Column: Earlier high-flying Vikings are ending the season with stellar defense

Denmark players display their sectional championship plaque after beating Freedom on March 9 in Appleton. Photo by Kyle Wagner


The Denmark News

DENMARK – If you were following the Denmark boys’ basketball team in the first half of the season, you might have guessed that any road to Madison was going to be paved with offense.

And you would have had ample reason to conclude that. A 6-8 post man averaging in the high teens; a 6-5 swing man routinely pouring in 25-30 points a game and already establishing himself as an early contender for North Eastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

Six games of 70 or more points –two in the 80s – over the first 14 games. You might have been witness to those road wins at Luxemburg-Casco (84-74 in late December) and Marinette (85-71 in early January) and thought this Viking team, even with star guard Brady Jens on the bench with an injury, had the firepower to simply outgun everyone. Look at the numbers from those two games, after all. A combined 62 of 110 from the field and 13 of 28 from three. Zach Gezella alone lit up the Spartans for 7-of-8 three-point shooting.

But while the offense was surging along at those gaudy rates, the defense was another story. Over those first 14 games – 12 Viking wins – Denmark was surrendering 60 points or more in six of them, including more than 70 in the Marinette and Luxemburg games. Some of that was the nature of the games and the competition. But teams were also taking advantage of missed switches, missed assignments and individual breakdowns for back-door cuts and easy buckets.

The question became, could Denmark simply outshoot its opponents night after night?

The answer came in a 77-73 overtime loss at home to Wrightstown. Denmark would follow with its highest output of the season with 89 points in a rout of bottom-of-the-league Waupaca before adding a couple of more wins in the 60s.

Then, over the next four games Denmark scored 50, 55, 53 and 46 – all wins. Teams had figured out that the best way to contain the Vikings was to keep them from getting out in transition and so had taken a more deliberate strategy against them. Over the last 12 games of the season, Denmark has reached the 60s only four times. In three of those, Denmark has not cracked the 50-point barrier.

They are 11-1 over that span, including Saturday’s 46-41 shutdown of Freedom in the sectional championship.

It was another solid brick of defense in Denmark’s road to the Kohl Center. The Vikings will play Waupun at around 3:30 on Thursday in the D3 state semifinals.

“We put so much emphasis on defense,” said Denmark leading scorer Zane Short, who might even be forgiven if he took an occasional play off on the other end given his singular offensive production this season (he has needed no forgiving, by the way, especially over the latter part of the season). “Our coach says defense is what travels in the playoffs and on the road and we pride ourselves on being able to stop teams.”

Throughout the course of the playoffs – wins over Sturgeon Bay and Sheboygan Falls in the regional and over Valders and Freedom in the sectional – Denmark has suffered few breakdowns against teams who make it their goal to break you down, via dribble-handoffs, screens, back-cuts and efficient passing. Denmark never flinched, seamlessly handling switches and playing disciplined, sound defense in all four games, surrendering fewer than 50 points in three of them. It is allowing less than 46 a game in the post season. Furthermore, such commitment to defense shows up as a more general commitment to efficiency and patience. In those four games, Denmark has actually launched 50 fewer shots and a whopping 40 fewer three-pointers than their opponents. But look at the numbers that efficiency has yielded: the Vikings are allowing 34.5 percent shooting overall and just 23 percent from deep, while making 51 percent of their shots and 47.3 from beyond the arc.

“We practice it every day,” said Denmark head coach Cody Stelmach. “We do fundamental base drills to make sure everyone is in proper position because we know that is what is going to give us a chance in games (like the Freedom win).”

It is team defense that is getting the job done – communication, switches, footwork, discipline, positioning – but it is the individual effort of defensive specialist Jack Satori that has made it especially difficult for other teams. Satori almost always draws the assignment of the other team’s top scorer, though it is likely 6-8 post man Patrick Suemnick who will be trying to contain Waupun leading scorer, 6-6 Marcus Domask (26 points, 10 rebounds) on Thursday.

Satori was instrumental in the win over Freedom on Saturday, holding leading scorer Ty Brickner to no field goals and just two points over the final 28 minutes.

“We all played fundamentally sound defense to hold Freedom to only 41 points,” said Satori, who just missed out on conference defensive player of the year, much to his coach’s dismay. “I think we’ve learned that our offense can come and go but if we play great defense every night, we’ll get the job done.”

Denmark will be considerable underdogs against Waupun on Thursday, despite winning 20 of its past 22 games and bringing a 22-4 mark into the game.

They can take offense at that, or, better yet and more likely, they can get defensive about it.