Updated to include quotes and official stats
By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
WRIGHTSTOWN – All indications coming into Thursday night’s sectional semifinal between Wrightstown and Amherst were that the two teams were nearly identical. Each sported 23-1 marks; each ran the table in league play; each scored in the mid-60s.
But on Thursday at Menasha, they couldn’t have been less alike. Amherst was red-hot inside; Wrightstown was ice-cold from the perimeter. The result: a stunning end to the Tigers’ marvelous season following a 74-56 loss in a game that wasn’t as big a blowout as the final margin suggests, but also wasn’t ever much in doubt after the early going in the second half.
“Amherst played a phenomenal game,” said Wrightstown head coach Mike Froehlke. “They have some really good players and they were able to get the offensive looks they wanted. We certainly had a hard time getting the shots we wanted, and when we did get them they just didn’t fall.”
Wrightstown, which usually makes hay from running fast and launching lots of shots, was slowed down by an outstanding Amherst defense, which denied the inside and still managed to challenge Wrightstown sharpshooters on the arc. The Tigers made only 6 of 27 three-pointers and just 12 of 33 inside the arc, while Amherst, sporting a potent inside tandem, a quick point guard and several good mid-range shooters, lit it up at a 25-of-46 clip, while taking only four three-pointers.
“They have some girls who can really shoot the three, so we wanted to extend out on them,” said Amherst coach Gregg Jensen, whose team went on to beat Southern Door in the sectional final on Saturday. “We put a lot of pride in being solid in the halfcourt on defense.”
The Wrightstown season was bookended by season-opening and season-ending losses, with 23 straight wins in the middle, and included a third straight regional championship.
Senior Kailee Van Zeeland went out with a bang, scoring 19 points, and snagging four steals and 10 rebounds, while dishing out three assists. Wrightstown’s only other senior, Taylor Guns, grabbed 10 rebounds, scored five points and dished out three assists.
“Everything Kailee does is with style,” Mike Froehlke said. “She’s an incredible athlete with impeccable sportsmanship. Opponents respect her, and her teammates love her. We’re going to miss her greatly.”
So good was the Amherst defense that Wrightstown sophomore point guard Bridget Froehlke finished with just one assist, after going for double figures in that category the past three games. Froehlke pitched in 17 points.
The Tigers looked tight early, missing 18 of their first 20 shots, with several of those not drawing iron. Somehow, though, they hung around, despite the Falcons making 9 of their first 14. The Amherst lead was 22-10 when Wrightstown enjoyed its only fluid offensive spurt of the night – an 11-0 run propelled by steals and fast breaks – and drew within a point.
Autumn Diny came off the bench to give the Tigers a spark, and her putback with 3:11 left narrowed the Amherst lead to 24-23. But Wrightstown, which never led, would never be that close again. Amherst scored the final five points of the half to take a six-point lead into the locker room.
“I thought we were a little shaky to start the game,” Mike Froehlke said. “That’s uncharacteristic of us so I was surprised. We have players who have been in big games. But I don’t think we ever got totally rattled. We got it to six at halftime and felt we were right in it.”
Leading Amherst scorer Heather Pearson had only four points at intermission, but she was in double figures before two-and-a-half minutes had elapsed in the second half, scoring on strong post moves and a nice touch down low. She finished with 19.
“We relied a lot more on the perimeter game than they did,” Mike Froehlke said. “They were able to pound it inside and get a lot of shots near the hoop. We couldn’t counter that. They were huge.”
The Amherst lead grew to 12 before Van Zeeland scored six straight – eight straight overall for Wrightstown – to get the Tigers to within 42-36 with 11:44 remaining. Point guard Grace Moe began to assert her talents at that point, scoring two straight baskets and later, off a baseline drive and free throw.
Moe missed last year’s sectional semifinal loss to the Tigers and it was easy to see how defining her presence was.
“That was obviously a big loss,” Jensen said. “But getting off to a fast start tonight gave us confidence. In the back of our minds we were aware we’d lost to them last year so they wanted to beat them, but it was more, we just want to keep playing and we knew we had to play well.”
The Tigers would not go away. Froehlke hit a three and Van Zeeland scored on a baseline drive and added a free throw to close the gap to 50-42. But that was the last Tiger hurrah as the Falcons rattled off nine straight and led by 17 with 5:13 left. Wrightstown drew within 11 on a Froehlke three and had a chance to get it to single digits with three minutes left.
Ella Diny added nine points, four rebounds and four assists.
“The girls are very upset,” Mike Froehlke said. “They certainly have high expectations and they play to win. I congratulated them on a great season and told them how much I love them and how much I’m going to miss them.
“They know they had a great season, but that doesn’t take away from their pain.”