By Paul Lecker
AUBURNDALE — The odds were stacked against the Auburndale boys basketball team entering this postseason.
The Apaches received a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, but matchups with Cloverbelt Conference East Division champion Spencer and Marawood Conference South Division champ Marathon loomed in the regional round, and there probably were not many outside of the town itself that thought Auburndale would make it to the second weekend of the WIAA playoffs.
However, the Apaches found a way, routing Spencer 61-40 and squeaking by previously undefeated Marathon 38-35 last Saturday to capture their third-straight Division 4 regional title.
Auburndale (17-7) will play in a Division 4 sectional semifinal at Antigo against Crivitz (16-8) on Thursday night at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on WOSQ-FM 92.3 and wdlbwosq.com. The winner moves on to play either Amherst (20-4) or Brillion (20-4) in a sectional final at 1 p.m. Saturday at Appleton East High School.
Auburndale lost just five games combined the last three seasons, which included a state runner-up finish in 2013 and a loss in the sectional finals last year.
This season Auburndale came into the playoffs with a 15-7 record, mediocre by its own lofty standards.
Coach Chad Weinfurter said earlier in the season that this year’s team was not as talented as the past three he had as there were a lot of new players on the varsity level, but the eight seniors who see the majority of the playing time came together at the right time.
All seven of Auburndale’s losses were by single digits, including two against Marathon; two more to Wausau Newman Catholic, a No. 1 seed in its Division 5 sectional; and one to Amherst, which is a No. 1 seed and still alive on the other half of the Apaches’ sectional bracket.
“I think our schedule helps us,” Weinfurter said following the win over Marathon last Saturday. “Our nonconference games too, we played Amherst, who is a conference champion. We played Spencer, Neillsville, Columbus—all top teams in the Cloverbelt. I think that helps us a lot.
“I told the kids, ‘I know we can do it, but no one’s betting on us.’ Does it surprise me? No. Did I expect it? No. I knew we could do it.”
In Saturday’s regional final, Auburndale trailed 33-27 after a pair of baskets by Marathon’s Ethan Seubert with 5:56 to go.
Auburndale senior guard Matt Nikolay hit a pair of free throws and drilled his fourth 3-pointer of the game to close the gap to 33-32 with 4:03 to go.
Neither team scored for the next two minutes before Alex Marth put Auburndale up for good with a three-point play with 1:53 left.
Josh VanSchoick added a pair of free throws before Isaac Barber scored inside for Marathon with 29.8 seconds to go, closing Auburndale’s lead to 37-35.
Tyler Weber made one of two free throws with 14.1 seconds remaining, giving Marathon a chance to tie. However, Seubert’s 3-point shot at the buzzer was long, and the Apaches held on.
“I guarantee no one thought we’d win this game,” said Nikolay, who led Auburndale with 17 points. “Throughout the season guys started filling in spots. We had a lot of people that didn’t play varsity ball until this year. It took them this long to find the spots that we wanted. We had a lot of guys step up, and that really helped us.”
VanSchoick added 11 points and six rebounds for the Apaches in the win.
“We’ve embraced it, and knew what we had to do the whole time,” VanSchoick said regarding the tough losses suffered throughout the season. “We fought through. All of our games have been close, and we learned from that and won a close one here tonight.”
(Hub City Times Sports Reporter Paul Lecker is also the publisher of MarshfieldAreaSports.com.)