By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
this story was updated from Thursday night’s capsule.
DENMARK – With all the attention being paid to a basketball game 50 miles to the east, it might have been easy to forget that the Denmark Vikings still had to take care of their own business on Thursday night in Waupaca.
And so even while the Denmark coaches were receiving updates on Wrightstown’s game at Freedom – a game the Vikings needed the Irish to win if they hoped to lay claim to a share of their first-conference title in a dozen years – they were intent on keeping their players’ focus on the game at hand.
No reports of that other game’s progress were being passed along to the players, who had enough to worry about against a red-hot and motivated Waupaca team – on Senior Night — that is clearly much better than its 13 conference losses coming in would suggest.
As the reports filtered in of Freedom’s expanding lead, Denmark fans could only sit tight-lipped as Waupaca kept hitting shots and expanding its own lead over a Viking team that had earlier dispatched the Comets by 28 points. Three minutes into the second half, Denmark trailed by 10. It was still down seven with seven-and-a-half minutes left and Waupaca showed no signs of cooling off.
Then, Zane Short took over, erupting for 20 points over the final 10:35, including nine points during a conclusive 12-0 run that lifted the Vikings to a 72-62 win that, combined with Freedom’s win over Wrightstown, brought Denmark a share of the North Eastern Conference championship with the Irish and the Tigers.
“It was definitely kicking into urgent mode,” said Short, who finished with 33 points on a variety of spinning drives, pull-ups and finger rolls. “They were doubling Pat (Suemnick) so it was easier for me. There was no weak-side help, so I was able to take advantage of that.
“I mean, we may have tied for it, but we are up there with the best teams in the conference. We played a heck of a conference season and we did something most people didn’t think we could.”
Suemnick also came up big with 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots, hitting some key buckets during Denmark’s 37-17 finish over the final 15 minutes.
The Vikings used a 9-0 run to grab its first lead since midway in the first half on Suemnick’s 16-footer on the baseline with 5:02 left. But Waupaca’s 10th three of the night put them back on top and the Vikings trailed 62-60 with under two minutes. Short’s spinning six-foot bank tied it, starting the 12-0 run that finished it off. Short also had a dunk off a Suemnick steal, a one-man fast-break bucket off a rebound and, to punctuate it, a steal and dunk in the closing seconds.
“That game was not the way we drew it up,” said Denmark coach Cody Stelmach. “But I was glad the way we stepped it up at the end and found a way to get it done. Especially our seniors.”
After Short missed an and-one free throw with 28 seconds remaining, Jack Satori came up with a scrambling offensive rebound and drew a foul. Though he too missed a free throw, Suemnick was there with another offensive board, this time for a putback and free throw that effectively ended it. Satori finished with only three points but grabbed a couple of critical offensive boards down the stretch and also dished out six assists.
“Jack deserves a lot of credit with those (offensive rebounds) there at the end,” Short said. “But he always does that. That’s just Jack: he’s always in there when it matters most.”
The rally was triggered not just by Short’s dominance on the offensive end but by relentless Viking defense over the final seven minutes, when Waupaca managed only two baskets. Before that the Comets were having their way, finishing 10 of 25 from three, and using crisp passing and back cuts for open looks. Sophomore Hunter Marcom, a 6-6 sophomore with future Player-of-the-Year written all over him, was especially tough to stop and finished with 22 points on 4-of-6 three-point shooting. Denmark used a 1-3-1 zone at times to try to keep its six-man rotation as fresh as possible for a stretch run.
Finally, the Comet shots stopped falling and Denmark started forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. That fueled the rally. Denmark suffered only one turnover in the second half and made 17 of 27 shots, 28 of 56 overall.
“It’s always tough to make that long drive here on Senior Night,” Stelmach said. “We knew this would be their Super Bowl and we knew they were more talented than what their record shows. We had to weather the storm and just continue to play hard. We figured at some point their shots would stop falling and I think our pressure ramped up and made it harder for them.”
Waupaca’s biggest lead came at 34-22 when Marcom hit a three with 2:50 left in the first half. Though Denmark scored the next nine to get within three, the Comets hit a runner at the buzzer to take a 36-31 halftime lead, which they expanded to 10 when they opened the second half on a 9-4 run.
“Coach brought us in to the huddle and told us this was just going to come down to want-to,” Short said. “He told us, ‘You played all these hard teams throughout the year and if you want it, you’ve got to finish it out.’ We just had to rally at the end, and we did.”
Zach Gezella hit a couple of early threes and finished with eight points and five rebounds. Brady Jens had five points and Brennen Miller hit the three-pointer that tied the game at 57-57 with 5:45 left in the game.
Denmark (15-3, 19-4 overall) last won a conference title in 2007 when Stelmach was a sophomore on the team. That Viking team went 13-0 in league play.
Next step is the D3 regionals. The second-seeded Vikings host the winner of seven seed Sturgeon Bay and 10 seed Cedar Grove-Belgium on March 1. They face a potential rematch with third-seed Sheboygan Falls in the quarterfinals. Last year, SF ended Denmark’s season in the second round.