The tape on his ankle and the brace that Tyler Witt wears every time he steps on a basketball court serves as a reminder for the Falls City Sacred Heart senior all-stater.
A year ago, the Irish appeared headed for their second straight Class D-2 boys state title and the 10th state championship in school history before the unthinkable happened.
For the first time in his career, the 6-foot-3 Witt rolled his ankle and suffered a severe sprain in the first-round state tournament game against Blue Hill. Sacred Heart went on to win that game 64-57, but the Irish were not as fortunate in the semifinals the next day against Johnson-Brock without their star.
Sacred Heart led by 10 in the fourth quarter, but the eventual state champion Eagles rallied for a 48-45 win. The Irish had won the three previous matchups last season against Johnson-Brock by an average of 17 points.
With four starters back from last year’s 25-3 team, Witt and his teammates are determined to return to the top.
“That was a bad time for the first one (sprained ankle),” said Witt, who was still bothered by the ankle early in football season last fall but says he’s 100% now.
“The seniors don’t want it to end that way again,” he added. “What happened last year is really motivating us this season.”
The four senior starters are the leading scorers for the No. 1 Irish, who bring an 11-0 record into Tuesday’s first-round MUDECAS Tournament game against Johnson County Central (5 p.m., Beatrice City Auditorium). Witt, who shoots 63% from the field, averages a team-leading 16.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
Guards Jake Hoy and Jamie Stice, both 5-11, average 10.3 and 7.0 points per game, respectively. They’ve combined for 33 three-pointers and are shooting 44% from beyond the arc.
Jarrot Simon, another 6-3 senior, complements Witt inside with 8.5 points and almost four boards a game.
Jakob Jordan, a 5-11 sophomore, has stepped in and replaced graduated all-stater Drew Bippes at the point guard spot. Jordan is averaging 6.8 points per game.
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“Jakob’s done a good job coming in and running things at the same tempo as last year,” said Sacred Heart coach Doug Goltz, who has a 656-175 career record in 33 seasons at the Irish helm, guiding them to all nine state titles.
“He’s a good athlete and a solid ballhandler and shooter. He played a lot last year as a freshman, so it’s been a smooth transition for him playing with the four seniors.”
The fact that Sacred Heart has won its first 11 games by an average margin of 37 points has allowed the Irish to develop depth early in the season. Jack Fiegener was hampered by injuries as a freshman and sophomore, but the 6-2 junior has emerged this season as a force off the bench, averaging 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds an outing.
Defensively, the Irish have been stellar. Opponents are averaging just 28 points per game, shooting 31% from the field and committing an average of almost 20 turnovers per game. Sacred Heart has 142 steals for the season, led by Hoy’s 34.
“That’s something we take a lot of pride in,” Witt said about the Irish defense. “We know how to do it all, whether it be man, zone, or full-court press, and we spend a lot of time in practice working on it.
“We’ll only go as far as our defense takes us this season.”
The only close game Sacred Heart has had this season was a 48-41 decision over Elmwood-Murdock, a game in which the Irish trailed 30-26 at halftime. The 41 points is the most the Irish have surrendered.
“We had some defensive breakdowns in the first half, left some shooters open and they (Elmwood-Murdock) knocked down shots,” Goltz said. “We made some adjustments at half, and our guys really clamped down defensively in the second half, holding them to 11.”
Howells-Dodge’s Bayer honors his father: Three days after losing his father to brain cancer, RJ Bayer scored a single-game, school-record 32 points to lead D-1 No. 8 Howells-Dodge to a 72-38 win over Plainview on Saturday.
When Bayer informed Howells-Dodge coach Kevin Janata that he wanted to play, the game plan was to establish Bayer early in the game and get the 6-2 sophomore into the flow of the game after being away from the team for several days.
“The boys, however, took it to another level, playing unselfish basketball, setting screens and feeding RJ the ball down low early and often,” Janata wrote in an email. “They all shared in his success and fed off his energy.
“It was an emotional night and it was great to see the team rally around their teammate.”
RJ’s father, Ryan Bayer, battled brain cancer for three years before passing away at the age of 40. His funeral services were Monday in Howells.