Climb of the Cards continues

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MTT News Desk's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton’s Derek Rongstad reacts in front of the stunned Sun Prairie student section last Saturday./Photo courtesy of Mary Bavery

SUN PRAIRIE — For months now, people have been talking about the potential greatness of next year's Middleton boys basketball team.

The Cardinals appreciated the compliment, except for one thing.

“That’s all great,” junior forward Max Oelerich said. “But we know that nothing’s guaranteed. So we’re talking about now.”

And playing for today, as well.

Last Saturday, Middleton showed that its present might be as promising as its future. Fourth-seeded Middleton went into top-seeded Sun Prairie and played arguably its best game of the year in a WIAA Division 1 regional final.

Middleton’s gritty-gutty point guard Luke Schafer had 21 points, junior guard Derek Rongstad added 15, and the visitors held off a late Sun Prairie surge to notch a thrilling 75-64 win.

“You never know what will happen between now and next year,” Rongstad said. “Nothing is ever guaranteed.

“We have a great senior class that does all of the little things to help us win. I've been playing with them since I was moved up to JV as a freshman. We want to send them out on a high note this year by hopefully continuing this run in the playoffs with a trip to state.”

Middleton is now just two steps from state.

The Cardinals (14-10) will meet Madison Memorial (20-4) in a sectional semifinal Thursday at 7 p.m. in Watertown. The Spartans enter that game with a 19-game winning streak over the Cardinals.

The winner of that game advances to a sectional final Saturday at 1 p.m. in Sun Prairie against either Mukwonago (20-4) or Janesville Craig (14-10)

“There’s no fear in this team at all,” Middleton coach Kevin Bavery said. “For us, it’s about being Middleton.”

Right now, that’s pretty good.

Middleton lost at Sun Prairie, 72-70, in overtime just 11 days earlier. Sun Prairie’s Nick Fuller forced the extra session that night with a 27-foot three-pointer at the buzzer in regulation.

But this was a much different story.

Middleton led virtually the entire way. Middleton made an impressive 31-of-43 free throws (72.1%), including 21-of-30 in the fourth quarter (70.0%) when Sun Prairie began fouling early to try extending the game.

And Middleton survived the attempted heroics of Fuller, who scored a game-high 34 points — including 15 in a frenzied fourth quarter.

“We knew we could beat them,” Schafer said. “We came within a half-inch last time. We know we’ve been getting better and better and I think that showed.”

It sure did.

Middleton used precise offensive execution and stellar defense to build a 64-52 lead with 90 seconds left. But Sun Prairie (20-4), the co-champions of the Big Eight Conference, did what all great teams do and refused to fold.

Fuller put on a one-man show and scored a remarkable 10 points in just 49 seconds. Fuller had two old-fashioned three-point plays and he went the length of the court for a rim-rattling dunk that trimmed Middleton’s lead to 69-64 with 35.5 seconds left.

“Fuller was unbelievable,” Schafer said. “But we just had to stay calm.”

They did.

With Middleton clinging to five-point lead, Derek Rogeberg missed a pair of free throws with 35.5 seconds left. Fuller grabbed the rebound and looked to take off downcourt.

But Rongstad snuck in from behind and stripped the ball from Fuller. Sun Prairie immediately fouled Rongstad, and his two free throws with 31.1 seconds left made it 71-64 and allowed Middleton to re-establish control.

“I knew that I only had three fouls at that point, and with how Fuller was attacking, it was almost impossible to stop him,” Rongstad said. “I figured my best chance of not letting him score was stealing it from him before he got his head of steam going.

“It’s common for players to turn their heads when they get a rebound before they turn their bodies, so I was able to take advantage of that and quickly swipe it away from him.”

Sun Prairie came up empty on its next three possessions. And Middleton got two game-clinching free throws from both Kade Schultz and Schafer.

In a game of countless memorable plays, though, Rongstad’s was arguably the biggest.

“That was Doc saying, ‘This kid is Division 1,’ ” Oelerich said of Fuller, who will play next year at Nebraska. “And that was Doc saying, ‘I’m better than him.’ ”

While that point is certainly subjective, there’s no doubt Middleton was better than Sun Prairie throughout.

Sun Prairie made its first five shots and jumped to an 11-5 lead. But Middleton had three three-pointers in the first quarter and surged to an 18-15 lead.

Oelerich, Kenji Passini and Tyler Markel all made three-pointers in the first quarter, while Schafer went 4-of-4 from the line.

Sun Prairie used an 8-0 run late in the second quarter and surged to a 30-26 lead. But Middleton finished the half on a 7-0 burst and reclaimed a 33-30 halftime edge.

Schafer started the run with a 15-footer, then Rongstad knocked down a three-pointer. Schafer then had a layup off a nifty inbounds play to make it 33-30.

“I just thought we stayed the course all night,” Bavery said. “We never got too high or low, even when things were going against us.”

Oelerich knocked down a three-pointer to open the third quarter and Middleton’s lead grew to 36-30. Sun Prairie battled back within 38-37 midway through the third, but Middleton answered with a 10-1 burst to take a 48-38 lead.

Rogeberg started the run with a lay-up, then Rongstad threw a halfcourt lob to Passini for a lay-up. Rogeberg later had another layup and Rongstad drained a three-pointer to give Middleton its biggest lead of the night.

Middleton’s lead was 58-52 with 1:54 left when Schafer was fouled with 1:54 left. Schafer made the first, and before he shot the second, Sun Prairie reserve center Craig Evans was hit with a technical foul.

Schafer went on to hit two of his three free throws. And when Sun Prairie fouled Schafer on the ensuing inbounds play, he made both free throws.

That remarkable five-point play gave Middleton a 63-52 lead.

“That was huge,” said Schafer, who went 15-of-17 from the line during the game. “Any time there’s a technical there’s a huge momentum swing.”

Sun Prairie — and Fuller — had one final spirited run. But Middleton refused to blink and showed that the future is now.

“It’s a special group,” Bavery said. “And they’re not ready for this thing to end.”

• Notebook: Immediately after the game ended, Middleton’s players called JV coach Tim Simon to inform him of their victory. Simon was out of town on a previously scheduled commitment. … Junior guard Demond Hill, who’s playing with a broken hand, gave Middleton quality minutes off the bench. … Bavery had this to say about Rongstad: “I thought this was his best game of the year. He did so many things besides just score.”


Feb. 22

WIAA Division 1 regional final

Middleton 75, Sun Prairie 64

Middleton ………………….. 18  15  17  25 — 75

Sun Prairie ……..…..…… 15  15  13  21 — 64

MIDDLETON — (fg-fga ft-fta pts) — Luke Schafer 3-6 15-17 21, Tyler Markel 1-2 2-6 6, Max Oelerich 5-7 0-0 12, Derek Rongstad 3-8 7-9 15, Kade Schultz 0-4 4-4 4, Derek Rogeberg 4-6 0-3 8, Kenji Passini 2-4 2-2 5, Demond Hill 1-1 1-2 3, Chris Little 0-1 0-0 0, Max Waelti 0-0 0-0 0, Ian Hokanson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-40 31-43 75.

SUN PRAIRIE — Donnel Thompson 2-4 1-2 5, Nick Fuller 13-18 8-8 34, Nick Noskowiak 4-14 5-5 14, Shane Waldon 1-2 0-0 2, J.T. Ruffin 1-1 1-2 3, Michael Marchese 0-3 0-0 0, Craig Evans 2-6 2-2 6, Malik Robinson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-49 17-19 64.

Three-point goals: Middleton 6 (Rongstad 2, Oelerich 2, Markel, Passini); Sun Prairie 1 (Noskowiak). Totals fouls: SP 28, Mid 16.


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