GREEN BAY — It only took a second for Dave Donarski to call himself out on his action.
“Why did I do this to myself?” the Aquinas High School girls basketball coach asked as he sat at a table with seniors Madessa Collins and Kyah Steiner and tried to stop himself from crying.
As exciting as a 68-52 win over Melrose-Mindoro and the WIAA Division 4 state championship that accompanied it was, the emotion that accompanied the season’s conclusion was tough to accept.
“I just want to end with this,” Donarski said as his time in the press room was coming to a close. “It’s really emotional to, uh, lose a group as great as these kids.”
Donarski’s eyes quickly turned into puddles, and Steiner pulled her jersey up to wipe her face. Collins warded off the tears when acknowledging the end of her playing career with such close friends earlier but wasn’t quite as effective this time.
The Blugolds spent the last several months making something very difficult look easy.
And they did it as a group that has been through a lot together. They played together when they were young, and played together as the grew up.
They traveled to play in tournaments together, winning some and losing some … together.
Donarski’s ties with this group go back nine or 10 years. His sophomore daughter, Lexi, has the same ties and will have to follow in her dad’s footsteps in making adjustment as she moves forward.
“It’s going to be weird,” she said of life without this senior class. “These are the girls I’ve played basketball with all my life.”
Lexi moved up a couple of grade levels to play with the seniors when younger, and she stuck with them. They taught each other things about the game and really learned how to make each piece of the puzzle as effective as can be.
They did all of that without ego.
Asked when the season began if there were enough minutes for the talent pool, players said there were. Some of them would be in new roles after losing last season’s state championship game, but they legitimately embraced them.
Senior Whittni Rezin shifted from the starting lineup to becoming a spark off the bench and found ways to contribute just she had before. She scored more than 10 points in a game 12 times and had 15 in a sectional final against Cambridge.
Rezin also contributed the same ways she had before as a rebounder and playmaker and played 18 minutes in Saturday’s championship game. She didn’t score, but she had three steals, two assists and didn’t turn the ball over once during a fast-paced game.
The way the returning seniors talked about playing for the team back in November played out over the next several months, and there they were with five double-figure scorers in a championship win over the Mustangs.
All of this probably sounds familiar to those associated with the team at Melrose-Mindoro. The Mustangs might not have a roster that is as deep, but it has a starting lineup that can match Aquinas in terms of talent.
The Mustangs have also played together for years, traveling to tournaments and working hard to become the first state champions in program history. They became state qualifiers for the first time this season and will try to take another step next year just like the Blugolds did this year.
That’s what they should be trying to do. The good thing is that they won’t sell themselves short on potential.
Melrose-Mindoro was confident that it could play with — and beat — the Blugolds on Saturday. It wasn’t arrogance, but an understanding of how good it can be.
Aquinas was one step away from winning last year and supplemented its talent with a bond that was predicated on winning. That was the focus the day after last season’s championship loss to Howards Grove.
On Saturday, they finally reached the end of the path that began that day.
“I knew I’d be super-excited to win a gold ball,” Collins said. “I also forgot that this would be the last game that I will play with some of these people ever again.
“Going through all of this with my teammates has been great.”