High school boys basketball

Furious second-half comeback, clutch Wirkala free throws lift Mariners

Oceanside earns important early-season, point-worthy victory over Messalonskee
By Ken Waltz | Jan 07, 2017
Photo by: Ken Waltz Oceanside's Cooper Wirkala, middle, heads to the hoop against two Messalonskee defenders during a Jan. 6 high school boys basketball game in Rockland. Wirkala played a key role in the Mariners' 54-52 win over the visiting Eagles.

Rockland — Even after a 5-1 start to the new campaign, veteran Oceanside boys basketball coach Matt Breen said his four-senior, five-junior, five-sophomore Mariners continued to search for their all-important "identity."

Well, there is nothing like adversity and an electric, playoff-feel in an early-season game to help a high school court squad — in this case, Breen's Mariners — find a key piece of that identity.

In the end Friday night, the Mariners demonstrated character, poise and a flair for the dramatic with a furious second-half comeback and, ultimately, a point-worthy, 54-52 win over Messalonskee of Oakland.

Click for photos from this game.

The victory propelled host Oceanside to second in Class A North, behind Midcoast-rival Medomak Valley (9-0), the only opponent to beat the Mariners this winter.

Medomak Valley and Oceanside played for the 2015-16 Class A North championship, as the Mariners moved on to the state final from that clash.

Perhaps another future high-stakes, postseason meeting between the neighboring Mariners and Panthers is in the future.

If that happens, the Mariners may look back and identify Jan. 6 as the date of the regular-season battle that helped them discover their identity — and the confidence needed to pull out victories no matter the situation.

In dramatic fashion, Cooper Wirkala, one of the sophomores on the transitioning Mariners, who lost a handful of key players to graduation last year, stepped to the foul line with 3/10ths of a second left in Friday's thrilling affair and, seemingly with ice in his veins, netted two free throws to propel the Mariners to the sweet victory.

Messalonskee led 14-12 and 33-20 at the first two breaks before the Mariners slowly, but surely, worked back into the game. The Eagles still led 45-40 after three stanzas, but the hosts outscored the visitors 14-7 over the final eight minutes for the sizzling, home crowd-pleasing victory.

'On your home court against a good team you want to defend it," Breen said. "It is good for us because we are still not really sure of what we are or where we are. When you have as many sophomores as we do, and only three or four guys who have seen a varsity court, we are still progressing and I happy with the progression, but we are still learning and growing as the season goes. This should give them some confidence."

Wirkala, a 6-foot 4-inch, inside-outside player, buoyed the Mariners with 20 points, including 17 in the second half and nine in the decisive fourth. He made 8-of-10 free throws (80 percent) overall, 7-of-8 (88 percent) in the second half and 5-of-6 (83 percent) in the final eight minutes — including the most important two points with less than a second left.

Wirkala said it was the best all-around game of his varsity hoop career.

The game was tied 52-52 when Messalonskee possessed the ball for a final shot, but missed and Wirkala secured the rebound with what appeared time left on the clock, but the final buzzer sounded.

In the frenzy of the final seconds, few saw Breen trying to call a timeout or heard the officials' whistle which signified Wirkala had been fouled rebounding the ball.

Thus, 3/10ths of a second were put back on the clock and Wirkala stepped to the line and calmly sank both free throws. Messalonskee's inbounds pass the length of a court, for a possible tying tip-in, was intercepted by Michael Norton Jr.

"I was pretty mad," Wirkala said, "because I thought [at first] they didn't call it, and then when they called [the foul] it was insane, it was just sick. I couldn't miss those ones because I had missed one of the ones before to win the game, so I had to hit those ones."

Ironically perhaps, Breen said he had the utmost confidence Wirkala would convert his foul shots under pressure, however, the coach actually wanted the young Mariner to miss the second free throw so that time would expire during the battle for the rebound.

Besides Wirkala, other Mariner offensive leaders were Nate Raye with 12 points; Josef Berger, eight; Amos Anderson, seven; Sam Atwood, five; and Norton, two.

The Mariners made 13-of-16 foul shots (81 percent) and Raye's three 3-pointers.

Wirkala said the win, and how it was achieved, will give the Mariners "postseason-like" experience and overall confidence. "This really felt good," he said.

In the second-half comeback, Raye tallied nine points, including two treys, and Berger six crucial points on slashes to the hoop.

Breen said it was nice to see other players, rather than the usual Norton and Atwood, step up with key efforts for the Mariners, none more important than a breakout performance from Wirkala.

'It has been different guys on different nights for us," Breen said, adding other "role" players stepped up. "I thought [Josef] Berger had a great second half for us. Coop obviously stepped up and played well. And Amos [Anderson] really gave us some great minutes in the first half. He was kind of the guy who kept us in it. It is nice to see some of these young guys stepping up. We are trying to get them in positions where they can succeed and where they can feel better about themselves and grow as the season goes along."

Wirkala (9 rebounds, 6 assists), Norton (7 rebounds, 6 steals), Raye (5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) and Berger (3 rebounds) also had strong statistical performances.

"We just spread the floor and we had confidence in ourselves," Wirkala said of the Mariners' second-half comeback. "The first half we were a little timid and we weren't playing great defense. In the second half we really played great defense."

"In the locker room at halftime, we all sort of got ourselves hyped up. We all just took the floor [for the second half] to get back that 13-point [deficit]. We just starting saying, 'Let's go. We have to start playing some [defense]. Take it to the basket and have confidence.' "

Wirkala said the Mariners hit a couple of shots early in the second half that gave them the confidence they could make the comeback.

Messalonskee (5-3, 7th in region) was led by Nate Violette with 18 points; Cole Wood and James Kouletsis, 10; Tucker Charles, six; and Dawson Charles, Trevor McCrey and Griffin Tuttle, two.

The Eagles converted 8-of-13 foul shots (62 percent) and four treys, two from Kouletsis and one from Tucker Charles and Violette.

Violette tallied 14 points in the first 16 minutes to help the visitors secure a 13-point halftime advantage.

"I thought in the first half we were really flat," Breen said. "We didn't come to compete. They won all the 50-50 balls and they were getting all the boards and we were just a step slow defensively, always out of position giving them good opportunities. At halftime we just talked about competing. As a high school athlete you live to compete. So let's go out and do it. They cranked up their level of intensity and we started winning some of those loose balls and we started to become more aggressive and we were the beneficiary of attacking them and getting some of the [foul] calls … It just came to the kids actually coming out and competing in the second half."

Oceanside finally tied the game 45-45 with 6:11 left in the fourth quarter as Raye converted a conventional three-point play.

The contest again was tied 47-47 before Kouletsis drilled a 3-pointer with 3:02 remaining to give Messalonskee a 50-47 cushion.

Wirkala netted two free throws with 2:25 left to bring the Mariners within 50-49 and he added another hoop with 1:45 remaining to give Oceanside a 51-50 edge. But the Eagles again scored with 40 seconds left to take a 52-51 lead.

Wirkala stepped to the line with 26.1 seconds left and made 1-of-2 free throws to knot the game 52-52. Messalonskee called a timeout with 10.3 seconds left to set up a final shot, but that attempt was missed and Wirkala secured the rebound that paved the way to the Mariner victory — and his clutch foul shots.

In the Maine Principals' Association Heal Point Standings for Class A North, Oceanside (6-1, 20.1235 points) is second, while Medomak Valley (9-0, 37.3457 points) is first in the 14-team region. The top 10 squads qualify for the playoffs.

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