Sheboygan Lutheran coach Nick Verhagen admitted that this year’s team is not the most excitable group, even in the aftermath of winning the school’s second WIAA boys basketball state title.
“This is the most humble, quiet, calm, cool, collected group I’ve ever been around,” said Verhagen after the Crusaders built a big lead then held off Columbus Catholic 77-69 on Saturday at the Kohl Center. “When we were here in 2014, that group was a littler goofier, a little looser. … This group just plays with that vision. I knew when we saw them this morning, we had something special.”
The Crusaders (27-2) scored the first nine points of the championship game, pouncing on a jittery Columbus team that missed one shot and committed three turnovers on its first four possessions. Sheboygan Lutheran built as much as a 20-point lead in the first half before leading 49-31 at the break.
“We saw them in a lot of film that they were vulnerable deep,” Verhagen said of the Dons’ pressure defense. “With Casey (Verhagen’s) vision, he was looking up the floor all the time and find our bigs, and (Jacob Ognacevic) was able to benefit with dunks that way and a couple of other looks.”
Ognacevic, the Crusaders’ 6-foot-7 junior center, proved his credentials with a 35-point, 19-rebound performance to finish his junior season. It was, however, a trio of young guards who provided the tempo throughout the game.
Freshman Casey Verhagen tied the Division 5 single-game record with 11 assists, while fellow freshman Robby Michael came off the bench to score 10 points – including two three-pointers – in 17 minutes. Sophomore Jonah Jurss also started and chipped in four rebounds.
“We’ve been in situations like this before and I’ve put them in situations like this before, where we’ve been in front of raucous crowds,” Nick Verhagen said. “I’ve coached them for a long time, so I put them in in situations where I believe they can be successful, and they prevailed.”
It seemed that Sheboygan Lutheran was going to cruise to the award ceremony when it led by 16 at 64-48 with 5:53 remaining. The Dons had a few different ideas when they began to throw double-teams all over the floor.
“We got down 9-0 (to start the game) but ended up cutting it to four,” Dons coach Joe Konieczny said. “You look at those first four minutes, we were nervous and had some uncharacteristic turnovers off the dribble.”
Columbus ground the lead down to 73-69 with 44 seconds remaining on Jared Mandel’s three-pointer, but Ognacevic’s three-point play and his additional free throw with 14 seconds left secured the state title, joining the school’s 2012 state championship won on Sam Dekker’s dramatic three-pointer.
“I feel like it’s still kind of sinking in,” Ognacevic said. “When we first won our sectional final, it took a while for me to actually realize that we were going to state and playing at the Kohl Center. Right now I might not look that excited but it’ll sink in and I’ll get really happy.”
Ognacevic finished the two-game Division 5 state trip with 33 rebounds, which broke Dekker’s 2012 division record of 29. The record, however, belongs to Bryce Fuerlinger of Columbus Catholic, who added nine rebounds Saturday to his otherworldly 25-board total on Friday to finish with 34 for the tournament.
It is Sheboygan Lutheran, however, who will take home the big prize – and maybe even give Nick Verhagen the opportunity to tell his team to savor the moment.
“Their expectations are so high that they anticipated being here and anything less would have been a letdown,” he said. “I’m going to work on getting them to loosen up a little bit and celebrate. And they will.”