By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
includes correction to story on semifinal match-ups at state.
DENMARK – No one would ever suggest winning a sectional championship should be easy.
It’s just that, it didn’t really need to be quite as hard as the Denmark Vikings chose to make it on Saturday afternoon at Appleton North High School.
Owners of a 14-point lead with under seven to go and a trip to the Kohl Center on the line, the Vikings decided to throw some added drama into the picture, turning it over, missing free throws and allowing Freedom High School to go on a 10-0 run to clip the lead to four with 2:05 left.
But just as Zane Short delivered the critical play in the semifinals when he knocked down a shot to end Valders’ 8-0 run with the Vikings on the verge of collapse, he did it again on Saturday, whipping a pass from the right wing to a cutting Brady Jens, whose reverse lay-in steadied the ship and Denmark made just enough free throws down the stretch to hold on for a 46-41 victory over the Irish.
“We like our close games, don’t we?” said Short, who finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “No, it was an unbelievable effort from everybody. Basically, it was a summary of our season. We had great stretches. We had bad stretches. We came back. We held the lead.
“It just feels so good to be rewarded at the end. Everyone played their role so well. It was so awesome. I’m so proud of this team.”
It was Denmark’s second-ever sectional title and the 2018-19 Vikings join the 1984-85 team as the only other in school history to reach the state tournament. The four teams who have advanced — Denmark, Milwaukee Lutheran, Waupun and Northwestern — will be seeded to determine semifinal matchups. First game is slated for 1:35 Thursday.
Doing It With ‘D’
The Vikings won it with defense and maybe a bit of good fortune in the form of Freedom’s frigid shooting, though it was Denmark pushing the Irish out of the paint that forced the issue. The Irish connected on only 2 of 21 from deep and made only 16 of 55 shots overall (29 percent). The Irish were able to hang around thanks to 16 Denmark turnovers. Freedom didn’t turn it over until two minutes into the second half and finished with sixth.
“I think in the first half we got them to settle for three-pointers,” said Denmark head coach Cody Stelmach. “And that’s what we wanted. To keep them out of the paint and make them shoot over us. They can hit those shots if their feet are set but as long as we can get a hand up on them, we figured they would struggle.”
Denmark missed four straight free throws in the final third of the game and 7 of 9 during one fragile stretch. But Jens, who scored all eight of his points over the final 8:54 of the game, swished a pair with 26 seconds remaining and extended the lead to 45-39.
“The guys during the timeout were there for me,” said Jens, who had earlier missed a pair of free throws but was steady when it mattered. “And having them there and their support, it just made me relax at the line. I’m just glad we had enough to come together and pull it out. I mean, we’ve come this far and I’m just super proud of the guys.”
Freedom settled for a lay-up with 14 seconds and Pat Suemnick, in foul trouble over the final 12 minutes of the game, made 1 of 2 with 10 seconds to set the final margin.
The Vikings took 2 of 3 from their North Eastern Conference co-champions and improved to 22-4. Freedom concluded a 21-5 season.
“Freedom’s such a tough team,” said Stelmach. “We just had to find a way to make a few free throws at the end and get a few stops. We’ve preached defense all year and that’s what we needed to hang our hat on tonight. I was just so happy we were able to put together a heck of a performance on the defensive end.”
As usual, none was better than Jack Satori, the team’s designated stopper who came in, according to his coach, feeling he had something to prove after Freedom’s Devin Baumgart earned Conference Defensive Player of the Year over him.
“Jack was phenomenal,” said Stelmach, who gave up four tough buckets early to Freedom leading scorer Ty Brickner but denied him a field goal over the final 28 minutes. “I was a little disappointed the conference didn’t recognize him.”
Brickner finished with just 10 after his torrid start.
“Just move your feet and play solid defense in front of him,” Satori said. “But the other guys did a great job of helping off. I think this team has learned that the offense can come and go but if we play great defense every night, we’ll get the job done.”
The Vikings fell behind 4-0, but three-pointers from Satori, Short and Brennen Miller over a three-minute span late in the half allowed them to take a 27-17 lead into the locker room. At that point, Freedom had launched 14 threes and made just two. The Irish missed all seven of their threes in the second half. Denmark was also dominating the boards, 22-11, and finished with a 39-30 edge with the Vikings getting plenty of help on the glass from all concerned. In addition to Short’s 10, the 5-11 Jens grabbed seven and Satori and Suemnick each pulled down six. Also grabbing an unlikely six rebounds was freshman Donovan Short, who had seen no action in the previous two games but was ready when Suemnick got into foul trouble.
The younger Short played solid defense against Freedom’s ever-tough 6-6 Luke Pringle, who nonetheless hurt Denmark in the second half when he scored all 11 of his points.
“He’s a freshman stepping onto the biggest stage of his life, heck, even my life,” said Zane of Donovan and laughing off a moment late in the game when he had to yell at little brother after a bad pass. “That pass means nothing in the scheme of things. He came in here and ‘D’d’ up, he grabbed rebounds, he hit shots. He’s going to be phenomenal.”
The arc of this game was remarkably similar to Denmark’s seven-point win over Valders in the semifinal on Thursday. In each the Vikings had a double-digit lead at half that they immediately extended to start the second half only to have that lead diminish in a hurry, forcing them to hold on when it seemed to be slipping away. When Zane found Donovan for a bucket down low with 6:34, the Vikings seemed on their way with a 39-25 lead.
A flurry of turnovers and four straight missed free throws aided Freedom’s 10-0 run that had the margin to 39-35 with 2:05 left.
A Great Connection
That’s when Short found Jens for that critical bucket that pushed the lead back to six and snapped a 10-0 Freedom run with 1:41 left.
“I saw Zane on the top and they have to respect his outside shot,” Jens said. “So they all came out on him and I saw and opportunity and cut back door. With his passing ability he just hit me right on the money and I was lucky enough to be able to finish it.”
More than anything the play demonstrated the immeasurable advantage of starting five seniors who have played together for most of a decade.
“That’s just years of experience playing together,” Short said. “His cutting, me seeing him and him finishing it. That’s what you get when you play with someone since fourth grade. That’s just a connection. Brady is just a kid that plays with heart.”
Suemnick finished with 13 points, while Jens added eight and Satori and Miller each chipped in five. Denmark made 16 of 37 shots overall, 3 of 9 from deep. They converted 11 of 20 free throws, while Freedom was 7 of 9.
“I’m happy for them,” Stelmach said. “These seniors put a lot of time and effort in. Same with the underclassmen. They’ve all earned it. It’s a cool moment for the community.
“These guys are going to Madison. It’s something they’re going to have for the rest of their lives.”
Zane Short said he figures if Denmark plays its game, they have nothing to fear in Madison. But for the moment he was savoring what his team had already accomplished.
“We love and cherish this,” he said. “We love our community and you can see it looks like almost all of Denmark is here. And it’s awesome for us to be able to get this win for them. I’m so happy.”