For nearly a decade, Menasha’s boys’ basketball postseason had come and gone like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day.
It was always a brief, one-day-only February appearance before the Bluejays disappeared for the rest of the winter.
That all changed Tuesday night, when the Bluejays avoided their usual early exit on the tournament trail with an inspired 82-47 regional quarterfinal mauling of Marinette.
This was the Bluejays’ finest hour in another frustrating season of tasting little success in the power-packed Fox Valley Association. Menasha had snapped a 68-game FVA losing streak on Jan. 18, but still finished a dismal 1-17 in a league populated by much larger schools.
Battling constantly against heavyweights, though, can give you a knockout punch of your own, especially against someone your own size. The stiff competition the Bluejays faced on a weekly basis made a difference against the Marines. All of a sudden, the team that went 3½ seasons without a conference win was LeBron James driving to the hoop against Beno Udrih.
I hadn’t seen the Bluejays all season until covering Tuesday’s game and wasn’t expecting much. Like a lot of people, I looked at their 3-19 regular-season record and assumed they would be handing in their uniforms the next day.
Of course, I was wrong. I was impressed with the Bluejays’ athleticism, skill level, energy and coaching. It had been a while since I had seen a dunk in a prep game. Well, the Bluejays had two of them by the end of the first quarter, courtesy of sophomore Emanuel Jenkins and senior Quadry Smith, a pair of explosive guards who came off the bench and turned steals into thunderous throwdowns.
Another talented sophomore, 6-foot-3 Tyler Johnson, kept gliding to the rim and finishing plays, while 6-6 senior Nick Mohl came up big in the lane, too. The two combined for 35 points (23 by Johnson), while senior guards Tyler Korth and Aaron Langdon torched the Marines from the perimeter.
“We’re looking for big things from Tyler Johnson,” said Menasha coach Alan Ligocki. “There’s times when he’s the best athlete on the court.”
You want defense? The Bluejays had that, too. A defensive rotation of five players limited Derek Klegin, the state’s 19th-leading scorer, to nine first-half points and Klegin scored most of his 21 points — two below his average — during garbage time.
It all made for a fun, festive night for a resilient band of Bluejays, who could have become demoralized from a steady diet of FVA setbacks.
Instead, they looked like a team that belonged in the postseason — a hungry, prideful bunch determined to prove it was superior to its dreadful record.
OK, it wasn’t Jimmy Chitwood hitting the game-winning shot at the conclusion of “Hoosiers,” but the sight of super-stoked Menasha players celebrating the program’s first tournament win in nine long years with a very vocal student body was one of the feel-good moments I’ll remember from the winter sports season.
And that’s what this annual phenomenon known as March Madness is all about: moments of both triumph and tears in tournament games where regular-season records are irrelevant and both conference champions and underdogs have an opportunity at success.
The odds of the Bluejays making a deep postseason run are against them, since they will meet top-seeded Pulaski (18-4) tonight on the Red Raiders’ home floor.
But I’ll guarantee you this. Unless the Red Raiders don’t bother viewing Tuesday’s game film, they’re not going to take Menasha lightly.
They’re going to have respect for a Bluejays team that got sick and tired of a one-and-done postseason and did something about it.
— Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or firstname.lastname@example.org; On Twitter @twfroberg