By Scott Williams
STEVENS POINT – Lance Heidmann crouched near the halfcourt line with both hands locked on top of his head. A look of disbelief etched across his face.
Vaughn Breit had his No. 22 black Stratford jersey draped over his head as the junior forward walked to the meeting room wondering what just happened.
Fifth-ranked Stratford had just suffered its first loss of the season, and the harsh and sudden realization of seeing its season end at the same time had started to sink in.
Wisconsin Dells had managed to do what no one else had accomplished in 24 previous games against the Tigers, handing them a 70-64 setback in a WIAA Division 3 sectional semifinal at the SPASH Fieldhouse on Thursday night.
“That’s the best team we faced all year,” Stratford coach Curt Schmidt said. “You hope that you can kind of play some nonconference games that are really, really good because that helps you at this time of the season. It’s too bad that it’s your sectional game that is the best team you played.
“We knew Dells was going to be good. They played a very good game against our defense. They really shot the ball well. They’re too athletic to guard one-on-one. They just are.”
The Tigers (24-1) hoped their magical season would end at the Kohl Center with their first trip to the WIAA state tournament. Not the SPASH Fieldhouse.
Wisconsin Dells is surprised to be returning to the sectional championship game for the second consecutive season.
After losing three seniors and about 60 points a game from a team that lost to Prescott in the sectional final in 2018, the Chiefs (20-5) weren’t sure what to expect.
Now they can look forward to a matchup with Northwestern, a 66-46 winner over Saint Croix Central, at 4 p.m. Saturday at Marshfield High School.
“It’s a really good feeling. It’s really unexpected with this group,” Chiefs coach Brad Rohling said. “We’re a little more balanced this year. It seems like a different guy every night. We’re excited to be (in the sectional final).”
From the opening tip, Wisconsin Dells believed it could take down the unbeaten Tigers. And why not when you have a handful of individuals who can knock down shots from behind the arc from anywhere on the court.
The Chiefs rode a bombardment of 3-pointers to grab an eight-point lead early in the second half after the teams entered the break deadlocked at 29-29.
The ability to take the ball to the basket and kick it out for open looks from long distance caused Stratford all kinds of fits defensively.
No one on their schedule had shown the Tigers the knack for consistently draining 3-pointers like the Dells.
“(Dylan) Anchor had a huge game. We brought him away from the rim and you got to make those shots to make it effective, and Dylan did,” Rohling said. “I thought we wore them down a little bit. That’s the way we play every game.
“Our kids compete hard. We played a tough schedule against bigger schools. Win or lose, I’m so proud of their effort every game.”
Anchor finished with a team-high 19 points, including four 3-pointers, to pace four players in double figures.
Wisconsin Dells’ Riley Eck and Bryson Funmaker chimed in with 14 and 12 points, respectively. Sam Millard, a 6-foot-7 center, added 10.
Stratford didn’t win its first 24 games by just laying down once a team took a lead against them.
Behind the 1-2 inside scoring punch of Ben Barten and Breit, who combined for 23 of their 35 second-half points, the Tigers clawed their way back into the game.
A conventional three-point play by Breit brought the Marawood Conference South Division champions within 61-59 with 2:20 left in regulation.
But Stratford couldn’t buy a 3-pointer in the second half, and the Chiefs were just good enough down the stretch to hold the Tigers off.
Breit wound up with a game-high 22 points, with 14 coming in the second half. Barten added 15.
It all made for an emotional final team meeting afterwards.
“It’s not necessarily the loss that makes it so tough. Life is bigger than games,” Schmidt said. “It’s you’ll never coach those seniors again. Nor will you ever have this team together again. People don’t get that’s what’s so hard.
“Sectionals are 50-50 games. Teams at sectionals are good teams. We weren’t like nobody can beat us. Everybody is beatable. Tonight, the Dells played a heck of a game.”
Chiefs 70, Tigers 64
Wisconsin Dells 29 41 – 70
Stratford 29 35 – 64
WISCONSIN DELLS (70): Brett Hirst 5, Sam Millard 10, Bryson Funmaker 12, Riley Eck 14, Dylan Anchor 19, Dylan Nevar 8, Dylan Musiedlak 2. 3-pointers: 12 (Anchor 4, Millard 3, Funmaker 3, Eck 2). Record: 20-5.
STRATFORD (64): Ben Barten 6-7 3-4 15, Vaughn Breit 10-19 2-5 22, Okley Wrensch 1-7 2-3 4, Chandler Schmidt 2-7 5-7 11, Lance Heidmann 2-3 1-3 7, Teddy Redman 1-6 0-0 3, Dawson Danen 1-3 0-0 2, Max Vanderhoof 0-0 0-0 0, Branden Ackley 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 23-52. FT: 13-22. 3-pointers: 5-19 (Heidmann 2-3, Schmidt 2-7, Redman 1-5, Wrensch 0-4). Rebounds: 32 (Breit 15). Fouls: 19. Fouled out: Schmidt. Record: 24-1.