A call here, a free throw there, or even just a smidge of favorable spin on the ball.
That’s all it would have taken for the Maquoketa Cardinals boys basketball team to have punched its ticket to next weekend’s state tournament.
After losing an absolute heartbreaker 41-38 Monday night to Marion in a substate game at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, the disappointment was palpable. When it was over, the players politely congratulated their counterparts from Marion and then quietly walked off the floor. The Maquoketa fans who had traveled more than an hour to support the Cardinals were silent.
After the game, Maquoketa’s head coach, Matt Hartman, said he wished he had managed the final minutes of the game differently. The Cardinals intentionally slowed the game down with a five-point lead and less than 3 minutes to play in an attempt to drain time from the clock. Marion’s defense desperately swarmed Maquoketa’s ball handlers, leading to turnovers. Add in a missed free throw by the Cardinals’ best shooter and a desperation shot at the buzzer that fell short, and you have a script no one wearing Maquoketa colors — players nor fans — wanted to see play out.
It was an unfortunate end to a great season — a season in which the Cardinals accomplished something far more important than their 20-3 record and a No. 1 ranking that stood for a few weeks in the middle of the season.
Maquoketa is a town where people are not afraid to have their own ideas, voice them openly, and sometimes politely disagree. Heck, sometimes the disagreements aren’t even that polite. That’s why this year’s varsity Maquoketa basketball teams (the girls team also enjoyed a winning season with a 14-8 record) were so special.
The boys team, especially, provided our town with a unifying, upbeat rallying point that was all positive. The Maquoketa High School gym was packed with excited and supportive fans for home games most of the season. Game after game, the place looked like a sea of red. Even the walkway around the top of the gym was so full that not a single spot along the rail was open.
People cared about this team because they were good. And they were good because for years this group of young guys dedicated a lot of effort to the game, and they are a likable bunch, too. It was easy to root for them.
I doubt that enough time has passed for them to fully appreciate what they accomplished this season. That will come into focus in time. For now, they are likely still thinking about the shot that didn’t go in or the turnover they wish they had not committed. But in the long run, none of that will matter — at least not very much.
What will be remembered is a great season in which Maquoketa flirted with going undefeated in the regular season while winning their first 14 games without a loss. Hopefully, the high character of this team will also be remembered.
The players and coaches showed class all season long. Hartman is a coach who stays under control and sets an example of good sportsmanship. His players did the same.
This was a team that got the ball to the open man and one that played to the strengths of each player. The bench, even those who rarely saw meaningful action, were enthusiastically supportive. It seems every member of the team had a meaningful role to play one way or another.
They never complained about officiating, and they were always openly supportive of each other.
Yes, they were a classy team that gave all of us Maquoketans something to feel good about at the same time.
While this team’s dream of playing for a state championship did not happen, some other important things did.
To all the players, coaches and fans who filled the gym, we say well done!
You made a difference to your community.