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Big men to decide big game

March 07, 2003|by DAN KAUFFMAN

kauffman@herald-mail.com

Jesse Gutekunst was a middle-schooler in 1999 when South Hagerstown beat Southern Garrett 54-53 for a Class 1A West regional championship.

Last year, Gutekunst was a backup on the Rebels' junior varisty squad and had already finished his season when South beat the Rams 63-62 for another regional title.

Today, Gutekunst - a 6-foot-7 junior - will be called on to play a leading role as the Rebels travel to Fort Hill for the second time in three days to face Southern in yet another regional final, with a trip to Comcast Center and the state semifinals at stake.

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"It's the biggest game of my life," Gutekunst said matter-of-factly, "and to add that it's Southern Garrett, and they have two or three big guys. ... In school today just thinking about it, I was getting nervous. (We're) playing in front of all those people, and we can't lose. And if we win, we get to go to Comcast, so it's a big game."

Gutekunst averaged 11.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots per game during the regular season, and had 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in Wednesday's regional semifinal victory over Allegany.

Now he'll face the challenge of Southern's Dennis Tressler, who averaged 22 points a game for the Rams and equaled that average in a dominating performance Wednesday against Smithsburg.

Tressler isn't the only inside presense Southern has. Nathan Fitzwater and Matt Stephens also provided points and rebounds against the Leopards - meaning Gutekunst has his hands full.

"We have to get him some help down inside," South coach Bob Starkey said. "He's got to keep them from getting second and third shots and getting easy layups inside, because that's how they killed Smithsburg."

"It's gonna have to be a team effort," senior Ben Mertz said. "He needs help, and that's where we all come in."

Today's regional championship features contrasting styles.

Southern runs its halfcourt offense patiently and precisely, taking few quick outside shots and working the ball inside. The Rams prefer a game in the 40s or 50s.

South wants to pressure the Rams' guards, create steals and get out in the open floor, where the Rebels' speed and athleticism will be tough for Southern to deal with.

"We're gonna have to play tough defense so we can get our transition game going," said David Miner - South's leading scorer, who averaged 23.2 points during the regular season and had 30 against Allegany.

A game in the 70s or 80s would strongly favor the Rebels, and they have plenty of weapons. Miner, Gutekunst, Mertz and Jamel Smith all averaged double figures in scoring this season, and South goes 11 deep off the bench, all of them capable of contributing.

"We've got some different weapons," Starkey said. "Miner always scores big, and everyone knows it. But (Wednesday) it was Jesse and (Brent) Shaffer. Against Clear Spring we got it out of Mertz and Smith. It's not like if you see us a couple of times, you have to stop this guy and this guy. That's not always the case."

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