MAYER – For the Mayer Lutheran boys basketball team, the season opener was a true test. Taking on Class AAA Bloomington Kennedy, the Crusaders were without three key players, yet found themselves in the thick of things throughout.
A back-and-forth affair, it was the Eagles that outlasted the Crusaders for a 65-61 victory Tuesday night.
“I think they competed,” Mayer Lutheran coach Pat Buchanan said about his guys. “They played hard. You look and there’s only one person out there with starter experience. You’re talking about a bunch of guys who have been role players or JV players. These guys have to go through things and gain some experience.”
Mayer Lutheran’s young talent were on full display in the first game of the season. At times, there were five sophomores on the floor at once. Despite that, the biggest lead of the game on either side was just six points. With the game close the entire way, it put pressure on each possession throughout for both teams.
“We try to take it one possession at a time,” Buchanan said. “We take it one day at a time. We had opportunities there, but things didn’t go our way. We got better, though. Without a doubt.”
Sophomore Tyler Neitzel made a big impact for the Crusaders in his varsity debut. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half, and finished with a game-high 22 points in his first varsity action.
“He’ll get an opportunity to watch film and just learn,” Buchanan said about Neitzel. “He’ll learn how teams make adjustments and how he adjusts to them. He was completely composed tonight.”
Mayer Lutheran had a two-point lead at the half, but just like the first half, neither team could pull away. The Eagles had a 62-57 lead with under a minute to go, but a pair of free throws from Neitzel made it a one-score game.
The Crusaders had several chances to tie the game with a 3-pointer, but couldn’t get one to fall. Bloomington Kennedy closed out the game going 5-for-6 from the free throw line, sealing a win over a pesky Mayer Lutheran team.
“We just need to fix some of the small things,” Buchanan said. “Just be a little more sharp. We just need to get better. We’re going to get better and we’ll be fine.”
Riley Krueger returns
While getting the season officially started is exciting for the Crusaders, it fails in comparison to having a teammate back on the floor with them. Senior Riley Krueger made his first appearance in a Mayer Lutheran uniform after beating cancer last year.
“It just feels great,” Krueger said. “After a whole year without it, I just really appreciate being back.”
There’s no doubt the past year has been tough for Krueger. While being away from the game was hard for him, being back has given him a new appreciation for it.
“It’s just amazing,” Krueger said. “Basketball, I just can’t live without it. Last season just made me really appreciate it.”
Krueger missed all of last season after going through treatment. Having him back on the floor this season is something Buchanan sees as bigger than basketball.
“There’s things and someone bigger than us out here in this world,” Buchanan said. “To see a kid go through and fight the cancer that he has been fighting, and to see him step up on there on the floor, it’s special. At the end of the day, basketball doesn’t matter. You look at that. Basketball doesn’t even matter. We’ve supported him and we were excited for him. Finally he was in the huddle with us. We’re going to enjoy this. He’s going to enjoy this.”
Krueger finished with four points in his first game back for the Crusaders. While he looks to continue to improve even more as the season goes on, there’s no doubt he will be giving it his all like he always has.
“Just take it one game at a time,” Krueger said. “I just wanted to play with all my heart and go from there.”
Stay connected with the Herald Journal for an in-depth story about Riley Krueger’s journey back to the game of basketball in a future edition.