The road to State began in May, with a “championship off-season.” From there, it was to Sheboygan’s hilly Vollrath Park for rigorous preseason training.
They didn’t need coaches to tell them what to do; the players wanted to push themselves.
The quest to return to Madison is precisely why practices were as intense and as physical as game nights. Why they learned to play zone defense one full game, man-to-man the next.
Sheboygan Lutheran’s boys basketball team had the talent and experience to get back to State after a one-year hiatus. The players just made sure that when the time came to get there, they were ready.
Saturday at Kettle Moraine, Lutheran showed it was.
The Crusaders blitzed Central Wisconsin Christian at the tip, built up a commanding lead and held off a late rally to take the WIAA Division 5 sectional championship 67-56 and qualify for State for the second time in three seasons.
“It’s definitely awesome to get to State a second time,” added senior Jeff Hess, one of several players on this year’s squad who were on that title-winning team in 2012 as freshmen or sophomores.
Two years ago, Lutheran rode on the back of Sam Dekker, who capped a legendary prep career with one of the memorable shots in state hoops history, getting the Crusaders a golden ball.
“This time feels different,” said junior Jacob Jurss, referring to their ability to rely on Dekker two years ago. “It’s a real team effort. Everyone had to do their part to get here.”
Lutheran (25-2) will face Northeastern Wisconsin Lutheran out of Green Bay (26-1) in a D5 state semifinal at the Kohl Center, Thursday at 1:35 p.m. NEW beat Sheboygan 98-91 back on Dec. 14.
On Saturday, in a clash of two teams nicknamed the “Crusaders,” it was about reaching one mammoth milestone. But not the final one.
“They worked so hard for me, for this team, and they did it,” said second-year Lutheran coach Nick Verhagen, referring to that “championship off-season” which included several marquee summer tournament titles.
“They totally bought into what we were trying to do.”
Lutheran had developed a habit of slow starts lately, including its last two postseason games. But not on Saturday. Jurss was feeling it.
Verhagen ran the opening play of the game for Jurss, who rewarded the coach with a 3-pointer. That was just the start.
Jurss knocked down four 3-pointer, holding out three fingers and swiping across his body after each one. He stuck out his tongue after the third; he knew he was on.
“Coach ran a play for me on the opening possession, I knocked it down,” said Jurss. “Teammates kept finding me, and I kept making them, I guess.”
Jurss drained four 3’s in the opening quarter and scored 14 points in the frame. Lutheran led 24-7 after the opening quarter, but it wasn’t done there.
A Hess lay-in made it 28-7 early in the second quarter. A three-point play by senior Tyler Zastrow put the score at 34-14. midway through the second.
“It’s kind of your worst dream there. But sometimes in basketball that happens,” CWC coach Dan Ten Napel said.
Lutheran had just three turnovers in the first half compared to 10 for CWC.
“It was definitely nice to start off hot for once,” said Hess with a touch of understatement.
Verhagen said the goal was to attack quickly, and they rode Jurss to do exactly that.
“At some point, we turned into a second-half team. But we had momentum coming into this game and talked about putting them away early,” he said. “We felt like it was ours to lose, and from the opening tip, it was our to lose. And we won.”
Jurss finished a spectacular game with 23 points, eight assists, six rebounds and six steals. Zastrow scored 15, Hess had 13 and senior Ryan Scheele nine with five rebounds. Phil Leibham added five points and five boards.
To its credit, CWC (20-7) didn’t fold up camp at halftime. It outscored Lutheran 18-8 in the third quarter and cut its deficit to eight points in the fourth, but could get no closer.
The key play that likely clinched the return to State? Jurss, of course, who roared into the lane for a lay-up, then stole the ball in the open court for another lay-in, turning a 50-42 game into 54-42 with five minutes remaining.
Now, it’s back to Madison, to begin a new quest. The ultimate quest.
“It feels great,” said Scheele. “We worked so hard for this, and we finally got it.”
21 — 56
Sheboygan Lutheran — Jurss 23, Scheele 9, Hess 13, Leibham 5, Ty. Zastrow 15, Tay. Zastrow 2. 3-pt: Jurss 4, Scheele 1, Hess 1, Leibham 1, Ty. Zastrow 1. FT: 11-18. Fouls: 13.
Central Wisconsin Christian — Braunschweig 11, Zonnefeld 16, Ganz 6, Regnerus 3, Vander Berg 3, Greenfield 2, De Young 15. 3-pt: Zonnefeld 1, Regnerus 1, Vander Berg 1, Greenfield 1. FT: 10-16. Fouls: 16.