End of the Road: Gibraltar Falls in Madison

Minutes after Gibraltar’s improbable run to Madison had come to an end, Coach Justin Burress took the podium and turned his thoughts off the court, where Gibraltar was overpowered by the Randolph Rockets 61-28 in the WIAA Division 5 state semifinal. 

He talked about the ethic of the community in which he coaches, his hometown, “where, when there’s tragedy and heartbreak, you see people come together.” For a few weeks in March, he was proud of his team for having done that. 

“It’s just been great to see the community come together for something positive,” he said. 

Burress said he was struggling to hold himself together, knowing he had just coached his final game and knowing his team didn’t go out how it had wanted. On this day, Gibraltar had no answers, and Randolph had them all, though they needed only one: Sam Grieger. 

Coach Justin Burress reflected on the positive after Saturday’s loss, including the way the community came together to support the team. Here Gibraltar students line the highway to send off the team on Thursday. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Grieger put on one of the greatest offensive performances in tournament history, breaking Sam Dekker’s tournament record with 41 points, a career high. 

“I think you could say I got into a zone,” he said. “My coaches and my teammates just told me to keep shooting.”

He made 16 of 23 shots – an astonishing 70% clip – including two 3-pointers and seven of eight free throws. 

Gibraltar held its own in the early going, playing controlled on the offensive end and getting touches to big men Trevor Ash (7′ 0″) and Will Friedenfels (6′ 7″). An emphatic dunk by Ash with 12:50 to play made it 7-6, and a nice entry from Braden Sitte to Jake Schar netted an easy bucket to make it 9-8. But Grieger was just getting started. 

The lanky senior guard shook off a couple of early misses to put on an offensive clinic on his way to 23 first-half points on 10-for-15 shooting. He challenged Gibraltar’s bigs inside, driving right at the Vikings’ length. Ash blocked three first-half shots and altered others, but Grieger came away with rebounds and easy put-backs. 

Gibraltar didn’t have the strength to match up with the massive Travis Alvin (24) of Randolph. Alvin scored 13 points. Photo by Christine Nesheim.

Stopping Grieger was made more difficult by the presence of 6′ 6″ Travis Alvin, whose quads give Packers running back AJ Dillon a run for his money. But Alvin is more than big. His quick feet stymied Gibraltar’s own twin towers, and when Grieger wasn’t scorching the net, Alvin was coming easy work inside. He scored nine of his 13 points in the first half. Randolph players not named Alvin and Grieger scored just seven points. 

On the other end, Gibraltar’s well went dry. After pulling within 12-10 on a Will Friedenfels layup, the Vikings went scoreless over the final 10:12 of the half, turning the ball over six times and struggling to find any rhythm inside as Alvin and 6′ 4″ Ben Nieman used their size to keep Gibraltar’s bigs from getting any easy looks. Gibraltar was unable to get good looks for Lindenberg, who scored four points on six first-half shots, facing double teams from Randolph’s wings. 

“They played great help defense, made for tough driving lanes,” Lindenberg said. “And the shots weren’t falling.”

Burress said the Vikings have rarely trailed by more than six points all season, and the surge by Grieger was overwhelming. He grew more comfortable, expanding his game, using floaters and silky pull-up jumpers to dominate the remainder of the half, capping it off with a buzzer-beating three to give Randolph a commanding 34-10 lead. 

Sam Lindenberg found little room to maneuver against the help defense of Randolph. Photo by Christine Nesheim.

The game plan for the Vikings on the Kohl Center court, which is 10 feet longer than any court the team had played on, was to lay off their usual pressure defense – something Burress second-guessed after the game. 

“Maybe that was a mistake because it slowed our pace,” he said. 

They scrapped with pressure in the second half, but it was too little, too late.

After a nine-year absence, Randolph returns to its customary place in the state championship game Saturday, where it’ll play for its 11th gold ball.

Trevor Ash led the Vikings with six points, while Lindenberg scored five to bring his career total to 1,123: good for 12th in county history. 

After the game, Burress fought back tears when asked whether he would stick to his plan to step down from the job he’s held for seven years. 

“At the beginning of the season, I told them I was giving them everything I could for the next four months,” he said. “And I was just asking for the same thing in return, and they gave that to me. They played with heart. They didn’t want it to end.”

But Burress, who teaches in Gibraltar’s elementary school and has three young daughters, said he has other coaching ahead. 

“I want to help raise my three daughters the way they should be raised and give them more time,” he said. “This is a lot of commitment. I’ve given everything I can to this game, and I want to make sure I can give everything I can to my family and the school district in other ways.”

Burress’ final Vikings team finished the season 19-11, setting a school record for wins, and its members go home knowing they set a community on fire, made the gray doldrums of March in northern Door County as bright as they’ve ever been and put Gibraltar’s name in the WIAA history books. 

Gibraltar comes together before taking the floor for the school’s first ever WIAA state tournament appearance at the Kohl Center in Madison March 18. Photo by Christine Nesheim.

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