MADELIA – As the final horn sounded on one whale of a boys basketball game here Thursday evening, the word spread quickly via two types of media: social and traditional. Tweets, radio reports and newspaper scoreboards carried the word that Cleveland had been defeated for the first time this season.
The Clippers came to Madelia with a record of 16-0; the homestanding Madelia Blackhawks were 10-5. The result of this game would have implications on the Valley Conference race and the Class 1A Section 2 postseason playoffs, as well as the civic pride of residents of two towns in southern Minnesota.
After the game, one of the coaches said to me, “It was an awesome crowd. This was a great high school basketball atmosphere.”
The stage had been set in Thursday’s Mankato Free Press. The Clippers headlined veteran reporter Chad Courrier’s Prep Basketball Notebook: “Cleveland enjoying hype of winning streak.” As Chad’s story noted, “It’s not like Cleveland sees this kind of success very often. The Clippers, who were 9-18 last season, haven’t had a winning season since going 14-10 in 2005-06. The best season in program history came in 1960, when the team went 19-3.”
Clippers coach Dan Fredrickson reiterated this point when we chatted before the game. He wondered how the spotlight of being unbeaten so deep into a 26-game regular season would play out with his young team, which has three sophomores among the top seven players.
Both schools reached the nine-man football state playoffs last fall (both were defeated in the state quarterfinals), and the basketball rosters are stocked with multi-sport athletes who know how to work and how to win.
Before tipoff, I made two key realizations: 1) Chad Courrier, who is an MSHSL basketball official as well as a journalism pro, would work the game with partner Mike Barten, the softball coach at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton; 2) Madelia has the sweetest warm-ups I have ever seen.
Madelia coach Jeff Van Hee had told me as much in an email inviting me to the game. The warm-ups are black and orange with vertical stripes on the arms and legs and a casual hoodie look.
Before tipoff, Van Hee’s son Derrick (who would end the night with a game-high 23 points) was honored in a brief ceremony for recently scoring his 1,000th career point. The Madelia pep band played songs from Taylor Swift and the Blues Brothers, the lights went out and a spotlight came on for the home-team introductions and the game began.
Madelia had the edge in size and experience, starting four seniors who included 6-foot-3 Kyle Schultz, 6-5 Jack Kortuem and 6-6 Austin Denn. Cleveland’s tallest starter is 6-3 senior Tyler Piotter, with 6-4 junior Jaiden Zishka coming off the bench. Sophomore guard Carter Kopet, already in his third year as a starter, quarterbacked the Clippers to the football state tournament and is also the QB on the basketball court. He leads the team with an 18-point average and Piotter is at 17.
The atmosphere was high-level from the get-go. Three minutes into the game, an exuberant Clippers fan sitting behind me hollered at his team, “Speed it up! They’re tired!”
Cleveland wanted to run, Madelia wanted to throw down roadblocks in the lane. The Blackhawks focused on Kopet, with three or four defenders collapsing on him when he drove to the hoop. Fredrickson is not a teacher, but he sounded like a high-intensity geography instructor as he called out plays: “ALABAMA!” “OHIO!” “ARIZONA!”
The score was tied 12-12 midway through the first half. Fouls came fast and furious, and Cleveland’s final eight points of the half came on free throws. Madelia caught a nice break in the final minute when Kortuem, attempting an off-balance, up-in-the-air, one-handed pass from the lane – intended for Augie Reihs – watched the ball bounce off the rim and drop through.
The Blackhawks led 32-25 at halftime and came out hot in the second half. They went hard to the hole, scored eight straight points on layups and led 40-30 with 15:20 to play. Fredrickson winced when one of his players missed an open layup, but the Clippers regrouped. Two layups by sophomore Austin Plonsky (who would lead Cleveland with 18 points) bookmarked an 8-0 run that cut the deficit to four.
A three-pointer by Plonsky and a drive by Zishka put Cleveland in front 43-42. Steals by Kopet and Zishka resulted in a free throw (Kopet) and layup (Zishka) and the Clippers were up 48-44 with five-plus minutes remaining. A three by Mitch McCabe and a fadeaway shot by Kopet made it 55-49 and the Clippers appeared to be in control with 4:12 left.
Zishka, who played 20 minutes off the bench, came out for a breather with 2:27 left. Fredrickson told him, “As soon as you’re ready, we need you back in.” He didn’t sit for long.
The teams traded free throws. McCabe hit a three to make it Cleveland 62, Madelia 56 with 1:59 to go. During a timeout the fans on either side of the gym traded proud chants: “CHS! CHS!” was countered by “MHS! MHS!” The place was electric.
The darn thing came down to the final 17 seconds. Two free throws by Kopet gave Cleveland a 64-61 lead. The Clippers allowed Madelia’s Van Hee to drive and score a layup, because two points wasn’t the dagger that three would have been. His layup made it Clippers 64, Blackhawks 53 with 11.5 seconds to go.
Madelia had to foul somebody and Kopet wasn’t their first choice, but he held the ball and they swiped at him. Courrier’s story that day had noted that Carter shoots 73 percent from the line and came into the game having made 31 of his last 34. I didn’t hear anybody yell “jinx!” but this time he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Madelia got the rebound, Denn – the tallest player on either team -- got the ball down low and scored the biggest two of his 12 points. Madelia 65, Cleveland 64. Two seconds to play.
The Clippers had to go the length of the court, and 84 feet looks like a football field at times like this. One pass, another pass and the ball was outside the three-point line. Shot went up, shot missed and the Madelia students – all wearing black on Blackout Night – rushed the court with a whoop and surrounded their boys.
“You’ve got to hand it to them,” Jeff Van Hee said. “They battled. I was thinking, ‘These (Cleveland) sophomores, eventually they’re going to cave.’ They really didn’t cave. Carter Kopet is a heck of a player; I don’t know what his free throw percentage was, but he missed one. And that was the one we needed him to miss.”
Fredrickson said, “We’re a young team, and I’ve got to do a better job of making sure they know situational basketball. The kids played their tail off in the second half. I thought we really fought to come back. I outcoached myself in the first half, went triangle-and-two, box-and-one, they got hot a little bit, got some confidence. The second half we came out man-to-man and the kids came back and fought hard.”
For the home team and their families and friends, there was postgame cake in celebration of Derrick Van Hee’s 1,000 points. Holding cake in one hand and a big victory in the other made the night especially sweet for the Madelians.
Jeff Van Hee said of Cleveland, “When they look back, they’ll probably say, ‘This helped us more than it hurt us.’ It helped us immediately. It gave us the confidence we needed.”
And then came the statement of the night.
“It was an awesome crowd,” Van Hee said, totally unable to conceal a satisfied grin. “This was a great high school basketball atmosphere.”
No argument here.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 376
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 7,295
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn