While the season came to an end for the Mayer Lutheran girls basketball team Friday night, the journey to make it to the Section 4A Championship says more about the team than the 73-60 loss to Heritage Christian Academy.
“While it may feel like a disappointment, one game does not define the season,” coach Kris Gustin said. “The reality is that we had a great year and I’m proud of the girls.”
The Crusaders entered the title game with a 23-5 record, a No. 6 ranking and a No. 1 seed, yet the team did not look like one that had that resume early on when facing a familiar foe. There were missed passes and turnovers abound as the Eagles started to build a lead.
“We started slow and a part of that you have to credit Heritage, they came out and put us on our heels,” said Gustin.
And while the Eagles went on an 8-2 run to take a 19-12 lead midway through the half, the Crusaders did just enough to keep the struggles from spiraling out of control. The passers started to find Lilly Wachholz and Morgan Chmielewski inside, as the duo combined for 12 points (six each) down the stretch to get the Crsuaders within three points and remain in the game.
Despite their first half struggles, the Crusaders entered the second stanza in striking distance, down only seven. The opening salvo from Heritage seemed to end any hopes of a comeback however, as the the Eagles came out of the break with a 11-2 run.
But just when all hope seemed lost, the Crusaders started to play better than ever. When they faced their largest deficit of the game (14 points) with less than 10 minutes remaining, Mayer Lutheran put together a 12-0 run to stun the Eagles.
“That was who we are - we got some turnovers, got some easy looks and hit some threes,” said Gustin.
Olivia Tjernagel got the run started with a bucket inside, then Anna Karels made a pair of clutch plays to ignite the fire in the Crusaders. Karels netted a corner three, then grabbed a steal that led another three pointer from Emma Lade. Chmielewski netted a free throw before Lade scored off of a rebound and a free throw from Wachholz put the score at 48-46, with the Crusaders just one basket shy of a tie.
“[Karels] came in and played really well, got some steals and hit some threes, which sparked us,” said Gustin.
Heritage finally managed to get back in the scoring column but Mayer Lutheran ultimately tied the game with a trio of three-point plays. Karels and Lade teamed up for another set of back-to-back three pointers, before Lexi Schermann knotted the game at 55-55 with an and-one play with just under 5 minutes remaining.
The tie held for several possessions and the Crusaders had a couple chances to take their first lead since the opening minutes, but could not quite get the lucky roll. Heritage then finally got a bucket and went on a run to pull away with the win. Not helping matters for the Crusaders was the free throw shooting from the Eagles, who netted 18/21 attempts at the line to keep Mayer Lutheran from getting back into the game.
Mayer Lutheran shot well from beyond the arc by going 8/19 (42 percent). Lade made a trio of deep shots, Karels made two, while Chmielewski, Schermann and Brooke Paulsrud each had one.
Chmielewski led the Crusaders with 15 points, Schermann had 12 and Lade scored 11. Also scoring for Mayer Lutheran – Wachholz (7), Karels (6), Tjernagel (4), Paulsrud (3) and Julia Carns (2).
Wachholz led the team in rebounds with seven, Chmielewski had six assists and Lade nabbed three steals.
Mayer Lutheran 67 Legacy Christian Academy 30
The Crusaders earned a spot in the championship game by taking care of business at home when hosting the No. 4 seed Legacy Christian Academy. Mayer Lutheran earned a 37-13 lead at the break and cruised to the 67-30 win.
“We played together and we always found the open person,” said Paulsrud.
The Crusaders shot 45 percent from the field thanks to good passing, assisting on 21 of 27 field goals. Picking up assists for the Crusaders – Lade (6), Chmielewski (5), Schermann (3), Paulsrud (2), Tjernagel (1), Karels (1), Carns (1), Paige Stahlke (1) and Rylee Noerenberg (1).
“We played really unselfish and looked for other people to get the shot,” said Chmielewski.
The Crusaders also won the battle on the boards with a 38-20 edge in rebounding. Mayer Lutheran also had more offensive rebounds than the Lions had defensive rebounds (19-16).
Paulsrud led the team in scoring with 16 and was followed by Chmielewski (11), Tjernagel (9), Wachholz (7), Schermann (6), Lade (6), Karels (6), Carns (4) and Brooke Friske (2).
Tjernagel led the team in rebounding with seven, Lade and Chmielewski combined for 11 assists, Paulsrud and Chmielewski each had four steals.
With the win over the Lions had the Crusaders return to the championship game.
“It shows our hard work throughout the season and shows that we are one of the top teams in the state and we can play at that level,” said Chmielewski.
Despite all of the injuries and scrambled lineups, the Crusaders exceeded outside expectations, going from an unranked team to No. 6 in Class A.
“[The season has] gone really well,” said Paulsrud. “Even through all of our injuries, we’ve worked really hard to come together as a team, no matter who played.”