Zach Martinek's gaze shifted toward the ground. He pursed his lips before reciting the score.
The West Fork senior recalled, without hesitation, the score of the final game of his freshman season. The Warhawks, who were the top-ranked 1A team in Iowa in 2016, were 23-0 heading into their district final against Janesville. Martinek remembers how it went down, how he felt afterward and how it fueled him to elevate his game.
"I hate it," Martinek said. "I hate thinking about it ... Honestly, that night really just totally changed my basketball career. I hated the feeling of that."
Martinek, the eighth-leading scorer on the team during his freshman year, wasn't an integral piece of the then-undefeated Warhawks. But that didn't stop him from feeling the angst of a season that ended too quickly.
He didn't want to go to school the next day, but his mom made him.
Martinek remembers watching West Fork icons Seth Tuttle and Payton Plagge play in the state tournament, and he envisioned what that atmosphere and energy would feel like.
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With eight seniors departing from that 2015-16 team, Martinek knew he'd have an opportunity to take a leap forward as a sophomore. The thought of more touches and shots was intriguing. The thought of losing was fuel. Those thoughts drove Martinek and helped him morph into a player who has led the team in scoring three consecutive seasons, averaging at least 17 points per game since his sophomore year.
“He’s our offensive leader, he’s our floor leader, best free-throw shooter," West Fork coach Frank Schnoes said. "He’s the one who gives us the most experience. In close games, tight situations, we expect him to perform for us and take care of the basketball when we need it."
Martinek, a Morningside College commit, made only 10 of his 38 three-point attempts as a freshman. He had a Kevin Garnett-like jumper that saw the ball jut above and behind his head before shooting it. During the summer heading into his sophomore year, he refined his shot and began hitting the weight room. He attended open-gym sessions and put up shots with a shooting gun. The countless hours of practice and exercise turned him into a player capable of scoring from various spots on the court. Once a non-threat from beyond the arc, Martinek made 37 threes as a sophomore and 45 as a junior.
West Fork remained a formidable team, but despite Martinek's growth as a player, the heartbreak didn't stop. The Warhawks have been eliminated in the substate finals in each of the past two seasons. In 2017, their season ended against West Hancock, a team they had defeated by 17 points four weeks earlier. Don Bosco was the culprit in 2018.
Schnoes, Martinek and the rest of West Fork's squad are hoping those experiences aid their quest for a deep playoff run. Mitchell Halloran and Ian Latham, each of whom were top-five scorers for the team last season, return.
Seven seniors know this is their final shot to accomplish what has eluded them for so long. But if any team is prepared for the intense nature of the postseason, it's the Warhawks.
"I hope we get to state, but if we never do, I wouldn’t change it," Martinek said. "I wouldn’t wanna play for any other guys. I wouldn’t wanna play for any other coaches, and I wouldn’t wanna play in front of any other fans."