Jesperson honored as top player
As a 6-7 wing player who can shoot from outside, handle the ball or play in the post, Paul Jesperson just about did it all for Merrill’s boys basketball team this season.
And he came up just short of taking the Bluejays to a state title.
A statewide panel of media members has voted Jesperson the 2011 Associated Press boys state Player of the Year, recognizing an outstanding high school career that ended when Merrill lost to Whitefish Bay in the WIAA Division 2 championship game on Saturday.
It was a disappointing loss for Jesperson, but it’s hardly the end. He’ll head to the University of Virginia, where he’ll play for coach Tony Bennett, the son of former University of Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett.
“I’ve definitely thought about that,” Jesperson said of his final days as a Bluejay. “High school’s over. That part of my life is over. Now it’s about getting ready for the next level.”
Meanwhile, Madison Memorial’s Steve Collins celebrates another banner season as AP Coach of the Year after his Spartans defeated De Pere, 80-78, in triple overtime for the Division 1 state championship.
“I think this is one of those epic games that people are going to be talking about 40, 50 years from now,” Collins said.
It was the third state title since 2005 for Madison Memorial, which was the runner-up last year and won state titles in 2009 and 2005.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Collins said.
This one might have been the toughest for Collins, and in some ways the most satisfying.
Memorial didn’t have an established star player such as Vander Blue, Jeronne Maymon or Wesley Matthews. And the Spartans were hit hard by injuries early in the season.
“We’ve had injuries, but I don’t think we’ve had lingering ones like this,” Collins said.
Still, the Spartans found a way to share an eighth straight Big Eight Conference championship and reach the state title game for the seventh time in eight years.
“This one was a true team effort,” Collins said. “It was somebody different every tournament game.”
In the title game, it was Brendan Ortiz, who hit a driving layup for the game-winner with 2.1 seconds left in the third overtime Ortiz’s clutch shooting also was responsible for sending the game into all three overtime periods.
When Memorial finally made it back to school after a wild game that stretched late into the night, the Spartans found their gym half-full with students who stayed awake to salute them. Collins said everybody stayed until about 1 a.m.
“No one wanted to leave,” Collins said.
The state tournament didn’t end as happily for Jesperson and Merrill. Jesperson had an uncharacteristically off shooting night and still was frustrated by the loss this week, crediting Whitefish Bay for its performance but refusing to call the Blue Dukes the better team.
“If we play that game five times, we’re going to win four out of five times,” Jesperson said.
Still, Jesperson and his teammates appreciate what they did in the postseason.
“That postseason run we had was something special,” Jesperson said. “I think a lot of these guys will remember that for a long time.”
Jesperson tried to become more of a vocal leader this season, perhaps the final missing piece of his skill set.
After an 11-11 regular season, Merrill made a strong run in the playoffs before falling 64-49 to Whitefish Bay as the result of a 25-16 fourth quarter. Jesperson struggled in the championship game, but the Bluejays still depended upon him.
“You’ve got to dance with the girl you brought to the dance,” Merrill coach Kurt Soderberg said.
Soderberg said Jesperson is well suited to success at Virginia because he “does everything.”
Jesperson said the main thing Virginia coaches want him to do is improve his strength, but he’ll also fine-tune his ball-handling and shooting.
Soderberg admits to being “a little disappointed” that Jesperson is going so far from home to continue his career—but thrilled that he’s going to play for Bennett.
“I can’t wait,” Soderberg said. “I just can’t wait. I’ve looked at plane tickets to get out there.”
Jesperson said the facilities at Virginia were the most impressive he’d seen in numerous college visits, but the idea of playing for Bennett played a major role in his decision.
“He’s a great guy,” Jesperson said. “He’s a guy I feel like I could talk to about anything.”
Soderberg said Jesperson has “just started to scratch the surface” of his ability, and expects him to make an impact as a long-range shooter right away.
“He’s got crazy range, and he’s going to have a chance to show it,” Soderberg said.
Asked what it might be like to not be the main focus of opposing defenses every night, Jesperson laughed.
“That’d be a little bit of a break,” he said.