FOND DU LAC
The Pulaski boys basketball team made history on Saturday afternoon by sticking to what it does best.
After getting away from their 1-3-1 zone defense in their sectional semifinal win over Seymour earlier this week, the Red Raiders went back to their bread-and-butter defensively and picked off upstart Grafton 53-37 to earn the program’s first state berth in 24 years in a Division 2 sectional final held at Fond du Lac High School.
Senior Cody Wichmann tied his season-high with 29 points to lead five Red Raiders’ scorers in stifling any hope the Black Hawks (11-15) had at parlaying their Cinderella tournament run into the program’s third state appearance in school history.
Instead, it was Pulaski (22-4) punching its program’s third ticket to Madison with its methodical offensive scheme and mixing in its patented zone defense to force Grafton into multiple stretches of turnovers and keeping the Black Hawks frustrated throughout.
“We didn’t even use it against Seymour last game and this game we came out and thought we could put pressure on Grafton and we did that,” said Red Raiders guard Jordan Stiede, who had six points. “We wanted to take control of the game. Once we take control of a game, it’s really tough to beat us.”
The Red Raiders advanced to Saturday’s sectional championship battle tested after wins over Ashwaubenon and Seymour, but made sure not to overlook the Black Hawks, who entered the tournament series as a sixth seed following an 8-14 regular season.
Despite its less-than-sterling record, Grafton proved to be a formidable opponent behind 6-foot-7 senior Scott Tyler, who hit the first 3-pointer of the game for the Black Hawks’ only lead of the night to start the game.
The Red Raiders answered with an 11-0 run while their 1-3-1 defense held Grafton without a basket for the next 7 minutes to seize control early and forced the Black Hawks into turnovers on five consecutive possessions after Tyler’s 3.
Neither team was afraid to shed clock offensively, which resulted in Pulaski making only four baskets in the second quarter, but all were 3-pointers with two coming from Wichmann, who had 13 at halftime.
Grafton kept itself in the game despite trailing by 11 entering the second half, but never could pull itself within range of threatening for the upset with Pulaski junior Luke VanLanen coming alive with nine of his 11 points in the final 16 minutes.
Wichmann sealed the victory to send the Raiders back to state for the first time since 1989 under Hall of Fame coach Fred Kestly with eight free throws down the stretch. Although he didn’t feel overly confident at the line coming into the game, he finished 10-for-10 on the night.
“It’s a really good thing for our school, but we’re doing it for our community,” Wichmann said. “It hasn’t set in yet, but we’re going to Madtown. I waited four years for this and it feels (darn) good … I don’t know how many hours I spent in that gym, but it all paid off. We’re going to have a lot of fun down there.”
The Red Raiders will open next week’s state tournament at the Kohl Center in Madison against defending Division 2 state champion Onalaska (24-2), which advanced with a 64-54 win over Hortonville on Saturday.
As the runner-up to De Pere in the Fox River Classic Conference this season, Pulaski felt it was ready to take the next step with a nucleus of seniors that have been playing significant minutes since their sophomore year.
On Saturday, the Red Raiders did just that. After going one-and-done in both of the program’s previous two state appearances in 1975 and 1989, this year’s team is in it for the long haul with its work far from over.
“The goals aren’t complete, but we took a big step in what we want to accomplish,” said Pulaski coach Dave Shaw, who fought off tears during the Pulaski’s final team huddle before cutting down the nets. “There’s a lot of experience out on that court for us. Three guys who have played together for three years — VanLanen, Stiede and Wichmann — that’s kind of our core and they took care of business tonight.”
Grafton 7 8 11 11 — 37
Pulaski 14 12 11 16 — 53
Grafton: Miller 2, Birch 4, Keshemberg 6, Weisflog 1, Tyler 15, Gollwitzer 2, Benzschawel 7. 3-pt: Birch, Tyler. FT: 9-14. F: 17. Fouled out: Keshemberg.
Pulaski: Bader 3, VanLanen 11, Stiede 6, Halla 4, Wichmann 29. 3-pt: Wichmann 3, Stiede 2, Bader. FT: 17-20. F: 14. Fouled out: Bader.