As the final seconds of the Section 5AA Championship ticked away, there was little doubt in the outcome. With every layup, every free throw and every defensive stop, the smiles got bigger and the anticipation built. And finally, with the clock hitting zero, the Watertown-Mayer girls basketball team and their fans erupted.
“We’ve been waiting for this, hoping for this and working so hard toward this goal for so long,” Claire Killian said.
“The feeling just numbed our entire bodies,” added Kirsten Klitzke. “It’s unreal. We’re in shock.”
Holy Family Catholic gave Watertown-Mayer all they could handle early, limiting the up tempo team to 25 points in the first half. The game was tied at the break, thanks in part to the defense of the Fire.
“I just told the girls this – the deeper we go into the playoffs, the more of a half court game it becomes,” coach John Rosholt said. “They’re going to take the transition away. If they’ve seen us at all they know that we get up and down the court pretty well, so you know they’re going to try to take away that transition. They don’t want to give up the easy basket so that’s just the way it is. That’s the way playoff basketball is. It often gets into the half court grind and the team that executes in the half court is the team that comes out on top.”
This year was the first time the current players have reached the section final, and the stage was a bit too much early.
“We talked about how this is our first time making it to St. Cloud and playing here, so we talked about how the first half was to get the nerves out and settle in and understand the atmosphere,” Killian said. “The second half was for us to really come out there and do what we know how to do, and that’s what we did.”
The Royals had struggled early, but they put their worries behind them in the second half.
“They definitely took away our fast break, but we adapted to it,” Klitzke said. “We adapted, we worked the ball and we got those open looks.”
The winner was in doubt early, but a strong run out of the halftime break propelled the Royals to a lead that they would not relinquish as they went on to win 55-44.
“I don’t think you can ever guarantee you’re going to win, but I think when we came out with that fire in the second half . . . when we came out with the fire in the second half, we were rebounding and making that extra pass and just doing everything right, that I felt a lot more confident in our team.”
In addition to focusing on the half court game, Watertown-Mayer put the clamps down defensively, feeding into their offense with defensive intensity.
“We talked about execution on the offensive end, and relaxing a little bit – we were a little tense in that first half,” Rosholt said of the second half adjustments. “Number two for us, our offense is generated by our defense, and we made a couple tweaks on the defensive end on how we were going to play a couple kids, and the kids executed very well. So I thought we shut them down in the second half. I looked up, and I don’t remember what the time was but they had 28 points, so I felt pretty good about that, to keep a team to 44 in this day and age, that’s a good effort, especially with the two halves.”
As they head into the state tournament, where they are seeded No. 3, the Royals know the competition is going to get tougher, which is why they are glad that teams like Holy Family Catholic have forced them to adjust.
“It makes us better players, because if you sit in that strict – ‘I can only do this, I can only go this way’ then you’re not going to improve as a player,” Killian said. “So I think them pushing us like that helps our entire team.”
And just because they have reached their goal of reaching the state tournament, the Royals are not letting off of the gas.
“[Our goal is] definitely not to settle,” Klitzke said. “So we made it to state, we’re not going to settle now that we got there. We’re going to play hard and get that championship.”
Regardless of what lies ahead, the Royals are thankful for the support they have received and know that their fans and their bench players will be there making a lot of noise.
“[There was] great support from our fans, that was awesome,” Rosholt said. “It was a great environment, it was a great place to play, it was a great atmosphere. So thanks to the fans. We had great bench support from our players. All year long they did a great job. One of the disadvantages of the playoffs is that we often shorten our bench, shorten the amount of kids that get on the floor, but we’ve got a lot of selfless kids on the team and that shows up when they’re cheering on their teammates. So hats off to our bench.”
Watertown-Mayer 85 Litchfield 59
On March 14, the Royals earned the right to battle for a state berth by defeating the Litchfield Dragons 85-59.
“I thought we played excellent,” Klitzke said. “There were times when it got chaotic and out of control but we maintained the tempo and controlled the tempo with pushing the ball and rebounding and I thought we played outstanding as a team.”
“We definitely came ready to play” added Killian. “We were nervous all day at school and just ready to bring all we had to the court. So I think as a team we definitely finished that.”
Though the Royals won comfortably, the Dragons gave them fits early on with a strong full court press.
“We were a little frazzled at first, but once we adjusted we ending up running a man press against their zone, which is kind of a weird thing to do but it ended up working a lot better than what it had before,” Killian said. “We just calmed our pace down. We were really wound up up and ready to go, and we just said, we’ve got to make the easy pass this is what we need to do.”
The Royals are adjusting to playoff basketball, trying to keep frustration at bay as teams try to ground the high-flying team.
“There’s definitely some frustration on the floor sometimes,” Rosholt said. “You’re going to be going against the best competition – they’re designed to stop us. It’s not like the regular season where they might try to do a few things – it’s usually five on five up and down . . . everybody is a quality team and they’re looking to stop certain players. You can’t get frustrated. We just have to learn to score through the offense, that’s what we have to do.”
Even though their offense was slowed at first, the Royals’ efforts on the boards was not hampered at all. Watertown-Mayer outrebounded the opposition 48-19 in the winning effort.
“In this game I thought our rebounding was a huge determiner in the tempo of the game,” Killian said. “Us getting those offensive rebounds and making them not have any second chances was really a huge way to give us the momentum. So I think our rebounding was really important.”
Monica Czinano led the effort with 13 rebounds, Killian hauled in 10, Grace Knutson grabbed eight and Klitzke picked up seven. Czinano and Killian tallied double-doubles in the win, with Czinano dropping a team-high 25 and Killian tallying 19, while Klitzke also reached double figures with 23 points.
“[Czinano is] just a solid player,” Killian said of her efforts. “We know that once we get the ball into her, she’s either going to have a nice kick pass out for the three or she is going to to have that turnaround jump shot to finish it . . . but I definitely think it is not just three people that can run a team, it’s everyone, including the bench and all of that energy and everything that goes into it that makes us able to win a game.”
The Tuesday win was just another impressive outing for the Watertown-Mayer team, as the Royals chase down their goal of the state tournament.
“[What drives us is] definitely the determination and the motivation that we have,” Klitzke said. “And the chemistry we have as a team. We know we have each others back. We have this phrase, ‘I’ve got your six,’ it’s what we do in practice. We just know we have each other and if one person does something wrong, another person is going to pick that person up and we just keep fighting through it as a team.”