MAYER – There’s one poster hanging on the wall in the Mayer Lutheran gymnasium. It’s of senior Morgan Chmielewski. A senior who has seen it all and endured all the heartbreak the Crusaders have had the past few seasons. There was no heartbreak this time.
As the lone senior on the roster this season for the Mayer Lutheran girls basketball team, Chmielewski and her squad broke through in a big way capturing the Section 4A title on their home floor with an 80-55 win over Heritage Christian Academy Thursday night.
“It’s really special,” Chmielewski said. “This is the last time I will play on this court. It’s a pretty great way to end it. It’s just a really special moment.”
It wasn’t always pretty for the Crusaders early on. Down 9-2 with shots not falling, there was no panic in Mayer Lutheran this time after getting off to a slow start once again against the Eagles.
“We spent a lot of time talking about that it’s just another game,” Mayer Lutheran coach Kris Gustin said. “Sure, everybody is nervous about the past four years, but here’s the reality. They are different this year. We are different this year. While there is that piece in the back of your mind, I feel like we really worked on the mental aspect of understanding what happened last year, what happened the year before that, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the play in front of us. That’s the mindset we’ve worked really hard at. I think that came through tonight. What I saw from the girls today was excitement and not nervousness. They just wanted to go get it.”
“We have grit,” Emma Lade added. “Being down six doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is. I feel like our defense really improved and when we came back, it showed how hard we can play.”
The Crusaders shook off the sluggish start in a big way. After getting their high-low game going between Julia Carns, Lilly Wachholz, and Madeline Guetzkow, Mayer Lutheran tied the game at 21.
“If we can’t get points in transition, where are we going to get them from,” Gustin said. “We’ve spent a lot of time answering that question with our offense. The girls have bought into the high and low. We look for that so much more than we ever have.”
“I knew the history in the back of my head, but I knew this team was different,” Waccholz said. “We knew we needed to come out strong and play how we do.”
After finding some rhythm, Mayer Lutheran did what they do best. A 17-5 run to close the half gave them a 12-point lead at the break but they didn’t stop there. A 15-2 run to open the second half (a 30-7 run overall), put Mayer Lutheran in the driver’s seat the rest of the way as they took over the game.
“We know our transition game is going to click at some point and we’re going to get runs,” Gustin said. “It’s hard to stop this team from getting runs. We kind of just wear teams out. I think you see that in every team we play. Their point guard gets exhausted. First, it’s Stella. Then it’s Rylee. Then it’s Madeline. Then it’s Morgan. It’s just constant.”
The up-tempo style has been the bread and butter for Mayer Lutheran leading them to their first state tournament appearance since 2001. While the Crusaders will look to make some noise at the Class A State Tournament, continuing to play an up-tempo style will be the key for them.
“We’re impossible to beat when we run like that,” Gustin said. “A 30-7 run, that’s a huge deficit. This team is special. They’ve got size. They’ve got athleticism. They’ve got talent. They also love each other. They’re a family and they play together. It’s just a real treat to watch them play.”
Chmielewski will also be a key for the Crusaders going forward. The lone senior on the roster, she’s been challenged by her coach to become the leader she is today.
“I challenged her at the end of her sophomore year,” Gustin said. “She has all the leadership attributes. She works incredibly hard. She’s resilient. People like her. People follow her. I challenged her to be this team’s leader for her last two years and she’s really grown into that. This year for sure she has really done that. You’re not going to find a girl who works harder in practice. It’s been a real treasure to watch her play. She does everything.”
It’s a role Chmielewski has taken on in a huge way this season that’s been the key to the success for Mayer Lutheran on both ends of the floor.
“I knew they have a lot of strong seniors and our side it’s just me,” Chmielewski said. “I feel leadership was a part of my role tonight. Just making sure everyone is staying calm. Just making sure we were all on the same page on offense and defense.”
Mayer Lutheran awaits to see who they will play in the first round of the Class A State Tournament. The seedings and pairings will be announced Saturday. Stay connected to the Herald Journal to find out who, where, and when Mayer Lutheran will take on in their first state tournament appearance since 2001.
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports