Feb. 29, 2020 — “It’s just been a really great experience,” Mapleton boys basketball coach Eric Wolgamott told his players in the locker room after their first state playoff game on Wednesday night. The Sailors, who were visiting Days Creek, had just lost 32-46, ending Mapleton’s run for the state championship. While the mood in the locker room was that of disappointment, Wolgamott stressed how far they had come to get there.
”I wanted them to know that they should have pride, and say with their heads held high that they’re from Mapleton,” he said. “They made the playoffs and they gave it a hell of an effort, and I just wanted them to know that they represented not just themselves, not just the school, but the whole community of Mapleton. They represented it the best way they could, and they should be proud of the fact that they go to school where they go to school. To just take everything in and build on it for next year.”
Before the team traveled to Days Creek, the team was sent off with a pep assembly at the school that included the entire Mapleton school district, grades kindergarten through 12.
“That was really special, pretty amazing to see, the whole support of the entire district, being there and wishing us luck,” Wolgamott said. “That was something I won’t forget.”
When the Sailors opened up in the first quarter, it was a back-and-forth game with purposefully low scores.
“I told the boys going into the game, we have to slow the game down, we have to ‘ugly the game up,’ in a sense,” Wolgamott said. “It needs to be low scoring if we want to have a chance to win.”
The plan seemed to be working, with the Sailors just about to finish the first quarter down by only three points, 9-12. But a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Days Creek took the wind out of the Sailors sails, extending the Wolves’ lead to 6 points.
“I felt like that gave them more momentum going into the second quarter,” Wolgamott said. “We didn’t play our best basketball in the first quarter, and I felt like if it was 12-9, it might have been a little bit different. But when I go back and see what could have been different, what could have changed the flow of the game — I felt like that was a big part of the first half.”
Despite the sudden change of fortunes, the Sailors played hard in the second quarter.
“Defensively, we gave up a few threes when we probably shouldn’t have,” Wolgamott said. “Part of that was not being in the right place on the rotation, but give credit to Days Creek. They passed that ball pretty quickly and got that defense moving. That’s the point when you play zone defense — to get open shots — and they were able to do that by rotating the ball and hitting the open guy.”
Still, the defense could have held if the offense was strong, but that’s where Mapleton struggled, Wolgamott said. “Days Creek pressed us almost all night long. We had a difficult time handling that. We were sped up by the press, and that was the goal of Days Creek. They had a good game plan and executed it well.”
So much so that, by halftime, the Sailors’ deficit from the first period had doubled to 12.
“I told the boys at halftime, this game is far from over,” Wolgamott recalled. “We’ve come too far to just give up and concede the victory to Days Creek. That’s not who we are, and that’s not who we’ve been all season long. We have to go out in the second half, we have to fight and give it the absolute best effort we have. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
They came up with a plan: break the remaining quarters into small sections, two minutes at a time. Don’t look for a triumphant comeback, but build the lead slowly, point by point.
“We started off the second half pretty well. We cut the lead down to nine and we had a chance to get even closer,” Wolgamott said, “but the rebounds weren’t coming out in our favor.
That was a little disheartening because we’ve been so good the past couple of games controlling the boards and owning the rebounds. But really, Days Creek rebounded us and a lot of it was second-chance opportunities for them, which led to points.”
Whenever Days Creek missed a shot on their end, it was followed by an offensive rebound.
As the game wore on, the Sailors wore out, and the deficit of nine gradually grew to 14 at the final buzzer, 46-32.
After the game, there was disappointment in the locker room.
“You obviously want to always play your best basketball,” Wolgamott said. “When you don’t, you shouldn’t be satisfied if you’re a player that cares about the game. If you don’t play your best basketball, you shouldn’t be satisfied with the performance, and I feel a lot of them weren’t satisfied. The players felt like they let an opportunity slip. I told them, let it hurt for a little bit.”
He told the players that dwelling on the loss when they got home was to be expected, but when they wake up in the morning, turn the page.
“We can’t let one result cloud what we accomplished all year long,” Wolgamott said. “I just wanted them to know that they had nothing to be ashamed of, because they made history at Mapleton. ‘You guys accomplished that. Whatever the result was of that game, no one can take that away from you. That was what was achieved and that’s not going to change.’”
The season began and ended with eight players, something that is rare for Mapleton.
“You always anticipate a player here or two maybe not sticking around for whatever reason,” Wolgamott said. “When you have small numbers, keeping the players motivated and interested is key. We were able to do that. That says a lot about the character of the players. They started something and they wanted to finish it — and they did a pretty damn good job along the way.”
That’s not to say that every member showed up for every game. Wolgamott pointed to a game at Elkton as a turning point for the team, where only five players were able to make the game and they still won, 46-37.
“No subs, and they never used that as an excuse,” he said. “The way they battled with five guys playing the entire game, playing well, and actually getting the win was a moment that I won’t forget this year or for years after this. I told them throughout the year because they made it difficult for themselves — because if you can win with five guys — you can win with eight.”
The wins they had during league were also outstanding, winning 8 of 12 games.
“That’s a long period of time to sustain that level of play, over a month playing well, that’s something to be proud of,” Wolgamott said.
And of course, there was finishing out the year in the final spot for the playoffs.
“The league playoff game against Crow, that was probably the highlight of the year right there,” Wolgamott said. “With everything on the line, the way they came out, the way they believed and the way they executed — and frankly the way they dominated that game and winning by 26 — I felt like that was a statement game. When that final buzzer sounded, it’s something we won’t forget anytime soon. Those are memories you’ll never forget.”
This will be the last year for two key players for Mapleton, Nate Neece and Justyce Weirchs.
“Those players won’t be replaceable,” Wolgamott said. “You always want to leave a legacy each year, and their legacy was that they were able to compete when stakes were high, and they brought Mapleton back to respectability. They brought Mapleton back to a very high level where we were a factor in every game we played. Because of their leadership and what they were able to play at, those seniors are leaving with two state playoff berths, one football, one basketball. That will never be taken away from them. I just wanted them to know how much they meant to the program and that without them, none of this would be possible.”
As for the team as a whole, Wolgamott said it was one of the best he had ever coached.
“Just playing really good basketball when it mattered at the end of the year,” he said. “Seeing the boys improve, being positive the whole time, even if we dropped a game. They always looked forward to the next game. In my three years of being the head coach, they’re one of the most coachable groups I had.”
As for next year, Wolgamott sees great possibilities.
“Everybody can make improvements over the off season, and we’ll ultimately be a better team,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to do, but I like the attitude that the players have shown throughout this year. The way I feel, why not try and make another run at it next year, with maybe even more success? I’m excited to see what the future holds for these boys.”