CHIPPEWA FALLS — Experience is key this time of year. It’s not quantifiable. it doesn’t show up in the score sheet like talent does, rather it’s a feeling. It’s knowing what to do when your season is on the line and the gym is packed with fans clinging to every moment.
Of the eight teams remaining in the Division 5 WIAA playoffs, McDonnell has the clear experience advantage. The Macks have made three consecutive state appearances and are now one win away from making it four in a row. But with the streak comes the pressure to maintain the school’s success.
“We have high expectations for us this year,” senior forward Charlie Bleskachek said.
While Bleskachek says he feels that pressure to repeat and close out his senior year in Madison, others on the team say they don’t really pay attention to their school’s past success.
“We feel that we’re our own team and we have our own identity,” said senior guard Cory Hoglund, who got playing time on the last three teams to make it to state. “Of course, we don’t want to be the team that ends the streak, but we feel like we’re our own team.”
If anyone were to really feel the pressure, it would be first-year head coach Adam Schilling. He took over the Macks in September after the departure of 15-year head coach Archie Sherbinow. However, Schilling says he doesn’t think about McDonell’s previous records.
“I don’t feel like there is pressure,” Schilling said. “If anything, it’s made it easier because they’ve been so well coached in the past.”
Schilling has changed up his team’s defense this season, opting to switch between man coverage and zone coverage rather than stick to McDonell’s traditional man-to-man defense in order to confuse teams. It’s a strategy that’s worked for the Macks this year. They’re holding opponents to just 50 points per game this season, an 11-point improvement from last year.
However, all Schilling’s scheming goes out the window if his team isn’t mentally ready for these late-round playoff games. It’s these concerns that make Schilling worried before games.
“If anything gets me nervous it’s making sure the kids are ready to go,” he said.
And at this time of year, they should be. The upperclassmen’s playoff experience helps the whole squad deal with the magnitude of these big games.
Their ability to overcome adversity has showed in the Macks’ pair of playoff games. In the regional final they fought off a pesky Prentice team, overcoming a couple offensive lulls with a handful of clutch plays in the closing minutes. Thursday night they fought back from a 13-point deficit by stringing together a 22-1 run in a 57-47 victory over Athens in the sectional semifinal.
After the semi, Bluejays’ coach Aaron Ellenbecker suggested McDonnell’s veteran experience contributed to their win.
“I was proud of our kids, but they had never been in a game of this magnitude,” Ellenbecker said. “McDonell carried a lot of experience.”
Now the Macks head to Chippewa Falls today to take on the Luck Cardinals, a team who hasn’t made it to state since 2008. If McDonell finds itself down early, the players shouldn’t be fazed. Experience is on their side.