ASHWAUBENON - Since the first day of practice the Little Chute boys basketball team has had to deal with the outside pressure of being expected to reach the Division 3 state tournament with its talent-rich, senior-laden team.
Saturday, the Mustangs found themselves one win away from reaching that expectation when they played defending state champion Brillion in a sectional final at Ashwaubenon High School.
Even though Brillion, which beat Little Chute in the sectional final last season, was the state champ, it was Little Chute with the pressure to deliver.
After suffering that sectional final loss last year, Little Chute made sure history didn't repeat. Behind seniors Turner Botz, Kenneth Lowe and Mitch Ciske, the Mustangs punched their second trip to state in three seasons after disposing of the Lions, 59-37.
"It's been a long year," Little Chute coach Mickey Martin said. "I can tell you there wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't thinking about last year's sectional final. It's like it was meant to be. Today was our day. We played well. We're looking forward to going down to Madison."
Brillion surprised the Mustangs a year ago, but that wasn't going to happen Saturday. The Lions couldn't keep up with Green Bay recruits Botz and Lowe.
At 6-foot-8 (Lowe) and 6-6 (Botz), the smaller Lions just couldn't handle them. Lowe had three dunks and both Botz (20 points) and Lowe made life tough inside.
"You can see why they're going to be playing down the street here (at Green Bay) the next four years," Martin said.
Little Chute (25-1) opened a 12-3 lead, but Brillion wasn't going to make it that easy that early. Brillion kept it close in the first half and trailed, 27-19, at halftime.
But the second half was a different deal. Little Chute outscored Brillion, 17-9, in the third and the 44-28 lead was never threatened in the final stanza.
While Botz and Lowe always seem to deliver, Ciske couldn't be overlooked. The point guard hit the open 3-pointer and hounded Brillion leading scorer Eric Kittel. Martin said the Ciske-Kittel matchup was huge.
"I thought we got contributions from a lot of guys," Martin said. "I thought the key was Ciske on Kittel. He really made him work."
Little Chute will play Aquinas on Friday at 9 a.m. at the Kohl Center and Ciske could have another big matchup in Wisconsin recruit Bronson Koenig.
But before the Mustangs think about Madison and Koenig, they will enjoy their accomplishment this season. Even with players like Botz and Lowe, it wasn't always easy, but now Little Chute is two wins away from its first state title.
"It feels great," Botz simply said about returning to state.
You would think there's some relief, too. Everybody expected Little Chute to deliver and it did.
"There's no question there's some relief," Martin said. "A lot of people say you want to prove people wrong, but we wanted to prove everyone right. We were supposed to win and get this done. I think our guys really handled it well all season long. I was impressed with them outside the lines."
Botz, though, isn't relaxing just yet.
"I don't know if there's relief yet," Botz said. "We still have two more games hopefully to play. Our season's not done. This isn't going to be the plateau of our season. Hopefully it's a springboard on our way to Madison and hopefully win state."
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay
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