The Assumption girls basketball team made it clear from the start Tuesday that it wasn’t going to let Merrill’s Renee Sladek beat it.
Every time Merrill tried to work the ball inside to the 6-foot-1 senior, three Royals players surrounded Sladek seemingly as she touched the ball.
The plan worked as Sladek, who is heading to Northern Illinois, was held without a field goal and scored just four points as the Royals pulled away for a 43-25 nonconference win.
“She’s a fantastic ballplayer. Unfortunately, she’s coming off a knee injury and you can tell she’s still trying to get in the swing of it again. It’s harder for her to move a little bit laterally,” said Assumption coach Joe Birkhauser, whose team improved to 4-0. “Our gameplan was that we needed to come in and take her out of the game. Every time the ball would go down (in the post), we collapsed everybody down and got it done.”
The rest of Merrill’s players didn’t fare much better as the defending WIAA Division 5 state champions forced 16 turnovers in the first half, and held the Division 1 Bluejays (2-1) to just a point in the fourth quarter.
“In the first half, I think we might have run a half-court offense twice,” Merrill coach Melissa Yuska said. “We got a little bit better in the second half I thought, but they just took us out of our game. We were prepared for (the press). We came in Sunday and prepared for exactly what they did, and unfortunately we didn’t execute what our gameplan was.
“We didn’t have any offense tonight. It was ugly and frustrating to watch. Give credit to them, they took us out of our game and out of our rhythm. It’s good that it’s early in the season. We can take this and learn from it. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
The Royals forced four turnovers in the opening 45 seconds and never trailed. Assumption scored the first two field goals and the Bluejays never got closer than a point at 6-5.
Defense kept Merrill in the game as the Bluejays forced 15 turnovers. A field goal in the closing seconds of the third quarter brought the Bluejays to within 35-24 heading into the fourth quarter, but Merrill missed all nine of its field goals in the final eight minutes.
Sladek hit a free throw with 36 seconds left in regulation to give Merrill its only point of the quarter. Sladek played the fourth quarter with four fouls before coming out of the game with under a minute remaining.
“It’s really exciting to get a win like this right away in the season. We know we just have to keep working to improve,” said Assumption senior Brittney Birkhauser, who was often matched against Sladek when the Bluejays were running their half-court offense. “We know that our defense is what we need to do and that if we can keep teams to under 30, we’ll usually get the win.”
Leading scorers: A, Jenny Wanta 4, Mary Sigler 7, Macie Zurfluh, Gena Grundhoffer 8, Brittney Birkhauser 9, Jane Newman 4, Rose Crowns 1, Olivia Skibba 4; M, Dawn Leland 4, Lauren Hojan 4, Emily Page 3, Morgan Marnholtz 5, Mariah Turenne 4, Reegan Byer 4, Renee Sladek 3. 3 pointers: A, 1 (Birkhauser); M, 2 (Page, Marnholtz). FT: A, 6-13; M, 3-7.
Records: Assumption 4-0, Merrill 2-1