Throughout almost the entire second half of its matchup with Altoona, Mauston held the Railroaders at bay. In the end, the Golden Eagles fell just a few seconds short of another regional final appearance.
The fourth-seeded Railroaders (17-8) took the lead on a pair of free throws with 3.3 seconds left to defeat the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles (16-8) 84-83 Friday, March 2 in a WIAA Division 3 regional semifinal game at Altoona High School.
The loss dashed Mauston’s hopes of another deep postseason run, just one year removed from a surprise trip to the sectional finals. Though for much of Friday night’s game, it looked like the Golden Eagles might earn a third shot at South Central Conference champion Wisconsin Dells in the regional finals.
Both teams stayed within easy striking distance of each other throughout most of the first half, until Altoona senior forward Jacob Chilson went to the bench with two fouls. The Golden Eagles took advantage with a run late in the half to seize a 42-26 halftime lead.
In the second half, the officials allowed for much more physical play to slide. Despite Mauston reaching the bonus seven minutes into the half, the Railroaders’ physicality continued undeterred as they chipped away at the deficit. At one point, Mauston junior point guard Joe Bauer was knocked out of the game after having his shoulder dislocated.
Though Bauer’s shoulder was popped back into place and he returned to the game after missing 4-5 minutes, Altoona used his absence to continue to whittle away the Golden Eagles’ lead.
The intensity on the court was evident in the stands as well among the home crowd, to the point where an Altoona fan was even ejected from the game.
Mauston continued to maintain its slim lead during the game’s final minutes, but the Railroaders finally took their first lead of the second half at the line with 3.3 seconds remaining in regulation. When the Golden Eagles failed to make a desperation shot at the other end, their season officially came to a close in gut-wrenching fashion.
“I’m disappointed,” said Mauston head coach Gil Saylor. “I felt that we were prepared. I thought we executed at a really good level. I thought it was one of the more consistent efforts that we’ve put forth this year. And we overcame a lot of circumstances throughout the game, as teams often do. We just weren’t able to get over the last couple hurdles.”
“(Altoona) was the archetype that we struggled with the most all season, and in the end we just couldn’t overcome that differential and being able to finish with a rebound.”
Despite the tough loss in the face of inconsistent officiating, a size disadvantage, physical play and a hostile road crowd, Saylor was very impressed with how composed his team stayed the whole way through, even if they did fall short of a win.
“I thought they handled it really well,” he said. “I didn’t think that the moment got too big for them — the crowd, (being) on the road, injury to our point guard — none of that stuff bothered them. I think that’s a heck of a tribute to the boys and their work this year.”
Chilson scored a game-high 30 points, senior forward Brett Platzek finished with 17 points, junior guard Jake Nelson had 12 points and senior forward Dallas Ystebo added 11 points for Altoona. For the Golden Eagles, Bauer led the way with 22 points, sophomore guard Cade Hall had 21 points, junior shooting guard Kyran Fitzgerald scored 16 points and junior guard Trevor Gallagher added 15 points. Senior guard Dakota Barnier and senior shooting guard Daniel Raabe chipped in six and three points, respectively, in their final game with Mauston.
The Golden Eagles will lose Raabe, Barnier, guard Dylan Dearth and forward Kevin Kustief to graduation, though Raabe and Barnier were the only seniors who played regularly this season for them. However, Mauston will return its top four leading scorers next year: Bauer, Hall, Fitzgerald and Gallagher.
“I’m really, really proud of this group of kids,” Saylor said. “They had a lot of goals, and the fact that we’re disappointed shows you how far they came as well. They never used their lack of experience together or their lack of experience on varsity as a crutch to justify poor performance. And a lot of teams could do that. When you have so many fresh faces to varsity basketball, it’s hard, and these guys didn’t back down.”
Coming off a season which saw them go 16-8 overall and 8-2 in conference play despite breaking in almost an entire new rotation of players, the Golden Eagles seem poised to contend for a South Central Conference title next year.
One of the keys to achieving their full potential, Saylor believes, is to channel the heartbreak and disappointment of their loss to Altoona into that extra bit of motivation as they work throughout the offseason.
“I told them, ‘I want you to take this feeling and box it up and draw on it for every moment between now and next year, because this is why you play,’” he said. “And if you’re not working to make yourself better to handle this situation next time, then you’re not working hard enough.”
Mauston Golden Eagles 55, Westby Norsemen 47
To get to the regional semifinals, the Golden Eagles first beat No. 12 seed Westby (3-20) 55-47 in the regional quarterfinals Tuesday, Feb. 27 at Mauston High School.
Mauston dominated in the early going on its way to a 29-14 lead at the half. The Golden Eagles maintained a comfortable lead throughout the second half, though the Norsemen made a run in garbage time to cut the double-digit deficit down to eight by the game’s end. Joe Bauer scored 21 points and Cade Hall added 11 more for Mauston.