Nathan Toenjes was a man amongst boys on Saturday for the N.E.W. Lutheran boys’ basketball team.
The 6-foot-7 junior pumped in a game-high 16 points along with 15 rebounds and four blocked shots to lead the Blazers in a 63-40 victory over Niagara in a WIAA Division 5 sectional final at Menasha High School.
N.E.W. Lutheran is heading back to the state tournament for the third time in four years and will square off against Drummond (24-2) on Thursday at 1:35 p.m. at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“It feels great,” said Toenjes of the team’s third trip to state in four years. “Seeing all the players before us do it makes you really want to get there, and now we’re doing it.
“Coming into the game, we could see Niagara was a bit smaller than us, and we had the strategy to just pound the ball into the post like we did (in our semifinal game) against Sheboygan Lutheran.”
It was the Blazers’ size against the Badgers’ quickness, and N.E.W. Lutheran’s physical style dominated on the glass, posting a 42-29 rebounding edge. Niagara was held to just one offensive rebound in the second half.
Toenjes scored seven points in the first quarter, which saw the Blazers (27-0) jump out to an 18-15 lead. N.E.W. Lutheran began the second quarter on a 12-0 run to go up 30-15 and seize control, before the Badgers (19-8) ended the half with their own 10-2 run to close the gap heading to the break.
“We didn’t save our best game for last here,” said N.E.W. Lutheran coach Mark Meerstein. “There were some big swings in each half. When we went up 15 in the first half, I thought ‘here we go,’ but Niagara just kept battling back. We missed a couple layups that led to their fast breaks in transition that hurt us. We hung together and started to pull away in the second half.”
Defensively, the Blazers locked things down in the second half, holding Niagara to five points in the third period and scoreless in the fourth until N.E.W. Lutheran began to substitute freely with about three minutes remaining.
“On a timeout somewhere in there with about six minutes remaining, I told the kids that if we hold them scoreless from here on out, we go,” Meerstein said. “We got after it better on the boards in the second half and didn’t give them any second chances like they did early on. We also rotated back on defense better and they didn’t have many breakout points after we adjusted.”
The Badgers were looking to get back to state for the first time since winning the Class C state championship in 1979.
“We went through a big scoring drought and that really put us behind the eight-ball,” said Niagara coach Jim Hoogland. “N.E.W. Lutheran in an excellent ball club. They have the total package – good guards, good big men and are very athletic. It’s one of the better teams we played all year and I think they’ll do well at state. I give them credit…they really turned up the defensive pressure on us and that was the difference.”
If the outcome was in doubt after halftime, the Blazers put those fears to rest with a 19-point third quarter which began with a 7-0 burst. Junior Dakota Zinser had the hot hand for N.E.W. Lutheran in the period, hitting a pair of 3-pointers.
Travis Voigt had a trio of 3-pointers and ended with 13 points for the Blazers, while Zinser chipped in with 12. Zach Walker and Jordan Zawada each had eight points for the Badgers.
The Blazers will be looking to take the next step this year after coming up short in two previous trips to Madison. N.E.W Lutheran lost in the 2010 state title game and the 2011 semifinals. Both losses came to Randolph.
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Meerstein of his team’s trip to Madison. “We’ll let this one set in for a bit and come back Monday and get ready for (Drummond). It’ll be an exciting week in school with a lot of buzz.”
N.E.W. Lutheran 18 14 19 12 – 63
Niagara 15 10 5 10 – 40
N.E.W.: Claflin 6, Voigt 13, Brock 5, Zinser 12, Toenjes 16, Glodoski 6, Zimmerman 5. 3-pt: Voigt 3, Brock 1, Zinser 2. FT: 9-11. F: 14.
N: Walker 8, Swanson 7, Liebergen 5, Anderson 6, Zychowski 4, Parent 2, Zawada 8. 3-pt: Zawada 2. FT: 8-16. F: 15.