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Memorial found success with new core

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Mar. 18—Chad Brieske wasn’t just replacing a few pieces on the Eau Claire Memorial boys basketball team this winter. He was close to replacing the entire rotation. It was a level of turnover he’s pretty sure he’s never experienced before.

It took some time to feel out roles — understandable normally, even more so given the limited offseason opportunities this year — but the Old Abes eventually established their identity. Brieske saw them embrace a team mentality, one that stands out for him among the groups he’s worked with in his career.

“I think when you look back and kind of reflect from a holistic perspective, I think we walk away from this season feeling pretty good about everything that we accomplished,” Brieske said. “Just getting the season started, in the Eau Claire district being the kind of first extracurriculars to go through protocols and establish how things were going to go this year, to then have success like we did on court, we feel really good about everything we accomplished this year and feel we took a big step forward.”

Eau Claire Memorial finished 13-9 overall and 6-6 in the Big Rivers, good for a tie for third place. When you look at their wins, the Abes have one of the more impressive resumes in the area. Among the triumphs are matchups with all three of the other four top teams in the Big Rivers: Hudson, River Falls and Chippewa Falls.

“We were obviously very excited about that,” Brieske said. “That was part of the process too, learning how to build on successes.”

Will Boser played a big part in making that happen, emerging as the team’s top scorer after previously serving as a reserve guard. He lit it up from 3-point range, leading the area with 74 makes. Nine of those came against Rice Lake, when he scored a career-high 35 points. If any Old Abe has hit that many 3’s in a game before, Brieske can’t find a record of it. Memorial had high expectations for him internally and he delivered.

“A lot of credit goes to him,” Brieske said. “He worked on his game really hard. Even with the whole COVID shutdown, he found ways to continue to grow his game. He allowed the time that he had to not just focus on the physical, which I thought he got better physically, but he really focused on the mental side of the game. I think that really showed with how he approached the game on a day-in, day-out basis.”

He averaged 20.7 points per game and helped space out the defense for the Old Abes in the paint.

Among that group was LJ Wells, who truly emerged on the scene with a monster showing in the team’s win against Chippewa Falls on Jan. 25. After previously topping out at 12 points, he exploded for 40 on 13 of 18 shooting from the field. From there, he scored in double digits in every game the rest of the way and put up a 20-point, 20-rebound performance against Tomah.

“We saw good things coming from him, but allowing him the time to develop at the right pace for his game I think allowed him to gain confidence,” Brieske said. “I think you could see that in each game. … He had to learn how good he was and how to play at this level. It was exciting to watch his development.”

Memorial prided itself on being a defense-first team, and Wells’ long reach and blocking ability helped make that possible. So did the efforts of Marco Ebeling, who was finally healthy after dealing with two years of injury.

“He oftentimes guarded either the opponent’s best guard or best post,” Brieske said.

Memorial graduates a senior class of eight consisting of Marco and Lucas Ebeling, Brock Johnson, Sam Klages, Andrew Southard, Carter Mangus, Landen Van Grunsven and Calvin Mestelle. Brieske has credited the class for helping create a positive culture.

To balance out the departures, Memorial will also be getting a big time player back. Mekhi Shaw tore his ACL in the fall, ending his junior season before it even began. Now the player who many expected to be the Old Abes’ top talent heading into the year gets to rejoin a newly established core.

Add in a sophomore class that showed real promise, too, and there will be high expectations at Memorial next year.

“The seniors were so important,” Brieske said. “Every day it was so fun to come to the gym because of the tone the seniors set, kind of being a family, working hard and yet understanding it’s a game, being grateful for the opportunity. … The positive side is this group really left a legacy. After the last game against North, a lot of the message from the underclassmen was about the seniors and how they showed them how to be a team.”

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