(Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a six-part series about Randolph boys basketball. Five games toward the end of the regular season were focused on a closer look at the state’s most decorated program.)
RANDOLPH – Randolph’s recent success, particularly in league play, wears on everyone – including the Rockets.
“People are sick of us,” Randolph coach Bob Haffele said. “We get that. We talk about it with the kids. Heck, I even get a little sick of us.”
For the Rockets to maintain a winning streak for nearly a dozen years when they’re everyone else’s Super Bowl takes a lot of poise. Opponents and fans don’t always respond to Randolph in the most sportsmanlike of ways.
The Rockets have been the subject of homophobic and racist slurs. On the court, the line between physical play and questionable tactics has been blurred more than once.
“We were in a sectional playoff game and there’s a scramble on the floor,” Randolph assistant coach Ken Macheel said. “Ryan Tillema is on the floor and this kid from the other team is bending his leg in ways knees aren’t supposed to bend.
“He’s basically trying to break his leg. So Greg (Stiemsma) sees it and goes in there to help and Greg gets the technical foul. We didn’t see what truly happened until we got the film.”
Even the increased exposure of the state tournament didn’t deter foes from taking liberties.
“We’re playing at state and Josh Fischer and this kid from the other team are late getting up the court,” Haffele said. “This kid looks to see that the ref has turned his head to look up court and then he knees Josh in the ribs.”
Randolph visited Pardeeville in the final game of the regular season and there’s a history involved. In one game, one of the Bulldogs interpreted closing out on the 3 to mean punching Tyler Tillema in the groin after his shot on two different instances.
Fortunately, in this instance, Pardeeville’s focus will be on basketball as the Bulldogs took Randolph to overtime in the first meeting before falling, 43-40, and Eric Schepp erupted for a game-high 28 points.
The Bulldogs have been blown out badly three times since the holidays and have been up and down. Randolph doesn’t get the luxury of an off day – every team is wired to play the Rockets, especially this year, when they seem vulnerable.
The schedule had been kind to the Rockets down the stretch as seven of their last nine games, including the last five, were at home. Early on, it’s evident that the shots which were falling on the home rims aren’t going down here.
Most teams that play Randolph are incredibly patient to the point of it looking like stalling. This is out of fear and necessity as Randolph’s transition game quickly turns bad shots or turnovers into easy buckets.
Lots of teams try taking the air out of the ball but few had the success with it that Pardeeville did on this night. By spreading the court and pulling the ball out, not only were the Bulldogs able to control the tempo but they could isolate Rocket defenders better.
Pardeeville hit six of 11 shots while the Rockets were only 3-for-11 and the Bulldogs led by six after one. Midway through the second quarter, Schepp was poked in the eye and left the contest for good.
So the Bulldogs turned to Cameron Knutson and he delivered. In the usual confinements of half-court defense, A.J. Alexander has enough quickness to cut dribblers off but with Pardeeville spreading things out, Knutson was quicker and got the better of him.
Just as Alexander had his subtle tricks to succeed defensively, Knutson had his. Knutson had a great knack for driving into his defender with a subtle shoulder before pulling up for a jumper.
He created just enough space for himself to get his shots off without incurring an offensive foul. And he was in a rhythm where even when Alexander got right in his face, he still knocked down shots.
Pardeeville played from ahead and surged in confidence the longer it held the lead. Two jumpers from Knutson pushed the lead up to seven after three quarters of play.
Randolph couldn’t hit anything. The Rockets hit only two of 13 shots in the third quarter and because they were in a perimeter drought, the Bulldogs stayed in their zone and packed it in on Aaron Retzlaff, who Bulldog coach Chris Lindert said was the focal point defensively.
Retzlaff only scored four points in the second half. Jay Peters, who had provided a much-needed hot hand from the outside, went 2-for-15 for the contest and no other Rockets could fill the void.
Haffele dismissed fatigue as an excuse but free throws and 3-pointers are the first telltale signs a team has lost its legs. Randolph missed 10 free throws in the fourth quarter and went 2-for-19 from the arc.
It was the fourth game in six days for the Rockets and just two days after the knock-down, drag-out rumble with Oshkosh Lourdes. Pardeeville held the door open in the fourth quarter but Randolph was too sluggish and tripped over the welcome mat.
The Bulldogs hit half of their dozen free throws in the final stanza, turned it over six times and fouled the Rockets twice on 3-point attempts. But Peters went eight of 17 from the foul line and Retzlaff went two of five on free throws in the fourth quarter.
Randolph tried to recover in desperation mode but it dug too deep a hole for itself earlier. Pardeeville took the 43-37 win and with the streak over at 175 games, the Bulldog students stormed the court.
Pardeeville pulled off the upset by using a formula the Rockets have used for a dozen years. The Bulldogs won the boards (31-29), kept the turnovers down, controlled the tempo and forced Randolph to win from long range.
The road game after a home stand, the bunched schedule, the lack of depth – all of it caught up with the Rockets. Or maybe they just played like they practiced.
Haffele saw it coming from a mile away. Now he headed into the postseason not knowing which Randolph team would show up – the one that made strides down the stretch or the one that got destroyed by Racine Lutheran in last year’s sectional final.
He termed the streak as ‘amazing’ and rightfully so, because no one expects to win 175 straight conference games. He was also quick to point out after the game that Randolph was still a conference champion, a top seed and on the short list of potential Division 5 champions.
“We’ve got everything in front us,” Haffele said. He’s had to do very little searching of late for silver linings.
The best route to redemption for this group was to win the state title. They had the stinging sectional semifinal loss last year and lost in the football semifinals two of the last three years.
They also have the most decorated coach in WIAA history on their bench…should they choose to listen.
“They’ll listen to me more as we get deeper into the tournament,” Haffele said. “They always do.”