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PAXTON – The Paxton-Buckley-Loda eighth-grade team’s first trip to the state tournament since 1994 was merely a game away from coming to fruition.
A quarter away. A point away. A call away.
Either way one might put it, the Panthers came so close, and yet so far from state.
This year’s group of PBL eighth-graders went into Wednesday’s Class 3A Paxton Sectional having went to state last year as seventh graders.
This year’s eighth-grade Panthers went into sectionals with a 19-2 record, with one of their losses at the hands of St. Joseph.
Although PBL led for 23:56 of the 24-minute sectional game, STJ got the best of the Panthers once again, advancing to the state tournament with a 26-25 victory.
“We played hard. I said it last year, and I’ll say it again – when you come into these games, you don’t expect to lose,” PBL head coach Jeff Sinn said. “You expect to win. Of course, when that doesn’t happen, it’s a letdown. It’s not a letdown for me – it’s a letdown for the team, it’s a letdown for everyone. You put all this work in, you plan, and then sometimes it doesn’t come down to you. Sometimes, you can execute and do everything you can, but there’s another variable that’s in there that you can’t control. That variable came in today. What can you do about that?”
The variable that was the final straw in PBL’s undoing, Sinn said, was a blocking foul by Cole Eshleman that sent Brandon Trimble to the free-throw line with four seconds remaining and the Panthers leading 25-24. Trimble sank both free throws, and Eshleman’s ensuing halfcourt heave fell short.
The called foul that sent Trimble to the foul line in the end did not sit well with Sinn.
“I’m not saying that cost us the game, but to make that call in that situation is just ridiculous,” Sinn said. “I just feel sorry for the kids. It doesn’t matter to me. I just feel like you just can’t make that call there. Maybe I’m wrong on that, and if I am, I am, but I’ll stick up for my players any chance I can, and I’m doing that now. We were playing aggressive basketball, but are you telling me they’re not playing aggressive basketball? I just don’t get it, and maybe I never will get it. As a coach, maybe I will never understand how that happens. I understand that, and I accept that. There’s just nothing I can do about it, but I just wish that there was better understanding of a game situation than that. I still can’t see how you make that call. I just don’t.”
The Panthers (19-3) led 28-23 after three quarters as Eshleman made a circus 3-point shot off the backboard at the third-quarter buzzer. They were, however, outscored by St. Joseph 8-2 in the fourth quarter, with Eshleman scoring PBL’s lone two final-quarter points with about 2:15 left in the game.
Prior to Trimble’s game-winning foul shot, Andrew Zenner had a shot at the free-throw line with PBL leading 25-24. He missed the 1-and-1 opportunity.
“The bottom line is there are other things that we could have done to not be in that situation (at the end),” Sinn said. “We didn’t really attack as hard as we could have in the second half. There were some things that kind of cost us in the long run. Those are some things that are regrettable, but we can’t get back.”
Eshleman sank two 3-pointers in the first quarter as the Panthers ended the first quarter with an 8-4 lead. He would finish with a team-high 12 points
Dalton Coplea scored all six of points in the second quarter to help the Panthers extend their lead to 16-8 and go into halftime with a 16-10 advantage. He fouled out with 35 seconds remaining, sending Trimble – who scored a game-high 16 points – to the foul line for two free throws that cut PBL’s lead to 25-24.
Despite the loss, Sinn said his team should be proud of the season it had.
“I told them in the locker room that there’s nothing bad about a 19-3 record,” Sinn said. “There are not very many eighth-grade teams – and there’s only been one in the history of Paxton – that won their sectional and went to state. It’s not easy to do it in back-to-back years. Not many teams can do it, and it’s because people get better. I’m proud of these guys. They accomplished a lot.
“It’s hard when you make it to state and you’ve got a bullseye on your back every night. To go out every night and win like that is something to be proud of. I’m just proud of these guys and I wish the best for them. I hope, in their junior and senior year that they’re up at state. That’s the bigger goal out of this. It would have been nice to win this, but the bigger goal is not now. It’s preparing them for junior and senior year (of high school).”
Sinn said his team still has some things to improve upon before going into their high school careers.
“Championship teams are not made during the season,” Sinn said. “They’re made in the summertime. This group just has to improve. There was improvement for everyone as the year progressed. Everyone did improve, and that’s one thing that we can be thankful for and proud of. Each one of these guys did their part and got better.
“That’s what I told them – the bottom line is you’ve got to get better. If we sit back and look back in our junior and senior year with these guys and say, ‘Hey, remember when we were in eighth-grade and we went to regionals and then we lost that sectional,’ and as juniors and seniors we have not won a regional, or are not in a sectional and competing for state, then that’s an issue.”
St. Joseph 26, PBL 25
Brandon Trimble 6-4-16, Brandon Bable 0-0-0, Ben Albrecht 0-0-0, Reggie Blackburn 0-0-0, Michael Longworth 0-0-0, Colton Hale 0-0-0, Austin Norem 0-0-0, Jack Fritz 0-0-0, Elliott Idleman 0-0-0, Brant Hoveln 1-0-2, Cole Bensyl 0-0-0, Tim Cordier 4-0-8, Trey McCormick 0-0-0, William Glowiak 0-0-0. Totals 11-4-26.
Cole Eshleman 4-1-12, Louis Rodriguez 0-0-0, Kaleb Denault 0-0-0, Colton Kleinert 0-0-0, Ryley Foellner 1-0-2, Dalton Coplea 3-0-6, Corbin Snyder 0-0-0, Cooper Johnson 0-0-0, Carter Riecks 0-0-0, Michael Curry 0-0-0, Tyler Adkins 0-0-0, Brendan VanAntwerp 0-0-0, Luke Fitton 0-0-0, Andrew Zenner 2-0-5, Tom Henrichs 0-0-0. Totals 10-1-25.
STJ 4 6 8 8 — 26
PBL 8 8 7 2 — 25
3-pointers — PBL 4 (Eshleman 3, Zenner).