Rangers bring the noise in title surgeMarch 6, 2017
By WYATT L. STAYNER
HUNTINGBURG — Trever Zink wanted it louder.
With 1:51 remaining in Saturday’s Class 2A sectional basketball championship between Forest Park and Evansville Mater Dei, Forest Park’s junior guard had just been fouled and was ready to shoot free throws with a chance to break a tie. Where others might want it quiet, Zink needed more noise.
As he advanced toward the free throw line at Huntingburg Memorial Gymnasium, Zink waved his arms in an effort to pump up the crowd. At his request, the Forest Park student section amped up its volume and Zink nailed both free throws to give the Rangers their first lead in nearly four minutes. Mater Dei tied it once more, but Daniel Lusk’s free throw with 25.6 seconds remaining sealed the Rangers’ 44-43 victory and their first sectional championship since 2012.
Mater Dei nearly snatched it away, but a fade-away jumper by Jules Weinzapfel from about 17 feet fell short as the buzzer sounded, and Ranger students rushed the court.
“When I’m at the free throw line, I want everybody to have faith in me,” Zink said, “and just to hear them and watch them get off their feet and cheer me on, I knew I wasn’t going to miss.”
While Zink waving his arms might be nothing more than a gesture, it symbolized what Forest Park embraced en route to gaining its first sectional title after fruitless championship appearances the last two seasons. Instead of running from the sound and chaos, the Rangers (18-9) needed to create it. Against Mater Dei (11-14), that aggression started with Lusk, who spearheaded a full-court press that harassed the Wildcats into three key fourth-quarter turnovers and 16 total miscues. In the game’s final three minutes Lusk also forced Weinzapfel into a five-second call, and on top of his feisty defense, Lusk notched 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists and five steals.
“I’ve said it all year. When Daniel plays well, we play well,” Forest Park coach Jeff Litherland said. “He runs our team, and everybody else feeds off of him.”
“Daniel is one of those kids who once he sets his mind to it, he goes and gets it,” added Zink, who finished with nine points and four steals.
After starting the fourth quarter down 32-29, Lusk notched consecutive baskets for a 33-32 Ranger advantage. His first field goal came on a midrange jumper, which carried significance since Mater Dei sagged off Lusk and Noah Fleck and limited Forest Park’s production in the paint with 6-foot-9 Logan Carter blocking five shots.
“We forced some of their guys that maybe aren’t as offensive-minded to be a little bit more aggressive, so give them the credit, they made enough plays,” Mater Dei coach Kurt Wildeman said.
The Wildcats built a 41-37 edge with 3:21 remaining on one of Connor Ricketts’ five three-pointers. Ricketts splashed four 3s in the second half and paced the Wildcats with 16 points, but Forest Park battled back by nailing nine free throws in the final five minutes.
That supplied the Rangers just enough oomph to avoid the type of bummer they encountered in the sectional championship the prior two seasons — a 69-64 loss to Mater Dei in 2015 after they’d led by 17 points, and a 16-point setback last year to a South Spencer squad they’d beaten twice in the regular season.
“We were determined not to have the same feeling we had the past two years,” Zink said.
Forest Park senior Blake Mohr was running out of time to clinch a sectional title, and now Forest Park has its 11th overall.
“We just never quite got there and this year we finally did it. I think it kept us hungry,” Mohr said. “It feels good just to get over that hump and finally know that we accomplished it and that we’ll be known forever.”
Litherland was on the verge of tears postgame. He explained that Forest Park’s decision to institute its full-court press late in the game was a key decision that helped swing the tide.
“I think we made a free throw or something. They threw the ball out of bounds and we kind of sped them up and in this environment, you know, if you get sped up it can be a Twilight Zone in here,” Litherland said.
At one point, Elliott Rothgerber encountered some defensive struggles and Litherland took the sophomore out, only to immediately turn around and throw him back into the game. That led to a humorous in-game exchange between the two.
“I’m just so proud of my kids, Daniel and Noah and even Elliott,” Litherland said. “Elliott had some breakdowns and I ripped him. I think he was shocked when I put him back in, but I was like, ‘I believe in you, go get me a stop.’”
That vote of support helped Rothgerber contribute in his important fourth-quarter minutes, where the sophomore knocked down a free throw on his way to six points.
“I know (Coach) trusts in me and I went in there and did something for him,” Rothgerber said.
As Mater Dei defensively sagged off a couple Rangers, the Wildcats tilted their defense toward Sam Englert and limited Forest Park’s leading scorer to six shot attempts. Englert still scored nine points, blocked four shots and grabbed four rebounds. Fleck pitched in another seven points.
“We just came together and said that, ‘This is our game to win and we are not going to lose it,’ Zink said. “We decided to come together and bust every ounce of our body left.”
Now the Rangers will attempt to nab their first regional championship since 2011. The next step comes in this Saturday’s Paoli regional against Crawford County (19-6) in the second semifinal at approximately noon. The Rangers beat Crawford County 57-55 in the first game of the season, but the Wolfpack are riding into regional on a 10-game win streak, including a last-second 33-32 upset of No. 1 Providence in the sectional championship. South Knox (19-7) will face South Ripley (15-11) in Saturday’s first regional semifinal at 10 a.m.
Regardless of what happens next, Litherland said the sectional accomplishment reinforced how tough and resilient his team is.
“I love those guys. I’ve watched them grow up and I just love them to death,” Litherland said. “We needed to win this. For all the work that we put into basketball. We needed to win, and when you spend four years doing basketball, 365 days a year, it’s very emotional to finally get to the top and win sectional.”
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