The girls regional semi-final between the Lakeland Thunderbirds and Merrill Bluejays on Friday, Feb. 22 was a fast-paced, high-flying contest played at blistering speeds, just the sort of game Lakeland loves to play.

At Merrill on Friday night, they showed why, as the Thunderbirds were able to out run-and-gun the Bluejays, beating them on the road 50-38.

But it was a battle in the first half, as both teams traded shots, furiously, back and forth, with Lakeland forcing Merrill to rush their offense through a series of full court traps.

Melissa Bruckner, Abby Parris, Emma Salquist, and Vivian Trapp worked those perimeter traps to perfection, while down low, Camille Quade and Joeli Koehler were constantly in Merrill’s way.

Eventually, the pressure wore on Merrill and Lakeland began winning on the glass and causing key turnovers, and when they did they were off to the races.

“The plan was tough defense. No offensive rebounds for Merrill, and push the ball,” Lakeland head coach Melissa Ouimette said.

Bruckner was unstoppable in the middle of the lane, no matter how many Bluejays were there to greet her. With the smallest amount of space in the paint she was able to weave her way to 14 first half points to help the Thunderbirds pull ahead 25-19 at halftime.

Lakeland held onto the momentum in the second half as Quade and Parris both came out and scored five quick points each as Lakeland went on a 10-3 run.

With the pace Lakeland was playing at, and the steadiness of their scoring attack, Merrill could not keep up.

Whether off fast-breaks or in the half court set, Parris and Bruckner could not be caught when driving the lane. The two Thunderbirds combined for 17 points in the second half, almost all on lay-ups, which was just fine for coach Ouimette, who was impressed by her teams control and patience with the lead.

“When you play smart you’re a great team,” Ouimette told her team. “That’s what this team did tonight. They came out. They played smart They pulled it out. They didn’t force any shots. They worked it around for lay-ups and lay-ups.”

Between Lakeland’s discipline with the ball and their relentless pressure on defense, Merrill was never able to establish momentum and get close enough to threaten the lead, and the Thunderbird’s took the game 50-38.

Bruckner led Lakeland with 21 points in the victory  Parris added 17.

For Merrill, Ashley Prebeg led the way with eight points while Courtney Krueger pitched in seven.



Saturday vs. Hortonville

Lakeland’s win at Merrill set up a regional final at number one-seeded Hortonville on Saturday afternoon.

In another up-tempo, pedal-to-the-medal contest the Thunderbirds fought valiantly, but they ran into a defensive buzzsaw in Hortonville and fell to the Polar Bears, 68-42, to end their season.

For the first quarter of the game, though, Lakeland went toe-to-toe with them, thanks to seven early points by Mel Bruckner. 

But midway through the first half, Hortonville’s swarming defense started getting the better of Lakeland’s ball handlers and the Polar Bears began racking up steals and forced turnovers, taking them the other way for fast break points.

Lakeland went on a six minute drought in the first, in which Hortonville scored 10 unanswered points and before they knew it the T-Birds were down 21-9.  

That was too much of lead to give such a strong, fast team, because the Polar Bears never stopped scoring, and Hortonville was quickly up 35-17 by halftime.

Hortonville’s Macy McGlone scored 13 in the first half and was a problem down low for Lakeland all night.

“She is 6 (foot) 3 (inches), can jump, post up well and grab every rebound within five feet of her. She was a beast,” coach Ouimette said of McGlone. “We stayed with them half way through the first half, and then McGlone started getting touches on the ball inside and at the same time we were cold from the floor. Their defense was more physical than we were used to and it caused us to make a few mental mistakes, but the biggest problem with stopping 6 (foot) 3 (inches) McGlone.”

McGlone continued her damage in the second half and led the way out of the break as the Polar Bears went on an 8-2 run to start the second half, and from there they just couldn’t be caught.

Midway through the second half McGlone had 25 points already and Hortonville was up 51-24.

Though the T-Birds never stopped battling, they were simply out gunned.

Hortonville’s lead got to 30 at one point, but more damaging to Lakeland was the fact they never gave up control of the games momentum. 

Lakeland was unable to make the steady series of stops necessary to swing the game their way.

Though they got 17 points from Abby Parris and 16 from Bruckner, Hortonville was too much for Lakeland to overcome and they lost to the Polar Bears 68-42, ending their season.

Regardless, coach Ouimette was proud of her girls for a remarkable final effort and overall season.

“I told my team before and after the game how proud I was of them and applauded how hard they worked against Hortonville and how hard they worked all season,” she said. “They never stopped working hard or gave up. It was 100 percent effort for the whole game. I could not have asked for more. I loved coaching these girls. The season was an absolute joy. It breaks my heart to see it come to an end, but they can hold their heads high because they represented their school and community with dignity and grace. That says it all.”

Lakeland finished the season 15-9 overall and 9-3 in the Great Northern conference.

Jacob Friede may be reached at jacob@lakelandtimes.com or sports@lakelandtimes.com.