve just got to go down there and have fun,” Baughman said. “It’s just like any game. You’ve got to go out and play hard, have fun, and things will go your way if you do that. That’s what we plan on doing.”
No matter how experienced a team is, completely tuning out the magnitude of the opportunity at hand can be tough.
“There will still be some excitement and jitters when you step out on the floor, but they’ll know what to expect somewhat,” Sherbinow said. “It’s not going to hurt, for sure, to have that experience. But hey, you’re playing at the state tournament, there’s still going to be some nerves.”
The two lowest seeds in the Division 5 field have the most experience at the state tournament. The third-seeded Macks haven’t missed the tournament since 2015, and won the title in 2016. Fourth-seeded Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran is making its fifth state appearance in the last six seasons, but has never won the championship.
For Bangor, the top seed, this will be the program’s second ever appearance at the tournament—its first was in 1936.
This won’t be the first state tournament experience this school year for Huffcutt. He helped guide the McDonell/Regis soccer team to the Division 4 semifinals back in the fall. Like the basketball team, that squad overcame a rocky start to the year to make a run in the playoffs.
“I think it’s kind of the same thing. We may have peaked at the right moment,” Huffcutt said.