Marshall coach takes heat for stalling tactic

Tigers lose 17-4 to Waseca in girls sectional game

MARSHALL — Head coach Dan Westby is taking a lot of heat this week after having directed his Marshall Tiger basketball players to employ an exaggerated stalling tactic in the opening round of Section 2AAA action against the Waseca Bluejays on Tuesday evening.

The effort garnered state-wide attention and reignited debates over the need for shot clocks at the high-school level and whether or not excessive stalling constitutes unsportsmanlike behavior.

Ultimately, Marshall lost 17-4. In a post-game interview with Marshall Radio’s Dan Paluch, Westby said limiting possessions and spreading out the Waseca’s defense were part of the game plan.

“We came into the game saying, ‘Guys, we aren’t going to take anything but a layup or a wide-open three,” Westby said. “And uh, it was my decision and I’m sure there’s a lot of people not happy with the outcome of the game, but it’s a 13-point loss and it doesn’t matter if you lose 73-60 or 17-4. It’s still a 13-point loss.”

The Tigers had been previously defeated by the Bluejays on Jan. 20 (60-52) and Feb. 16 (54-37). In several comments that followed a Star Tribune article about the game, people suggested that the stalling tactic showed Westby’s lack of confidence in his players — the same players who helped build an 18-8 overall record leading up to the tournament contest.

“The coach must not have much faith in his preparation or his players,” one person commented. “Sends a real positive message to those ladies doesn’t it?”

Another individual had the opinion that Westby should have allowed the athletes to actually play basketball, stating that “This coach told his team they can’t compete and then didn’t let them compete.”

Westby defended his decision in the radio interview after the tournament game.

“We’d played this team a couple weeks ago and lost by 17 and I just felt that if we line up and went toe-to-toe with them all night long, that was going to be difficult for us,” Westby said. “I know there’s a lot of people upset about the way the game was played, but it is what it is. We made a decision, and the flip side of that is Waseca had opportunities to come out and get us and they chose not to do that either.”

Additional social media comments went further, suggesting that the stalling tactic was disrespectful — not only to the game of basketball, but to the players on the court as well. One person said it showed “incredibly poor sportsmanship by the Marshall head coach” and suggested that he re-watch the Minnesota State High School League’s “Why We Play” video and “take it more to heart this time.”

Another individual had this to say: “Marshall is a solid program with a long history of success, and I have admired and respected the way Dan Westby was able to get the most out of his players year after year. That respect was wiped out entirely by (Tuesday night’s) debacle. This strategy has no place in the game. Marshall was perfectly capable of beating Waseca using any number of legitimate strategic approaches. Going this route makes a mockery of the game, teaches his players all the wrong lessons and leaves the seniors with a horrible memory of their high school careers.”

The 10th-ranked Bluejays were up 7-0 midway through the first half when the Tigers started intentionally holding onto the ball. After Marshall’s lone senior, Hannah Meier, scored a basket a few seconds prior, Waseca took a 9-2 lead into halftime.

“We did have opportunities,” Westby said. “We had some opportunities to go to the basket in the first half, but we weren’t able to finish. There were times, despite the fact that we were holding the ball, that we turned over the ball. They would come out and pressure us a little bit and we turned it over. We had eight turnovers, and in a game like this, that’s just too many.”

Bluejay head coach Joan Conway told media that she and her team were caught off-guard by Marshall’s game plan, but that they were successfully able to adjust. Conway added that she never imagined a team down in points would resort to a stalling tactic.

As a team, Marshall connected on 2 of 9 shots from the field in the contest. One social media critic bluntly said, “You have no chance to win when you are behind and you still won’t shoot.”

While it’s easy to criticize anonymously or after the fact, a large number of comments following the Star Tribune article defended Westby’s strategic decision. Some said coaches are within their rights to implement a stall since there are no rules stating otherwise. One individual shared that “Marshall didn’t do this every single game. They tried it once, for a single-game strategy. It didn’t work. Lesson learned.”

Tom Critchley, a former boys head coach at Marshall High School, shared some comments online as well: “My guess is he thought Waseca would panic and come out and chase them, which would lead to layups and wide-open threes. Waseca just stayed back and did not guard the ball (at all), which resulted in the extended stall.”

MHS administrators were very supportive of the Tigers and of Westby personally.

“I know coach Westby well, as a person, educator and a coach,” Superintendent Scott Monson said. “I am confident that he and his coaching staff — like all of our coaches — worked hard to come up with a plan to put our student-athletes in the best possible position to be successful.”

MHS activities director Bruce Remme shared similar comments on Thursday.

“Dan is first-class in everything he does and he’s as competitive as any coach out there,” Remme said. “Our coaching staff works extremely hard to prepare our kids for all of our games. They put a lot of time into putting together a game plan to get our kids to advance to the next round. That’s what the bottom line is — that’s what it comes down to.”

Remme said Westby has been the girls head basketball coach for the past nine years, and since taking over, has recorded a 74-percent win percentage.

“In that time, we’ve averaged 21 wins a season and appeared in four state tournaments,” Remme said. “Dan has done a great job over the years of giving our kids an opportunity to compete at the highest level. Decisions made for Tuesday night were with that same intention.”

When asked for comments on Thursday, Westby said he has always stressed individual and team improvement throughout the season, but ultimately, teams are measured solely on advancement at tournament time. Based on that concept and after mulling over all of the statistics and viewing hours of film, Westby said he felt that shortening the game allowed Marshall the best chance of winning, especially since the game was being played in Waseca.

“Between our prior meetings, scouting them in person and collecting video, we had gathered data from nine of their games,” he said. “That’s a pretty good sample. In our two previous meetings this season with Waseca that both ended in losses for us, we tried a number of different things that didn’t work in our favor. It felt it was time to try something else.”

Westby said the coaching staff prepared their kids in practice for two different scenarios.

“The first being Waseca coming out and pressuring us, at which point we would try to penetrate and look to pass the ball to the perimeter for a three-point shot or get to the basketball and hopefully a layup,” Westby said. “The second being Waseca dropping back — at which time we would hold the ball. Both occurred, with the latter taking place far more often.”

At the 8-minute mark, Westby said he instructed the players to run their offense.

“From there, the two teams went up and down like we had in our previous two meetings,” he said.

For many aware of the unique matchup, the extremely slow-paced game brought back memories of Minnesota’s 2014 boys state semifinal game between Hopkins and Shakopee. Hopkins stalled for roughly three minutes in regulation and nearly all of the first, second and third overtime periods, eventually winning in the fourth overtime.

That contest also sparked conversations regarding the use of shot clocks for high school games.

“Have a 2-minute shot clock,” one person said. “Easier to administer and is strategically more interesting.”

Another individual said “coaches, players and fans would wonder why” Minnesota didn’t adopt the shot clock sooner since it makes for a better game. Some said shot clocks would be a “logistical nightmare,” especially for small schools who might struggle with funding or could have a difficult time finding additional personnel to help work the games.

One person commented that some states — currently, only 8 states have shot clocks at the high school level — have seen few benefits from adding a shot clock. Others were adamant that shot clocks were unnecessary because games like the one between Marshall and Waseca were rare.

Perhaps one individual said it best: “I guess the bottom line is if the strategy works and you win the game, the coach is a genius. If it fails and you lose, the coach is the worst and needs to be fired.”

Marshall had one senior — Hannah Meier — on this year’s team.

“I’ve made the comment to the kids that sometimes you have to make a decision and you have to live with it, and that’s what we’re doing,” Westby said. “I feel really bad for Hannah Meier, though. She’s not only had a great year, but great last year and a half. I think about midway through last season, Hannah made the decision to become a very good player and I think she’s done that.”

Westby added that Meier was the strength of their team inside.

“We’re certainly going to miss Hannah,” he said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who think we’re going to have a great team next year with just losing Hannah here at the end of the year, but she’s going to be tough to replace. We’ve got a number of kids that can fill that role, but it’s going to take some work on their part.”

Westby credited Waseca for its winning effort and noted that he’s hopeful that everyone involved — including himself — will be able to learn from the experience, but also move forward.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed that things didn’t work out (in the post-season),” Westby said. “The Waseca coaching staff contacted us later and said their players are fine with the game and I think our kids are ready to move on. We finished 18-9 this year after finishing 13-14 a year ago, so hopefully we’ll continue to improve.”