Westview brings out best in Metro League rival
One of the great things about high school sports is the emotion involved, especially at the highest level of competition.
That's why I didn't mind seeing the tears from both sides Saturday night at the Rose Garden after Jesuit's 60-46 victory over Westview for the 6A state boys championship.
There were tears of joy from Jesuit senior Jack Grodahl as coach Gene Potter ceremoniously snipped the final strands of the net from one of the baskets.
Outside the Westview locker room, there was teary-eyed Wildcat center Austin Kuemper, explaining the hurt of losing to the Crusaders in the title game for the second straight year.
Both sides wanted badly to win - Jesuit to become the first top-classification school to claim three straight titles, the Wildcats to deny their Metro League rivalry that distinction and to win one themselves.
'Unbelievable, but it's bittersweet,' said Grodahl, a 6-4 senior forward who saved one of his best performances for last. 'It's sad that this has to end. I wish we could keep playing.'
For more than a half, Westview was up to the challenge, leading 25-19 at the break and 35-29 midway through the third quarter.
Then, with five reserves on the floor, 'it was like it crashed really quickly,' Westview coach Pat Coons said.
A 13-0 run keyed by Grodahl - who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, six off the offensive glass - pushed Jesuit on top 42-35. From that point, the Crusaders were a runaway train, gathering steam as they headed for Union Station.
'It's a great way to go out,' said Jesuit's 6-9 senior center, Kyle Wiltjer, who had 13 points and five rebounds in his prep finale. 'To come out with such fury in the second half - it was such a great feeling, coming from behind to win. This has to be my favorite one of the three.'
Coons was kicking himself for the third-quarter mass substitution.
'We wanted to spell the starters for a little bit, and it happened so quick,' he said. 'I have confidence in my (reserves), and I wanted (the starters) ready to go in the fourth quarter. We'd talked about it at halftime, that Kyle and Grodahl would try to take over the game and we had to respond to it.
'And Grodahl took over. He was the first one, and once Kyle got flowing, everything he did offensively and defensively was positive.'
The Wildcats, with the 6-10 Kuemper playing Wiltjer with double-team help from his teammates, had done a marvelous job on Jesuit's big man in the first half, holding him to three points and three rebounds. The second half was a different story, once the Crusaders got going.
'I feel bad about that as a coach,' Coons said. 'You knew at some point Jesuit was going to make a run at you, and they did. I regret taking away the opportunity for our guys to put it away.'
Coons, though, deserves credit for a terrific coaching job the past two seasons. Not many coaches can say they made back-to-back appearances in the top-classification state title game. In his 17 years at Westview, he has earned a reputation as one of the state's top coaches, getting the Wildcats to the state semifinals four times.
My sons, who attended Westview, have the ultimate respect for Coons not just as a coach, but as a teacher and a person. It's a feeling that is shared by many in that community, and that's saying a lot.
Potter, of course, commands the same kind of feeling by those in and around the Jesuit program.
'He's the best coach in the state, hands down,' Grodahl said. 'He gets us to play as a team like no other coach around can do.'
The Crusaders do that. On a night when their meal ticket, Wiltjer, was held in check much of the way, his teammates stepped up. They fought through adversity by staying together.
'We never pressed the panic button,' Grodahl said. 'That's been the key to our success the last three years. We stayed poised and got the job done.'
Potter, who earned his fifth state title at Jesuit, was thinking along the same lines.
'Going to practice with these guys was fun every day,' he said. 'Not just because they were talented, but because they were good kids. They enjoyed being around each other.
'You can tell. They shared the ball. They didn't mind making the extra pass. They get excited for their teammates when they make great plays. When you have kids like that, you have a chance to be pretty good.'
Wiltjer, headed for the McDonald's and Jordan Brand national All-Star games before joining the Kentucky program next season, was in many ways just one of the guys.
'He's going to Kentucky, he's a McDonald's All-American, but nobody on this team thinks about that, because he's so humble,' Grodahl said.
Potter downplayed the opportunity to make history all season, opting to 'focus on 2011.'
'Our thing was, 'Let's be the best team we can be and don't worry about everybody else's talk,' ' the Jesuit coach said. 'If you think about it too much, it takes a little bit of the fun out of high school sports.'
There are many around the state resentful of Jesuit, considering the Catholic school in a position of advantage as it enters athletic competition in all sports. Coons paused when asked what he thinks of the Crusaders, who have twice in a row denied his Wildcats the opportunity to cut down a net at the end of a season.
'Great competitors,' Coons said. 'Well-coached. Solid kids. We have a lot of respect for them. But we compete with them. Our kids are fearless playing them. Somebody in our locker room said, 'We're the best public-school team in the state.' But these kids didn't want to play for that. They wanted to win it all.
'We've lost the last two years to an awfully good team with a lot of Division I players, so that's nothing to feel bad about. We feel good about what we've accomplished these last two years. We've had really good teams. Somebody said, 'It's too bad you're so good when Jesuit's so good.' But that's the way it works.'
So the tears went both ways. Happy tears by the Crusaders, deserving champions. And tears of despair by the Wildcats, who can say they brought out the best in the first team ever to rule the state three years running.