The Whitefish Bay basketball players stepped off the podium set up at the Kohl Center in Madison, their shiny state championship medals gleaming in the flashbulbs of the multitude of cameras in front of them.
Their grins were wider than the sun and you couldn't wipe them off their faces if you tried. That's what a WIAA Division 2 state championship will do for a person.
Bay never trailed, and was tied only three times as they claimed their third gold ball and first title since 1998 with an emphatic 65-49 decision over Merrill Saturday night.
"Words can't explain this," said senior forward Ron Patten, who scored 19 points to lead Bay. "I've just spent the last 15 minutes hugging my teammates over and over. It feels so great."
Patten put the punctuation mark on the win with a breakaway one-handed slam with 1:04 remaining in front of the large and giddy Bay student section. It was a moment of sheer joy that had to be shared with everyone
And coach Kevin Lazovik understood the moment well, because he experienced that sweet joy of triumph as a player himself in 1996 as a reserve guard for the Blue Dukes. He can't believe how far and how fast the circle has come around full again.
"It's just as sweet now as it was then," he said. "It's not often you can call yourselves state champions and I just couldn't be prouder of these players and these coaches. Especially to have someone like Coach (assistant Jim) Smallins around to share in it."
"He worked with those great (Milwaukee) Lincoln teams back in the 1960s (two state championships) and to have him be a part of another title is just phenomenal. Just a sweet, sweet run."
After taking a 23-20 lead on the Blue Jays (16-12) at the half, the Blue Dukes sped up the game and hit some critical shots to put the game away in the third. Three straight three-pointers, two by Patten and one by reserve Connor Weas stretched the lead to 39-29. A three-pointer by Bluejay all-stater Paul Jesperson (22 points) could close the gap only to 40-33 at the end of the third.
And in the fourth quarter, the celebration began in earnest as Patten and sophomore guard Kelin Johnson (17 points) fueled a 6-2 run to expand the margin to 46-35.
After that, the lead would get no smaller than nine.
It all marks a long, long passage from an embarassing loss to North Shore second-level team Grafton late in the regular season. A turning point for everyone, said Patten.
"It was a serious wake-up call for us," he noted. "We knew that we had to pull ourselves together and get serious. We had to be stay awake everyday now and that started in practice, and we kept it up every practice and every game."
Center Jamie Schneck had 13 points while senior forward Cal Ehrke helped force Jesperson into six of 26 shooting on the evening and even drew two charges from him.
"Cal's our glue guy," said Lazovik. "I can't say enough about how much he means to us."
Lazovik remained amazed at how composed and cool these Blue Dukes were under fire.
"This group as a collection of players is so fun and energetic," he said. "They keep each other calm and and loose. They joke around with each other and that gives them a sense of ease."
Merrill coach Kurt Soderberg noticed that too and knew that his team would have an uphill fight in this game.
"Give credit to them," he said. "We watched them on film about four times and we watched those wins against Wisconsin Lutheran and Seymour and they were just lights out (in their intensity)."
"They went toe-to-toe with us and beat us. Beat us well."
For Patten and the other six seniors on the Bay team, it was a moment to relish as the memories of the five losses in the first six games and the defeat to Grafton fade behind the shining reflection of the gold championship trophy.
It's especially sweet for Patten, who emerged as a star in Bay's last four games of the tournament.
"It's been a great feeling," he said, "and we just worked and worked to keep it going. I just wanted to keep my strength up and that of my teammates."
"I just told them, that we had to keep this streak going, going to the last game of the season."
Which just happened to be a state championship.
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