Royall entered the season with the expectation of making a deep postseason run. The Panthers now have their first regional title in five years under their belt, and they’re looking for more.
The second-seeded Panthers (21-4) defeated No. 3 seed Independence (15-9) 49-29 in a WIAA Division 5 regional final matchup Saturday, March 3 at Royall High School. Last year, the Panthers fell 72-63 against the Augusta Beavers in the regional final.
The win gave them their first regional title since 2013 and first under fifth-year head coach Scott Uppena, who was an assistant under former head coach Mark Gustafson during Royall’s last regional title run.
“It was a little surreal,” Uppena said. “Overwhelming is probably the best word I could come up with. There are a lot of emotions going on and you think about all the time and the effort the kids put into it. And it’s not about me, it’s about them. Even though I’m the one that sometimes gets my quotes in the newspaper and whatever else, this is about them and the time they have put in over the course of the last, not just four years, but since they’ve been dribbling when they were 2-3 years old and then coming up through the program.”
Royall seized the early lead and never relinquished it the rest of the way. The Panthers took a 24-14 lead into the locker room at halftime thanks to five 3-pointers and a slew of Independence turnovers.
The second half was more of the same, with the Indees never fighting their way back within reasonable striking distance and Royall pulling away late en route to a 20-point margin of victory.
Despite not having their greatest night on the offensive end, the Panthers still won convincingly thanks to a very strong defensive effort.
“We are playing about as good as we have played all year as far as our defense is concerned,” Uppena said. “We haven’t shot the ball the greatest (during the postseason) … but that’s not concerning to me at this point because we know we can shoot, it’s just a matter of making sure we take good shots during games. And I’ve been happy with the shots we’ve been taking.”
“The bigger piece is, and I’ve stressed it all year long, when you come across a good team, and from now on they’re all good teams, when you have an off shooting night, you have to be able to offset that by being able to play a sound defensive game consistently.”
Senior guard Jaydyn Enzenbacher and senior small forward Seth Brown each scored 13 points to lead the way for Royall in the win over the Indees. Junior guard Dane Hyer and senior Nick Murray added seven points apiece as well for the Panthers.
With eight seniors on the roster, a deep bench and senior forward Tristan Welchlin continuing to inch closer back to full strength after a bout with mono earlier in the winter, Royall has all the tools necessary to continue its postseason push.
“When you have a senior team, it’s different and their approach is different than what juniors do,” Uppena said. “The finalization of their last game starts to become a reality, and they want to extend that as long as they can. Normally seniors step up when that time comes. They’re not ready to be done and you see a difference in their level of play. And so far, we’ve seen that.”
However, next up for the Panthers is a daunting sectional semifinal matchup with a familiar foe: the top-seeded Bangor Cardinals. The two teams will square off Thursday, March 8 at 7:00 p.m. at West Salem High School.
Bangor (23-1), ranked No.1 in the state among Division 5 teams, won the Scenic Bluffs Conference title after going 13-0 in conference play, including two wins over Royall. In their first matchup Jan. 9 in Elroy, the Cardinals came away with a 66-56 win in a tightly contested game. In their second meeting Feb. 9, this time in Bangor, they rolled to an 85-61 victory over the Panthers.
In order for Royall to continue its dream of a state tournament appearance alive — the program’s only other trip to state came in 2010 — it will need to find a way to upend the Cardinals, who themselves are seeking their first state tournament appearance since 1936.
The task ahead is far from easy, but Uppena and the Panthers certainly won’t go down without a fight.
“I’m very proud of our kids,” Uppena said. “We have dealt with a lot of different things throughout the course of the year — with injuries, sickness and whatever else — and we’ve come together and we’re playing our best basketball at the right time.”
“I think they’ll come out and they’ll play with a lot of energy, play 36 minutes of hard basketball and whatever happens, happens at that point.”
Royall Panthers 65, Plum City/Elmwood Raiders 39
In the regional semifinals, the Panthers breezed past the seventh-seeded Plum City/Elmwood Raiders (8-15) 65-39 Friday, March 2 at Royall High School.
In just his fifth game back after missing several weeks while recovering from mono, senior forward Tristan Welchlin led all Royall scorers with 15 points. Enzenbacher and Brown each had 10 points as well for the Panthers, who pushed their winning streak to five.
Royall Panthers 85, Alma/Pepin Eagles 27
In their playoff opener, the Panthers crushed the winless and 15th-seeded Eagles (0-22) in a 58-point win in their regional quarterfinal matchup Tuesday, Feb. 27 at Royall High School.
Enzenbacher scored a game-high 21 points and senior guard Keith Travis finished with 14 points after going 5 for 5 from the field, including a 4-for-4 mark from 3-point range. Murray and Brown also added 12 and 10 points, respectively, for the Panthers. A total of 11 Royall players scored points on the night. For Alma/Pepin, freshman forward/guard Lane Wieczorek and sophomore forward/guard Thomas Milton recorded eight and seven points, respectively.