Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
Each year, I like to check in on the NCAA Division 1 men's basketball players from the state of Wisconsin and what role they're likely to play in the upcoming madness of March. Championship Week is upon as, and for my money, this time of year can be just as thrilling as the weeks that follow with the NCAA Tournament.
For those who may not dig the whole bracket thing, perhaps you need a rooting interest...
Ben Mills, Colorado (Arrowhead). Mills started his first game for the Buffs on national television against Arizona on Feb. 22, though his team had back-to-back losses heading into battles with Stanford and Cal to close the year. The senior sees the floor 4.2 minutes per game, and the Buffaloes (20-9) should find a date for the Big Dance, though it could be close.
DJ Mlachnik, Massachusetts Lowell (St. John's Northwestern). Once part of the SJNMA undergraduate and post-graduate team, Mlachnik has gone on to score 7.8 points per game and average 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in his sophomore season for the River Hawks, at 10-18 and fifth in the America East.
Charles Rushman, UNLV (Arrowhead). Rushman has seen action in 11 games this year for the third-place team in the Mountain West (19-10). The league tournament runs from March 12-15.
J.P. Tokoto, North Carolina (Menomonee Falls). Seeing 28.5 minutes per game, the sophomore has scored 9.4 points and 5.8 rebounds, with 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game as the Tar Heels have emerged from a 1-4 start in league play into the No. 3 team in the Atlantic Coast Conference (23-7 overall). It's been a huge step forward for the heralded local star. (Pictured at left).
Tanner Plomb, Army (East Troy). Plomb, listed from Mukwonago, is just a sophomore but sits second on the team in scoring (10.4 ppg) for the fifth-place team in the Patriot League (14-15). The fifth-seeded Black Knights were slated to face fourth-seeded Bucknell on Wednesday, with the winner possibly meeting top seed Boston University.
T.J. Bray and Jimmy Sherburne, Princeton (Catholic Memorial and Whitefish Bay). Bray is having a great senior season, with 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, flashing the skills that made him Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin. Sherburne sees about 20 minutes per game, but the end of the road is coming for the Tigers, who are fifth in the Ivy League (17-8), and do not have a conference-tournament bid available to them. Bray was recently named the Ivy League Player of the Week.
Troy Huff, North Dakota (Brookfield Academy). The senior leads the team with 19.4 points per game and is the star for a team that stands at 14-14 but tied for second in the Big Sky Conference. The tournament runs March 13-15.
Wisconsin players: Aaron Moesch (Green Bay Southwest), Josh Gasser (Port Washington), Evan Anderson (Eau Claire North), Sam Dekker (Sheboygan Area Lutheran), Bronson Koenig (LaCrosse Aquinas), Zak Showalter (Germantown) Dekker (pictured at right), who once delivered a state-tournament performance that will forever be etched in legend, has been one of the top players on a balanced team that has been ranked as high as No. 3 in the national rankings and currently resides in the top 10. This could very well be the best team in coach Bo Ryan's superb tenure, and it's young enough to sustain this level of success. Koenig has been very promising as a freshman after winning last year's state title. Showalter is taking a redshirt and will be a sophomore next year.
Marquette players: Duane Wilson (Dominican), Jake Thomas (Racine St. Catherine), Deonte Burton (Milwaukee Vincent), Luke Fischer (Germantown), Jamil Wilson (Racine Horlick). Jamil Wilson (11.8 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Thomas (8.0 points) are two of the top members in the rotation, while Burton has looked good at times in his freshman season. Duane Wilson and Fischer will both suit up for the first time next year after redshirts.
UW-Milwaukee players: Kyle Kelm (Randolph), Connor Weas (Whitefish Bay), Trinson White (Milwaukee Riverside), Mitch Roelke (Germantown), Dan Studer (Germantown), JJ Panoske (Brodhead-Juda), Steve McWhorter (Racine St. Catherine), Austin Arians (Madison Edgewood), Brett Prahl (East Troy), Alex Prahl (East Troy), Cody Wichmann (Pulaski), Evan Richard (Cuba City), Quinton Gustavson (Racine Case). Kelm is the team's second leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, and Arians and McWhorter are both starters for the Panthers (18-13), which defeated Detroit in Horizon tournament play Tuesday night and advanced to face Valparaiso on Friday.
UW-Green Bay players: Turner Botz (Little Chute), Jordan Fouse (Racine St. Catherine), Carrington Love (Pius), Kenneth Lowe (Little Chute). Love brings in 7.8 points per game for the Horizon League champions (24-5), who will be playing at home in the tourney semifinals Saturday and possibly the conference championship Tuesday. Fouse made the league's All-Defensive team.
Good chance to dance
Jake Barnett, St. Louis (Wauwatosa East). Barnett (4.9 ppg) is one of the senior leaders for a Billikens team that has been ranked pretty much all year, now at 25-4 and first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference. (Pictured, No. 30)
Jameel McKay and Matt Thomas, Iowa State (Milwaukee Pulaski and Onalaska). The freshman Thomas averages 6.4 points per game and has appeared in every game for the Cyclones, at 22-6 and second place in the Big 12, with a chance to be a No. 3 or No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. McKay transferred from Marquette at mid-season and will be eligible midway through next season.
Phillip Nolan, Connecticut (Milwaukee Riverside). The sophomore Nolan sees about 14 minutes per game for the Huskies, at 23-6, fourth in the American Athletic Conference and probably heading toward the NCAA tournament.
Toby Hegner, Creighton (Berlin). Redshirting. Creighton has made its presence felt in the new-look Big East, at 23-6 and second in league play.
Drew Windler, Belmont (South Milwaukee). The team's fourth-leading scorer (10.0 ppg) has been part of a team that owns a 23-8 record, good for first place in the Ohio Valley. The Bruins have only been in the Ohio Valley two years but have titles both times, and they'll get a free pass to the March 7 semifinals. Murray State could be waiting in the championship game March 8.
Jakob Gollon, Mercer (Stevens Point). Scoring 7.3 points and adding 4.5 rebounds per game, Gollon has been a contributor to the Atlantic Sun co-champion Bears (23-8), who began tournament play March 4 and could play in the March 9 championship game on ESPN2. He was recently named the league's Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Carlin Dupree, North Dakota (Milwaukee Bay View). The Bison, standing at first place in the Summit League (23-6), also feature Joel Lindberg of Superior and Chris Kading and Brett VandenBergh of De Pere, as well as former SJNMA post-graduate player Lawrence Alexander. The latter is the biggest contributor at 11.3 points per game, while Dupree sees 8.2 minutes per game. The Bison are automatically into the semis of the tournament and will play March 10, with the title game March 11.
Josh Cameron, Coastal Carolina (Racine Park). Junior is team's third-leading scorer, and Coastal Carolina (18-12) sits first in the Big South, South Division. The Chanticleers have the No. 1 seed in their half of the bracket and will play Friday, with the title game March 9 on ESPN2.
Luke Worthington, BYU (Homestead). Freshman has appeared in 27 games this season and averaged 1.1 points per game for 21-10 Cougars, sitting second in the West Coast Conference. BYU was scheduled to face either Portland or Loyola Marymount on March 8 in the league tourney in Las Vegas.
Charlie Lee, Cleveland State (Milwaukee Hamilton). Junior starting point guard has seen the floor in all but three games this season for the Vikings (21-10), which sit second in the Horizon League and have a very real chance at winning the tourney crown. Averages 9.6 points and team-best 4.0 assists per game.
Chip Rank, Northern Iowa (Cedarburg). The Panthers are 16-14, third in the Missouri Valley, and Rank posts 5.3 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. The team also includes Paul Jespersen (Merrill), who transferred from Virginia, and redshirting Bennett Koch (Ashwabenon). Anyone who wins the Missouri Valley title will need to get through undefeated Wichita State, and if that team is Northern Iowa, it would happen in the March 9 title game on CBS.
Elgin Cook, Oregon (Milwaukee Hamilton). The Ducks are 20-8, seventh in the Pac-12, and Cook sees 16.6 minutes per game, with 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds provided per contest. Oregon is one of those bubble teams heading into Championship Week. The 6-6 sophomore transferred in from Northwest Florida State JC.
Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee (Madison Memorial). The former Marquette recruit scores 10.3 points per game and hauls in 8.2 rebounds for the Volunteers, who need a strong late push to get off the bubble of the Big Dance. Maymon, a senior, stands 6-8.
Other D1 athletes
Matt Van Scyoc, Citadel (Green Lake); Antwon Oliver, Campbell (Racine Horlick); Jalen Riley, East Tennessee State (Racine Case); Jake Verhagen, Eastern Illinois (Appleton West); John Kopriva, George Washington (Marquette); Jamie Schneck, Hartford (Whitefish Bay); Scotty Tyler, Idaho State (Grafton); Nimrod Hilliard, Lamar (Madison East); Christian Griggs-Williams, Long Beach State (Nicolet); Jasen Baranowski, Minnesota (Green Bay Southwest); Flavien Davis, Montana State (Wisconsin Lutheran); Nick Fuller, Nebraska (Sun Prairie); Justin Simmons, Nebraska-Omaha (Milwaukee South); Darrell Bowie, Northern Illinois (Wauwatosa East); DeQuan Hicks, Northwestern State (Racine Park); David Jespersen, Pepperdine (Merrill); Joey Burbach, Rice (Port Washington); Calvin Godfrey, Southern (Milwaukee Career and Ed. Tech); Reid Koenen, Texas State (Racine Prairie)
If Mark Twain were here today, he might call golf a "long multi-faceted workout spoiled."
When Tiger Woods rose to prominence in professional golf, he brought with him a shift in perception of how a golfer should train. Slowly but surely, the idea that a golfer needs to be a full-fledged athlete has taken hold.
"For such a long time, the assumption is golf is for fat men who smoke cigars and drink whiskey," said Paul Mindel, the golf coach at National Golf Center in Big Bend. "No one even perceived them to be an athlete. Had this sort of training been around 20 years ago, we'd see so many more golfers as true athletes."
The training in question is engineered by the Titleist Performance Institute, essentially an academy of golf performance and development aimed at holistically training the next wave of golfers. Mindel has 16 young golfers participating in his program, working through golf-specific exercises. It also works as a feeder program for high-school golf.
Mukwonago High School golfers have taken an interest and participated in the workouts.
"It's pretty complicated to explain," said MHS senior Nick Pickering, a captain on the golf team. "I played basketball and football, so I've been in the weight room. Golf is a whole different thing, with tons of core strength, balancing, and balancing and core strength at the same time. There's a lot of rotation in your, hips and your upper body. Flexibility is huge, stretching before and after workouts. When I did it at first, I noticed that it's easy to watch, but when you do them, it's very hard. A lot of the workouts are really creative; I never would have thought of these."
Developed in 2003, TPI collected reams of data and developed workouts designed to enhance a golfer's athleticism and overall game. The program administers its philosophies through the "TPI Certified" program, to which National belongs
Part of the program is identifying the right "window" in a young golfer's life to best learn and enhance specific skills, with the idea of long-term athletic development to craft an elite golfer.
"A lot of kids so dialed in to their iPad or text or blog or electronics, kids are losing the ability to perform fundamental movement schools," Mindel said. "Running, jumping, skipping, throwing. They can't get the sports skills because they don't have foundation of movement skills."
Mindel said one client confided that his daughter sent 26,000 text messages in December. Golf, of course, provides a lifetime sport opportunity that combines a social aspect with exercise.
"One Mukwonago grandfather brought his grandson in for the first class and told me he was looking for a golf buddy," Mindel said. "The grandson is going to remember (playing golf with his grandpa) a lot more than that one extra soccer game. Not to minimize other sports, but the grandfather can't kick the soccer ball around with his grandson. From that standpoint, it can be passed on from generation to generation."
He's not the only one who is finding the usefulness of the program.
"This past summer our son Frankie approached me on wanting to play baseball with is little buddies in addition to golf," said one of Mindel's clients, Frank Mayer. "I spoke with his golf coach at the time and he really discouraged that he do both. He said that it could potentially screw up his golf swing and implied that he should specialize in golf already. Something about that didn't seem right to me, being that we played baseball in the backyard and Frankie had great eye-hand coordination and hit just about everything I threw at him.
"This idea of not playing both sports definitely didn't sit well with Frankie. This is one of the many reasons that I believe this is one of the best approaches to golf for our son, allowing him to develop himself as an athlete first and being encouraged to play other sports while layering in the golf skills. By being able to play whatever sports he wants he won't get burned out on golf and golf will be one of the many sports he plays."
Mindel said his program tries to cover all the bases, bringing in the golf coach at Carroll University to offer advice for families looking at playing opportunities in college and a mental skills coach to impart wisdom on that aspect of the game. He's teaching two classes for kids ages 6-17.
"There's definitely a big improvement; my swing is night and day from when I started," Pickering said. "My stability, my balance and posture … everything is better. I went to Florida earlier this year and played five rounds and really noticed the improvement."
Pickering ultimately gave up other sports at MHS to focus on golf for the final portion of his high-school career.
"I believe golf is a very athletic sport," he said. "Some might not think of themselves as athletes when they play golf, but it can be a very physically demanding sport. when they get to these workouts, they'll finally understand that. Tiger Words a freak athletically, Dustin Johnson is a freak athletically. To take their game to the next level, you nee to be working out. You can only get so far without doing anything."
Pictured: Performance coach Chris Wynn instructs young golfers on their form at the National Golf Center during their Academy of Golf Performance and Development. Photo submitted.
The popular adjective to describe Hailey Valleskey is "tough."
She hears it from many opposing wrestlers, those in the crowd and other coaches. It seems like an appropriate catch-all for those who see a girl in the unusual setting of the varsity wrestling mat.
"It makes me feel kind of special," Valleskey said of being the outlier. "I feel like I have to try twice as hard, though. If I don't succeed, I'm failing my family and the other girls out there coming up behind me. I guess that's a little stressful."
The freshman Valleskey made a choice that seldom presents itself to anyone, leaving the cheerleading team to join the Kettle Moraine wrestling program. She's always been involved in youth wrestling, competing alongside older brother Daulton (who won multiple varsity letters at KM in wrestling) and eighth-grade brother Dawson, but she was with the cheerleading squad during the football season before a time crunch with wrestling compelled her to pick one.
In the rare instance that a girl makes the varsity team, she's fairly likely to slot in at the smallest weight class, 106 pounds. But Valleskey competed at 126 pounds, where she finished 10-23 before bowing out at the regional last weekend.
"Guys are pretty buff; their upper body strength is tremendous, and I have to outlast them," she said. "The best chances were to outlast them and wrestle smart and take it in the end. Most of my wins (7) were pins, but the guys are getting better and better."
She passed her first test – twice. She won the wrestleoff for her spot on the team, then had to wrestle off again when another challenger returned from illness. She actually began the season at 132 before dropping down, and she held her own the whole way.
"Hailey's wrestling background and her understanding of basic positioning allowed her to compete for the varsity spot," KM coach Frank Cuda said. "I know that it was one of her goals to make varsity and she did earn it by winning the wrestle-off. We talked a lot in our wrestling room about being mentally tough and trying to wear down your opponent with basic moves and conditioning. Hailey's recipe for winning is to do just that. She uses the basics and keep the match close in the first two periods. In the matches she has won, she actually wears down her opponent in the third period. It is really awesome to watch and she has the ability to really electrify the gym when she is competing."
She's not the only female wrestler in the Classic 8 Conference.
'How much do you weigh?'
Katelyn Ostermann and Lindsay Schlehlein never saw the varsity mat for Arrowhead, but the duo enjoyed an intriguing career arc, beginning the year as team managers.
"It started out as sort of a fun thing to talk about, that the coaches wanted someone smaller to wrestle at 106 so they wouldn't have to forfeit," Ostermann said. "I was small enough, so they asked me if I wanted to do it. Lindsay was one of my closest friends, and she had wrestled before, so she said she would do it with me. I had always watched it and thought it would be pretty cool."
Schlehlein hadn't wrestled for a couple years, but she was eager to try again.
"I was all for the idea and Katelyn didn't want to do it alone," Schlehlein said. "It was really nerve-racking. It kind of helps when you're JV that not everyone is paying attention. It's not like all the pressure is on. It's exciting at the same time."
The two combined for just one JV win this season ("At first I didn't even know I had won, but it was really exciting," Ostermann said), but their willingness impressed Arrowhead coach Jeremy Miller.
"After you go around the school, literally posting 'wanted' flyers … we just nonchalantly went to them and said, 'How much do you weigh?'" Miller said with a laugh. "Fortunately, they were pretty good natured. You can go through the halls and hear every single excuse in the book, and here's our managers willing to step up. It showed a lot of courage on their part."
Miller's team of coaches were suddenly tasked with teaching the basics of wrestling in a crash course.
"You can't stop everything and start on day one when you have guys who have put in a lot of time and are on a whole other level," Miller said. "At the same time, I'm blessed with having good assistant coaches and pretty good camaraderie in this group. There are enough people who can help along the way. The sport, whether you're a guy, girl, have a lot of experience or very little. … When you're thrown into the fire, you're thrown into the fire. You're going to accept the challenge and work through it."
Miller admitted there's a natural hesitancy for opponents, though everyone involved said teammates were overwhelmingly supportive of their female counterparts.
"Old school traditions teach you to treat girls a certain way," Miller said. "But I wouldn't expect them to be treated any different, and they don't expect to be treated differently. If they're going to accept the challenge, I expect them to rise to it."
If they continue onward and reach the varsity level, they'll get a chance to reach the bar set by Valleskey. She said several girls had joined the club where she was competing in middle school after she developed into a strong wrestler.
"Most of the mothers and women in the crowd will come up to me (at competitions), and they'll say, 'This is my daughter and we've been watching you,' That's pretty cool."
She said her Kettle Moraine teammates have been nothing but supportive.
"It's like having 20 big brothers; they're really great," she said. "They didn't make me feel awkward or different in any way."
She eventually hopes to drop down and compete at 113.
"It take a lot of commitment and eating healthy, but that's where I'd like to be," she said. "But wherever the guys are (in the lineup), I'll gain or lose to help the team."
And the real question: could she top her older brother?
"This is his second year of college and he's getting a little lethargic," she said with a laugh. "But he still weighs more than me."
Pictured: Kettle Moraine wrestler Hailey Valleskey wins by pin over Catholic Memorial wrestler Rich Urich during Classic 8 Conference wrestling at Kettle Moraine on Feb. 8. Photo by Carol Spaeth-Bauer.
We've reached the playoff season in the 2013-14 winter, and there are plenty of interesting questions to ask as it relates to Lake Country teams. Take a look at some of the interesting curiosities out there as we coast through the latter half of February and into March:
Will the 2-seed give KM/Mukwonago/OHS better luck than the 1-seed?
The Kettle Moraine/Mukwonago/Oconomowoc boys hockey team has been hit with some heartbreak the past two seasons, with a 3-2 loss in overtime to Whitefish Bay in the sectional semifinal last year and a 3-2 loss to Marquette in the preceding year's sectional final.
On both occasions, KM/Mukwonago was the top seed. This time around, the Lasers are No. 2, with Waukesha holding the No. 1 standing. Waukesha defeated the Lasers on Jan. 30, 3-0, but that's KM's only non-victory in a stretch of six games heading into the season finale Feb. 15. The team has come a long way since starting the year 0-4-1 and could crack through to Madison for the first time since 2007.
Can anyone beat Germantown boys basketball?
A loaded corner of the boys basketball sectional bracket features Kettle Moraine, Arrowhead and Sussex Hamilton, though Germantown remains the top dog. The two-time defending state champion has lost twice this year, but both to teams that could contend for their own state titles (Brookfield Central, Wisconsin Lutheran), and the latter loss came with a number of suspended players who will be back on the floor for the playoffs.
Do those games offer enough of a blueprint for one of the area teams to top Germantown? The Lasers looked poised to take the No. 2 seed, and Arrowhead figures in around No. 4, and both have the talent to make a state run. As an aside, the volume of talent in Arrowhead's sophomore class should make the Warhawks a serious player going forward, especially once Germantown graduates a bevy of seniors.
Can Pewaukee or Arrowhead knock off their own top challengers on the girls side?
The Pewaukee basketball team held the No. 1 ranking in Division 2 for a while, and the Arrowhead girls have been as high as fourth. Both could easily get to the state tournament; the problem is that two of the state's very elite stand in the way. The Pirates, whose lone loss came to Pius XI, would need to get through the Popes again to make state, and Arrowhead would have to top undefeated and top-ranked Kimberly.
Arrowhead did shock Kimberly last year on a last-second buzzer beater to reach the state tourney. This year's Arrowhead team is even better from a talent standpoint, but so is Kimberly. Pewaukee has been one of the area's foremost programs for years and may have its best squad yet in 2013-14, but the Pirates have never played at the state tournament. They get another tuneup against Pius on Feb. 21.
Just how good is Pewaukee wrestling?
The Pirates are a clear favorite to win their own team wrestling sectional Tuesday (assuming they make it out of the Saturday regional at PHS, though that should also be theirs to lose). The dual-meet format Tuesday actually seems like a better fit for Pewaukee, which has talented wrestlers at all 14 flights even if it doesn't have the "hammers" that many other top programs boast (though several could compete for state titles, such as freshman Jacob Raschka, senior Garrett Shibilski, junior Isaac Lodise and senior Rajiv Geffert).
It's hard to accurately gauge wrestling teams from the area that fall below D1, with only limited competition against schools of those size during the season. It seems safe to say that the Pirates, ranked sixth in Division 2, are easily among the best in the state. What we don't know is just how well the Pirates could give a team like Ellsworth (No. 1 in D2) a run for their money. A potential semifinal meeting with Ellsworth could be one of the great opportunities in Pewaukee High School sports history.
How close is Oconomowoc wrestling to another title?
The Raccoons wrestling program has had its fair share of tradition but has only two state champions since 1991 and the last one in 2005 (Brad Blersch). Injuries have taken returning state placefinishers Nick Gomez and Logan Ballering out of commission, but a pair of rising stars have taken center stage this year for Oconomowoc and helped the team secure a second straight dual-meet title in the Wisconsin Little Ten, plus a tournament title.
Sophomore heavyweight Brett Samson was ranked No. 4 in the Feb. 6 round of rankings produced by Wisconsin Wrestling Online, and junior Richard Kuehl was slotted seventh at 195. Both seem like surefire bets to at least get to state, and both should be in serious contention for a spot on the podium. The question is: how high on that podium will they go?
Can the Mukwonago boys make another run?
The Mukwonago boys basketball team doesn't have the loaded corridor of the bracket that many of its Classic 8 brethren have in Division 1, and though the teams have better records than they did last year, the Indians (13-7) still look like the No. 1 seed in their field, followed by Beloit Memorial (11-8), Janesville Craig (10-8) and Kenosha Tremper (9-9).
Consider that Mukwonago went 3-3 without returning top scorer and rebounder Dominic Cizauskas, who is now back with the team, and it would shock nobody to see MHS get all the way to yet another sectional final. The returning state runner-up would have to beat a very good team there, possibly Madison Memorial (16-3) again, but anything can happen at that stage of the tournament.
For that matter, the Mukwonago girls (another returning state runner-up) shouldn't be counted out, either. At 12-6, they fall somewhere in the middle of the records in their quadrant, with Badger (14-3), Craig (14-4), Tremper (13-7) and Janesville Parker (10-9) the teams to watch.
Can local gymnasts navigate a brutal sectional?
The Mukwonago/Kettle Moraine/East Troy gymnastics team has traditionally been one of the five best in the state. The problem is that only two teams get tickets to state from the Burlington sectional, a grouping that routinely features the state's elite.
The Franklin and Burlington co-ops have taken the top two spots in the 10-team state meet the last three years, and they took second and third in 2009. In each of the past three years, the Indians have finished third behind those two at the sectional. Safe to say, if a squad can sneak into the top two at that loaded sectional, it will be one of the favorites to win the whole thing.
Arrowhead, which does not have to face the same sectional, could also contend for the title.
Pictured: Pewaukee girls basketball coach Todd Hansen (photo by Scott Ash).
The wrestling postseason offers some pretty great drama, from the winner-take-all wrestleback round of the sectional, the ebbs and flows of a team sectional and the unparalleled March of Champions preceding the individual state finals at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Plenty of area wrestlers will have their chance to compete for spots atop the podium this winter. Rankings listed below reflect the Wisconsin Wrestling Online rankings as of Jan. 29. In the Lake Country Publications sphere, top wrestlers include:
Nathan Smith, Mukwonago (113 pounds). Smith was very good as a freshman, but he has lunged forward as a sophomore, now ranked No. 2 in his flight. His lone loss this season came to Paul Bianchi of Two Rivers, the No. 1 ranked wrestler at 106 pounds in Division 2. Two of his biggest showings include a tech fall victory over Drew Fjoser of Sauk Prairie, ranked No. 4, and a major decision over Anthony Senthavisouk of Whitnall, ranked No. 6. He has four times as many pins (20) as wins by mere decision (5) in 36 victories.
Logan Ballering, Oconomowoc (160 pounds). Ballering has been out of competition with injury for much of the season, but to demonstrate the level of respect the state's wrestling community still has for his talents, he remains ranked fifth in Division 1. The two-time state qualifier landed on the podium last year and should still be back for the home stretch in his senior year, but it's hard to know how much time lost from the injury will impact him in the tournament series. One advantage is the dearth of state-ranked 160 pounders in Oconomowoc's sectional (Matt Blome of Mount Horeb/Barneveld is the lone exception, ranked 12th), but it's hard to have a firm handle on the sectional picture with athletes still able to move weight classes.
Richard Kuehl, Oconomowoc (195 pounds). The junior big man has been dominant most of the season, with his one loss coming against Wesley Schultz of Sun Prairie (ranked No. 2 at 195) – a wrestler he could see again in both the regional and sectional. Kuehl does have a pin against the 10th ranked wrestler in his group, and honorable-mention Dylan Linhart from Elkhorn appears to be the top competition in the sectional capable of taking a state spot from Schultz or Kuehl at this point.
Brett Samson, Oconomowoc (heavyweight). Seldom do freshmen have as much success at the upper weights as Samson did last year, when he qualified for state at 195, and seldom do sophomores thrive at heavyweight. But ranked No. 4, he's one of only two non-seniors in the top 11 (and one of only two sophomores mentioned at all in the rankings). He's beaten the No. 8, 9 and 10 wrestlers in his group, though one of those wins came by injury default. For now, he looks like the undisputed favorite in his sectional.
Jacob Raschka, Pewaukee (152 pounds). Speaking of freshmen thriving at the upper weights, Jacob Raschka has been a revelation for a Pirates team that might have its most dominant unit ever. The team is characterized by a solid 14 weights and not necessarily by the hammers at the top, but Raschka has been the closest thing to that with his No. 6 ranking in the state. His three losses came against the No. 2 ranked 145-pounder in Division 2 and two top-five wrestlers in Division 1 at 152. He has a number of wins over ranked D1 wrestlers and one over the No. 7 wrestler in D2. There is only one other freshman – an honorable-mention selection at 195 – mentioned anywhere at 152 or higher in Division 2.
Isaac Lodise, Pewaukee (126 pounds). The junior has also been a key part of the Pewaukee surge. He lost by two points to the No. 3 wrestler in his group, where Lodise himself is ranked No. 6, and he defeated both wrestlers ranked immediately behind him during the Wisconsin Rapids Duals earlier this year. He'll potentially battle No. 5 Cody Chelminak of Delavan-Darien at the sectional, as the two are the top-ranked grapplers in the field at Waupun.
Tommy Kolasinski, Mukwonago (152 pounds). The two-time state qualifier dropped midway through the year from 160 pounds, and the senior is ranked seventh there. Josh Dempsey of Brookfield East (ranked eighth) could be one of the biggest challenges in the sectional, with Jordan Yatchak of Waukesha South also in the mix.
Team outlook. Things stack up favorably for Mukwonago and Pewaukee as it relates to the team competition.
Pewaukee (ranked No. 6 in team rankings) will be the runaway favorite in its sectional. After a dominant run to the Woodland title, the Pirates are the only team ranked in the top 10 in any of the four regionals feeding into the Waupun sectional, and Sheboygan Falls is the only honorable-mention team therein. The team would, however, faceoff in the regional with Wisconsin Lutheran, a squad that has impressive dual wins over Oconomowoc and West Allis Hale on its resume. Pewaukee will host the team sectional Feb. 18.
Mukwonago finds itself in a wide-open sectional, with no ranked teams embedded in either regional. There's a chance Mukwonago could rematch with West Allis Central, a team-sectional meeting that went to Mukwonago last year, 38-21. Moreover, Mukwonago would get to host the team sectional Feb. 18. Central defeated Mukwonago earlier this year, 40-25, but it was a close match in which Mukwonago was missing heavyweight Charlie Younger (honorable mention in state rankings), and WAC staged a pin after Mukwonago took a double-digit lead in the same bout. West Allis Hale is also a threat, and Hale defeated Central earlier this year in Greater Metro competition, 35-28.
Oconomowoc will have a shot in its sectional but must get past Stoughton (No. 8) in the regional and Milton (No. 7) in the sectional. The Raccoons have been hit by injuries this year but still won the Wisconsin Little Ten dual-meet title with an undefeated record for the second straight year. Nick Gomez, who finished on the podium last year, likely won't be back, but coach Steve Olson is still optimistic that returning state placefinisher Logan Ballering will return from injury.
Others to know: Rajiv Geffert, Pewaukee (106), Aidan Yde, Arrowhead (120), Darius Schwartz, Mukwonago (126), Kelvin Yde, Arrowhead (132), Garrett Shibilski, Pewaukee (145), Austin Yde, Arrowhead (152), Joe Nettesheim, Oconomowoc (182), Noah Martinez, Kettle Moraine (220), Jacob Roseland, Pewaukee (220), Charlie Younger, Mukwonago (heavyweight).
Pictured: Nathan Smith of Mukwonago (photo by Russ Pulvermacher)
The only reason to talk about Omaha is to talk about Creighton's men's basketball team.
The BlueJays, fronted by Naismith Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott, has been sensational this year and looks like a bona fide threat to win the Big East, in its first year under a new format. McDermott scored 39 points on Tuesday and hit a game-winning shot to beat St. John's.
But because we've reached that silly point in the NFL season where there are more hours to talk about the sport than storylines, "Omaha" instead is the much-ballyhooed word Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning uses during his cadence at the line of scrimmage. I'm dumbfounded why this has become such a thing. It was a cute side story for a while, but it's grown tiresome and emblematic of what kind of coverage we can expect in the long two-week ramp up to the Super Bowl.
Cold weather! Richard Sherman! Peyton playing in brother Eli's hometown! All mostly nonsense.
When the Seahawks and Broncos square off Sunday, all of that gets put to rest, but it also brings an eventful 2013-14 season to a close. When I look back, this is what I'll see:
He's got Cobb
Sure, it's disappointing that the Packers didn't fare better and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers, but it's rare when a regular-season victory actually makes the entire season feel like a success. When the Packers beat the Bears on a dramatic late touchdown from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb, that felt like a winning achievement to me.
We'll remember that Rodgers was hurt, missing half the season, and we'll probably remember the improbable comeback win over Dallas, not to mention the tie against Minnesota and close win over Atlanta engineered by Matt Flynn to keep playoff hopes alive. We'll remember that Cobb was also hurt for the bulk of the season, and yet both players were back just in time to deliver the biggest play of the year, clinching the NFC North and sending the Bears packing.
I know it seems to many like a wasted triumph because it didn't lead to a postseason run, and I frequently take no joy in victories that ultimately lead nowhere. But that was just too special a moment. It will rank as one of the 10 best sports moments I've experienced as a spectator when my sports-watching career is over.
What a huge year for Arrowhead High School graduate Nick Hayden.
Hayden played sparingly for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 and was waived in the 2012 preseason, then didn't latch on with a team until the Dallas Cowboys signed him at the start of 2013. Perhaps it looked like his career was in jeopardy, but that didn't prove to be the case.
After Jay Ratliff was placed on the PUP list to start the year, America's Team needed a defensive tackle. Hayden started all 16 games for the Cowboys, recording a career-high in tackles and even recovering a fumble for a touchdown in a 27-23 win over the Vikings.
It was a trying year for former Pewaukee star J.J. Watt, one of the most popular players in the NFL, when the Houston Texans went on a long losing skid and finished the year just 2-14. But Watt still racked up more than 10 sacks, forced four fumbles and deflected seven passes, and he was named a team captain in the Pro Bowl for "Team Sanders."
Before the season, NFL.com ranked its top 100 players in the league, and Watt came in at No. 5 — ahead of Aaron Rodgers and every other defensive player in the league. His jersey sales are in the top 10 among NFL players, and he's blossomed into one of the faces of the league. Pretty impressive for a kid who took a scholarship to play tight end at Central Michigan after leaving Pewaukee High School.
When I grew up, I never looked forward to the Super Bowl. Why would I? It was always a coronation more than an actual competitive battle. From 1992 through 1997 (when the Packers beat the Patriots), every game could pretty much be called a blowout, won by the favored team.
But we haven't really had a boring Super Bowl since 2003, when the Buccaneers beat the Raiders by a 48-21 score. The league has given us this gift of parity, where not only can any team beat another on any given Sunday, but the biggest games of the year are quite often among the best.
(For this reason, I get irritated when fans start bemoaning the lack of success by Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, who have achieved remarkable maintenance of success in a league that practically forces you into a "down year" every few seasons.)
It's funny, because if the best four teams in Major League Baseball meet at the end of the season for the Championship Series, I would be bored. Blah blah blah, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Braves, Tigers (well, OK, I like the Tigers), Cardinals, etc. But give me the best four teams in the NFL like we had this year, and I'll take it every time (though I'd prefer the Packers be in the mix, obviously). The opportunity for drama is greater in the single-elimination setting, and it's simply just more interesting.
I expect the Broncos to beat the Seahawks, but the easier prediction is that one score will separate the winner from the runner-up, and that's all I want.
Pictured: Former Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson talks during the Jan. 28 Media Day leading up to the Super Bowl. Wilson is one of four former Badgers in game (joining teammates O'Brien Schofield and Chris Maragos, as well as Denver running back Montee Ball). At right: Former Arrowhead standout Nick Hayden tries to bring down Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy earlier this year.
As January hits the home stretch, we move closer to the WIAA basketball postseason, and area programs will have an opportunity to get to state. A look at the postseason outlook:
Last year's state runner-up, Mukwonago, had a favorable bracket layout, and that's true once again this year. We could very well see yet another meeting between Mukwonago and Madison Memorial in the sectional final after the two schools met the last two seasons with a state berth on the line. Last year, Mukwonago snapped Memorial's incredible run of nine straight tourney trips.
By Wednesday, only three teams had winning records in Mukwonago's half of the sectional: Mukwonago (10-5), Beloit Memorial (10-5) and Kenosha Tremper (8-5). The Big Eight Conference in Madison, which includes the vast majority of teams in the sectional, has been beaten up a little this year, and Beloit Memorial sits in second place in the conference with a 7-4 record. Two of those losses were lobsided setbacks to Madison Memorial (12-3) and another big loss to Sun Prairie (8-6), which might be the best competition for Madison Memorial in the top half of the bracket.
Tremper does have quality wins against strong programs in Kenosha St. Joseph and Racine St. Catherine, though both are smaller schools. Several teams in Mukwonago's half of the regional were hovering near .500 by Wednesday, including Badger (5-6), Janesville Craig (7-7) and Kenosha Indian Trail (7-7). Craig's win over Sun Prairie might be the most quality victory obtained by those three teams.
In the top half of the bracket, Oconomowoc (2-9) will have its work cut out for it as the team with the worst record for now. However, Oconomowoc gave a Sun Prairie team with two Division 1 recruits last year a major scare and beat Verona at the buzzer. Regardless, Memorial will be the clear team to beat unless SP or Madison West (8-6) stages an upset.
In another sectional, Arrowhead (9-5), Sussex Hamilton (7-5) and Kettle Moraine (11-2) have the unpleasant distinction of playing in the toughest half-bracket in Division 1. Only one team in that group of eight has a losing record (Waukesha South at 6-8), and Germantown (14-1) represents the undisputed favorite despite incurring its first loss in 69 games after back-to-back state championships.
Homestead (11-2) might be the No. 2 team in that lot, with its only losses a tightly contested battle with Germantown and a setback against state heavyweight Wisconsin Lutheran. Waukesha West (11-2) is proving to be no pushover either, and teams like Hartford (7-5) and Menomonee Falls (8-5) will possess some of the bottom seeds despite having quality seasons. There won't be any freebie games for anyone in that section of the bracket, but KM and Arrowhead will both surely be fighting with West for a No. 2 or 3 seed, which would allow the teams to avoid Germantown until the sectional final.
In the top half of the bracket, De Pere (9-4) is likely the best team in a friendlier draw, though there is some depth with Green Bay Preble (9-6), Kimberly (8-4) and Bay Port (8-5) all viable threats.
In Division 2, Pewaukee (10-4) looks like a shoe-in to be the second-best team in its pod of five squads, which appears to create a likely battle with New Berlin Eisenhower (13-1) for the right to get into the sectional. Once there, Bradley Tech (10-3) is the likeliest opponent, unless St. Anthony (10-4 but playing smaller schools) or Whitnall (6-7) sneaks in.
Then comes the sectional final, and the advantage Pewaukee has is that it won't need to play more than one team from the top half of the bracket should it get that far. Wisconsin Lutheran (12-2) is the clear-cut favorite after reaching the state championship game last year, but threats come from all over, especially Whitefish Bay (10-4) and Messmer (11-2). Don't count out Milwaukee Pius (9-4), Wauwatosa West (9-4) or even Milwaukee Washington (7-7), which is still a very talented squad despite its record. Only one of the teams Washington has lost against possesses fewer than 8 wins, and that's Milwaukee Hamilton, led by UCLA recruit Kevon Looney.
It's a new challenge this year for Lake Country Lutheran (6-6), bumped up to Division 4 instead of its traditional place in D5. Deerfield (8-5) is the only team with a plus record in that batch of six, so it's possible for the Lightning to reach the sectional semifinal, though Lourdes Academy (12-0) might be awaiting there.
Pewaukee (13-0) is one of the favorites to reach the state tournament, but it appears it will boil down to a simple question – can the Pirates beat Pius? We'll find out Feb. 4 when the schools clash for the first of two meetings this year. Pius (10-2) has lost only to two of the best teams in Division 1, Oak Creek and Kimberly, with a fleet of quality wins in the meantime. Pewaukee knocked off the No. 1 team in the state when it beat Oak Creek earlier this year. Oak Creek later lost to Kimberly by a single point.
The two teams wouldn't meet until a sectional final, and Pewaukee's biggest issue before then would be topping either an upstart New Berlin West (11-2) or an always-tough New Berlin Eisenhower (8-4). The Pirates have beaten both already this year but had to rally big against West.
The sectional semifinal would feature a team from a pool of six where right now the best record in 3-8 by Ronald Reagan, followed by Cudahy and Whitnall at 3-9. Safe to say, the Pirates would be heavily favored there.
Pius has by far the tougher road, needing to negotiate a pool that includes Wisconsin Lutheran (9-2) and Whitefish Bay (10-2), as well as Shorewood (10-2).
Arrowhead (11-1) is another of the area's best teams, but it will have to work for a return trip to Green Bay. The most obvious roadblock comes in the top half of the bracket, where No. 1 Kimberly (13-0) awaits. Last year, the Warhawks shocked Kimberly at the buzzer in the sectional final, but this year's Papermakers team is No. 1 in the state. Then again, Arrowhead also brings back a ton of talent from last year's squad.
Kimberly has the tougher half of the bracket, most notably the No. 2 team in the state at the moment, Sheboygan North (10-0). De Pere (10-3) and Green Bay Southwest (8-3) will try to keep those two teams from clashing in the sectional semifinal.
Meanwhile, the good news for Arrowhead is that it's already beaten most of its challengers, with wins against Germantown (11-3), Kettle Moraine (9-2) and Waukesha West (10-2), and all by fairly convincing margins. Arrowhead will see KM and West again before the Classic 8 season is over.
KM will be one of the teams to watch within the bracket, as will Sussex Hamilton (9-4), which has very impressive wins on its resume over Milwaukee King and Algoma. The Chargers have been quietly building toward a strong finish with a first-year coach and a squad that needed to adjust after the late transfer of last year's leading scorer, Mackenzie Latt.
The team that defeated Arrowhead in last year's state semifinal, Mukwonago (8-4), won't be favored to get back but still has the talent to do so. The teams standing in the way prior to the sectional final include Janesville Craig (10-3), Kenosha Tremper (9-5) and Badger (9-2), but the biggest threat arrives in the other half of the bracket with either Middleton (11-2) or Verona (13-1), the two top dogs in the Big Eight this season.
That's bad news for Oconomowoc (5-7), which will probably avoid one of those two teams in the first round but seems destined to face one of them in the second set of games if it gets that far. Right now, the Raccoons could get as high as the fourth seed among the nine teams in the pool.
Lake Country Lutheran (7-2) won't have to get past Heritage Christian anymore now that it resides in Division 4, but it will have to get by St. Mary Springs (11-1) and Lourdes Academy (11-2).
Pictured: Aaron Nixon of Mukwonago and Abby Gerrits of Pewaukee both have very real chances to get to the state tournament.
Hopefully, you get a chance to check out our "Roundball Rankings" page from time to time during the season, which profiles the area basketball teams in the Lake Country and NOW coverage area (41 in all) and offers rankings, features, photos, a Player of the Week and more.
One of the features we started this season is "I Played at State," checking in with players from the area who had experiences at the state tournament. Included in that batch so far have been Arrowhead's Tina (Vilter) McDonald, a key player on the 1988 state championship team, and Kelly (Schwerman) Leibham, who led Kettle Moraine to the 1999 title.
The current teams aren't so bad, either. Kettle Moraine and Arrowhead were slated to meet in a huge Classic 8 Conference clash Friday.
Check out excerpts from the interviews with the players below, and for the full interviews (plus more), visit Roundball Rankings.
Tina (Vilter) McDonald was part of a dominant 1988 Arrowhead team, one that went undefeated and won the first girls state title in school history under coach Pete von Allmen. The Warhawks (26-0) dominated Monroe in the title game, 56-32.
How many true challenges did the squad face in the regular season?
Let's just say all the girls on the team got plenty of minutes on the court. Our coach wasn't about individual stats. While many players could have had 20-plus points per game, Coach (Pate) von Allmen didn't believe in any one star. It was always about "the team," and he rewarded every girl with playing time.
In one sectional game, Hartford took your team to overtime, and your last-second shot was waved off before the Warhawks prevailed in the extra period. What was that scene like? Did you get the shot off in time, in your estimation?
I remember that game like it was yesterday. There wasn't an empty seat left in the gym (or any standing room). The environment was loud and full of energy – it was completely impossible to know when the buzzer went off. I'm sure the refs made the right call regarding my shot, but it was heartbreaking to have to head into overtime.
Of the three games played at state, it seems the quarterfinal against Eisenhower was the closest you came to getting beaten. What was it about that matchup that made that game difficult, and how was the team able to flip the switch over the next two nights?
With our height, we made it nearly impossible for opponents to get the ball in the paint. Eisenhower, however, was known for their outside shooters, so we had to step up our perimeter defense. I remember Lynn Kamrath and I got into foul trouble early. But that's the beauty of a good team; our bench really came through to help us win the game. After that scare, we never looked back and dominated the rest of the tournament, winning the title by more than 30 points.
How would you describe coach Pete von Allmen?
Coach von Allmen was brilliant. He knew how to build a successful program and teach us how to be champions, on and off the court. While winning was important, his program was always more than just basketball. He implemented real-world values, such as being responsible, showing respect and achieving extraordinary commitment levels. And he made sure everyone followed his rules (including parents). It wasn't always easy being one of his players, but it was worth every drop of sweat and extra time in the gym. We had an amazing high school athletic experience, and several of us went on to play college basketball. Plus, I'm sure you could ask anyone from that team, and they would tell you how Coach von Allmen made them a stronger, better person.
Perhaps the finest girls basketball team in Lake Country history, the Kettle Moraine girls basketball team was dominant in 1999, going 25-1 under coach Greg Vock and winning the Division 1 title. Kelly (Schwerman) Leibham, whose career continued at Marquette University, was the team's leading scorer and one of the top players on a team loaded with elite talent. KM also went to state in 1996 and 1998.
The 1999 Kettle Moraine team still has some records on the books for field-goal percentage in the tournament. Did it feel like those games against Appleton North and Franklin were particularly unusual in that regard? I know you were a very good shooting team anyway, but was there something clicking in those games beyond what was typical?
During our entire postseason run that year, one of most memorable things about the whole experience was that our entire team seemed to play better and better with each passing game. Most players have had games or streaks of games where they have shot exceptionally well or have had that feeling on the court that everything is going their way. That was the case in our playoff run, except instead of just one player being in this zone, it spread throughout the whole team. Especially in the final two games against Appleton North and Franklin, our entire team played as if we could do no wrong and everything just came incredibly easy. It was only in the days and weeks after the state tournament did we realize that this "can do no wrong" feeling showed up in the statistics as well — both games set records for high shooting percentage that I think may take a while to break. We were also coached to take only high percentage shots and this definitely contributed to those records, but those games it literally felt as if every shot we put up found the bottom of the net.
How often do you think about winning the title, and what images or moments really resonate the most?
I think about winning the state title mainly just around March Madness time when you start to hear buzz about the state tournament again. I now have nieces and nephews playing high school basketball and have been able to watch some of them get the chance to play in the state tournament in Madison. Although that always brings back great memories, it also helps to put it in perspective about how long ago our run through the tournament happened. One of my favorite memories from the tournament was halftime of the state championship game. We were playing so well and had such a great first half, that I think we went into halftime with around a 20-point lead. Going into the locker room I remember seeing a few players from the other team in tears — and it was just halftime. Although we knew we had another half left, at that point, it started to sink in that we were actually going to win the state title and it was such a happy feeling. I don't even know if we talked strategy or anything game related at the half, but it was the first time we came to the realization that this was actually happening. As we had the whole state tournament run, we were able to enjoy ourselves, have fun, and really soak in the moment.
Pictured: Surrounded by Watertown's team, Kelly Schwerman (33) of Kettle Moraine hangs on to a loose ball in the second quarter during the WIAA 1999 state girls basketball tournament held at the UW-Madison Fieldhouse. File photo by Dale Guldan.
A sampling of teams who will likely command headlines in 2014 (check out the 2013 list):
Lake Country Lutheran baseball. When the Lightning made it all the way to the state-championship game in Appleton, falling in a heartbreaker to Greenwood for the Division 4 crown, they knew they'd have a great chance to be back. The biggest asset is the return of the team's top three pitchers — BJ Sabol, Ben Wilkins and Jesse Turner — who all played huge roles in the squad's run in 2013. It goes deeper — of the 14 players on the state roster last year, only three graduated. Several of the team's top hitters are back, including Sabol, Turner, CJ Teske, Chris Kornowski and Jacob Budnik.
Arrowhead football. The Warhawks are the champs until someone beats them in the WIAA postseason. The two-time defending champs in Division 1 will again have plenty of returning talent, and the emergence of sophomore quarterback Johnny Duranso and running back Cody Sellhausen give Arrowhead some new threats at the skill positions. The defense will take some graduation hits, for sure, but the offensive line will welcome back a lot of experience, and it's hard to imagine the Warhawks dropping very far among the state's elite.
Oconomowoc girls volleyball. The Raccoons reached the sectional for the first time since 1994 and did so with a host of underclassmen, including sophomore Heather Moutvic, junior Bridgette Jaeger and freshman Natalie Perrault, all first or second-team selections in the Wisconsin Little Ten. Throw in sophomore libero Jazmyn Trudeau, and a team that took second place in the WLT has a lot to look forward to next fall.
Pewaukee girls basketball. This is a very special team for coach Todd Hansen. With virtually every player on last year's roster back, the 2013-14 Pirates had already shown they're a cut above perennial foe New Berlin Eisenhower when they notched a crown-jewel victory in topping the No. 1 team in Division 1, Oak Creek. The team's top roadblocks on the state path look to be Waukesha North, Milwaukee Pius and Whitefish Bay, with Pius a team that will meet the Pirates twice in the regular season. Led by sophomore Abby Gerrits, junior Lindsay Wisniewski and seniors Katie Wood, Danielle Jasinski and Sarah Caccese, the squad is one of the best Division 2 programs in the state. The emergence of freshman MacKenzie Schill is another sign that the team should be just as good in years to come.
Mukwonago girls track and field. With every single state qualifier back from a year ago, Mukwonago boasts strength in the jumps and the sprints, buoyed by twins Courtney and Alexis McKeever. Mukwonago took 12th at last year's state meet and looks like a team that can make a play for the top five this season.
Oconomowoc wrestling. Last year's conference champion qualified seven for the state meet, and five of those guys return — four of whom are ranked at their respective weight classes by Wisconsin Wrestling Online. Throw in a couple promising freshmen and a number of returnees looking to take the next step, and it's fair to call Oconomowoc a favorite to get to the state tournament as a team, with Badger as perhaps the biggest hurdle in the sectional. The Raccoons just need to get healthy.
Kettle Moraine/Mukwonago/Oconomowoc hockey. Though the team opened the year an unlucky 0-4-1, there are major signs of promise in this program, which has an increasingly large underclass and youth program and plenty of young players eager to take the next step on the varsity level. Only seven of the 21 players on varsity are seniors, and the squad has rebounded to go 6-1-1 in eight contests.
Pewaukee boys soccer. After going 20-1-3 in 2013 and reaching the Division 3 state tournament, the Pirates welcome back a lot of key players, including sophomore Griffin Jende and juniors Chandler Bentley and Jack Wirth, all among the team's leading scorers.
Arrowhead girls basketball. The Warhawks are the No. 2 team in the state and one that should seriously contend for the state title after appearing in last year's state semifinal in Division 1. With a difference maker in Kelly Smith, signed to play at Northern Illinois next year, plus juniors Ally May and Kayla Lorenz and sophomore Callie Lederman, the team is blessed with four contributors standing 6-0 or taller. Guards Jenna Goulet, Megan Douglas and Lauren Peterson are just the start of the available options in the backcourt. The team's lone loss to Mukwonago has been offset by a slew of quality victories.
Mukwonago girls cross country. Arrowhead, three-time defending state champion in the sport, will once again be among the favorites to win the whole thing again. A talent-rich Classic 8 may hide the significant potential going forward for the Mukwonago squad, which will bring back five of its seven top runners (including three freshmen in 2013) and three alternates.
Kettle Moraine girls basketball. Surely the biggest roadblocks in the Classic 8 are still ahead, but coach Mike Hamilton has the team clicking on all cylinders in his first year at the helm, guiding them to first place in the league and 8-1 overall.
Which teams do you expect to sparkle in 2014?
Pictured: Lake Country Lutheran, runner-up in the WIAA D4 state baseball tournament. Members of the team are (from left, back row) Principal Dwayne Jobst, assist coach John Muelendyke, assistant coach Greg Brazgel, Jesse Turner, Jacob Simons, JR Ellison, Tim Bahr, JV coach Ned Wicker, Head Coach David Bahr, assist coach Bill Goodman, athletics director Janet Bahr, (middle row) manager Mackenzie Metcalf, Chris Kornowski, BJ Sabol, TJ Hopkins, Jacob Budnik, Ben Wilkins, CJ Teske, (front row) Murphy Shannon, Jack Euclide, Jimmy Schumacker and Justin Prostinak. Photo by Kristin Simons.
For some reason, I've appointed myself in charge of correcting a popular misconception about the Green Bay Packers' 2010 Super Bowl Championship run. Many fans think back to that season and remember a remarkable punt return by DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia, who was inexplicably given a chance by the New York Giants in a tie game with mere seconds to play, as a key moment that enhanced the Packers' playoff candidacy.
Jackson ran it back for a game-winning touchdown as time expired late in the regular season. The Giants were kept out of the postseason by one game, and Philadelphia wound up facing the Packers in the opening round of the playoffs.
For some reason, fans came to believe that the remarkable turn of events allowed Green Bay to qualify for the playoffs. At the time, it seemed like an important outcome for the Packers' playoff chances, but as it played out, a reversed outcome would have simply exchanged the Giants for the Eagles in the playoff picture. It's true Green Bay may not have beaten the Giants like they did the Eagles, but the Packers still would have had an opportunity in the playoffs.
The REAL gift that season came from the Detroit Lions – the same team who did a bit of a choke job to help Green Bay during this remarkable 2013 season, a year in which the Packers have been hit with injuries but charmed by good luck on the field. The Lions snapped an NFL record 26-game losing streak in road games in 2010 by topping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that legitimately had a shot at the playoffs. The stunning overtime outcome was crucial – had it gone differently, the Packers would have been out and the Bucs would have been in. We'd still be talking about whether or not Aaron Rodgers could match Brett Favre in winning a Super Bowl.
The beautiful thing about sports is that a gift sometimes comes from an unexpected source. Consider these other sports gifts from years past, including Green Bay's improbable path to Sunday's playoff opener against San Francisco:
Philadelphia over Chicago, 2013. The Sunday Night football beatdown in the penultimate week of the season gave the Packers a window of opportunity after a loss to Pittsburgh just hours earlier, meaning the following week's game between Green Bay and Chicago would be a true winner-take-all for the NFC North title. As you know, the Packers won that game in dramatic fashion, but the game would have been rendered meaningless had Chicago won against Philly.
One week earlier after Green Bay's thrilling win over Dallas, the team got a Monday Night pick-me-up from Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker, who drained a 60-yard field goal in the final seconds to put the Lions behind the Packers in the pecking order (though Detroit's loss to the Giants one week later proved just as crucial). None of this will be remembered as a particularly dramatic outcome, nor one that carries the same weight as past successes if the Packers don't advance deep into the playoffs, but for one night in December, the entire Packers season was in the hands of the Eagles. To make matters more interesting, the Eagles didn't stand to gain anything by beating Chicago, knowing a winner-take-all battle with Dallas loomed the following week regardless.
Detroit over Tampa Bay, 2010. Of all the crazy things that happened on the Packers' run to the Super Bowl, none of it could have happened without Dave Rayner's overtime field goal to stun a playoff-hungry Buccaneers team. The Lions were 2-10 when they shocked Green Bay one week earlier, 7-3, in a game where Aaron Rodgers was sidelined by a concussion. Detroit finished with wins in its final four games of the year, including the big one over the Bucs (and at Miami the following week to make it two road wins in a row).
Ricky Stanzi, 2010. Michigan State defeated Wisconsin during the 2010 college football season, but the Spartans took a brutal 37-6 loss to Iowa midway through the year, giving the Badgers a chance to sneak into the Rose Bowl as the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the BCS. Ricky Stanzi of Iowa threw three touchdown passes in that game, and current Packers player Micah Hyde played a role in an interception return for touchdown. State and Wisconsin both finished the year with one loss in league play, but it was the Badgers who got to play in Pasadena against TCU (much to the chagrin of MSU fans, who felt the Spartans deserved to go).
Wes Helms, 2008. Helms spent three unspectacular seasons with the Brewers before drifting to Florida, then to Philadelphia and back to Florida for the 2008 baseball season. He hit five home runs that year (and 27 in his career in six years after leaving the Brewers), but one of those came on the final day of the regular season. His home run (followed by a blast from Dan Uggla) broke a 2-2 tie with the New York Mets in the eighth inning, and the Marlins won, 4-2. At the same time, C.C. Sabathia and the Brewers were holding off the Chicago Cubs. Those two outcomes meant the Brewers finished the season with a 1-game lead over New York for the National League Wild Card, netting the franchise's first playoff berth since 1982.
Nate Poole, 2003. Perhaps the most memorable case of outside assistance, the Arizona Cardinals brought a 3-12 record into the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, who simply needed a road win (or a Packers loss) to win the NFC North and keep the Packers out of the playoffs. The Cardinals scored late just after the 2-minute warning, recovered an onside kick, then nearly fumbled the ball away on third and 17 from inside the 20. With the final seconds ticking off and no time outs left on 4th and 24, Josh McCown (the current Bears backup quarterback) heaved a 28-yard pass to the end zone for Poole, who made a leaping grab at the right side and touched one foot down (he was ruled to be forced out in mid-air, a rule that no longer exists today – it would have been incomplete in 2013).
The Cardinals won, 18-17, mere moments after Green Bay defeated Denver. The Packers would play one of their most memorable postseasons in memory, topping Seattle on Al Harris' overtime interception of Matt Hasselbeck and then falling to the Eagles thanks in part to the infamous "4th and 26" play when it appeared they were ticketed for the NFC Championship game. Green Bay eventually awarded Poole a key to the city.
Danny Fortson, 2000. Back in simpler times where the goal of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise was to actually make the playoffs, the team was still one year away from a run to the Eastern Conference finals. The Bucks used 1999-00 as a springboard (though they were considered underachievers), taking Indiana to the brink in the 1-8 matchup of the playoffs, falling 96-95 in Game 5 of the opening series and dropping the best-of-5 battle. Just to get there, the Bucks won six of their final seven games and 10 of their final 13, including one in overtime against Washington and two huge wins over Orlando, which finished a game behind the Bucks in the standings.
Danny Fortson, who only started five games all season and averaged 7.6 point, amassed a season-high 23 points and 14 rebounds as the Boston Celtics upset the Magic one night after the first loss to the Bucks, a key game that gave Milwaukee a slight upper hand for the playoff berth. On the same night, the Bucks pulled into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the standings with a 101-100 win over Cleveland. The Bucks already knew they would have the tiebreaker with Orlando, having won all three head-to-head meetings with one more to play five days later. The Bucks won that game, 85-83, to clinch a playoff spot.
Pictured: (Above) Nathan Poole makes a circus catch that saved the Green Bay Packers season in 2003 and (below) Wes Helms hits a home run that helped his old team reach the playoffs in 2008.
Basketball can be a tricky game to officiate, though most onlookers feel they have a pretty firm handle on the rules and loudly offer their opinion on game night. I asked a veteran official to enumerate some of the rules most coaches, players, parents and fans get wrong, and here's what he told me. Keep this in mind when watching local hoops during the holiday season of good tidings.
What the fans say: "He was moving!" or "She was set!"
What officials look for: The definition of a defender with legal guarded position continues to evolve. Currently the rulebook states that a defender has gained legal guarding position with he/she has both feet down, facing the opponent. Once this occurs, the defender is permitted to move laterally or backwards and retain their right to the spot on the floor.
A defensive player CAN BE MOVING when they draw a player-control foul (also known as a charge) if they had previously obtained a legal position on that player.
Where is the contact? If a defender is stationary, moving laterally or backwards, did they take the contact into the chest or torso? If they did, it was likely the offense that caused the contact and therefore a charge. Contact between legs, arms and shoulders indicates an offensive player has gotten past the defender, putting the onus back on the defense.
Was the player into the air when the defense established its position? We've seen crashes on layups where it looks like the defender got to his or her spot before contact. But, they did not do so before the offensive player left the floor. If the defense did not establish itself prior to player lift off, it needs to give the shooter a place to land.
What the fans say: "Over the Back!" or "He/she was just blocking out!"
What officials look for: You can search the rule book over and over and no where is the term "over the back." The rule book also does not allow a player blocking out to move their opponent out of their established position. Simply put — no contact, no foul.
So if the inside player on a rebound is simply out-jumped or out-reached, that's the way it goes. Officials should never call "over the back." They may call and signal a push if the player jumps into another rebounder, a hold or a hit on the arm, but "over the back" is not in the rule book. In regards to blocking out, a player may not use his or her body to move an opponent out of their spot on the floor.
Can he or she seal the opponent? Yes, but they may not prevent them from moving or dislodging them from their position. Rebounders also cannot wrap their arms back to help contain a player; that's a hold. Wrapping is also seen on post play. It's a no-no.
What the fans say: "He/she was straight up!"
What officials look for: All players have a right to their spot on the floor and the space above it. There has been more emphasis on the defenders' rights the past several years in this regard. It is a factor in how block/charge calls are made today. Straight up is straight up when it comes to arms. A defender attempting to play straight up may compromise their position if they "bounce" their arms towards the offensive player, even if briefly, if contact is made with the shooter. It's the most common violation of the "straight-up" philosophy.
The other element officials watch is the feet. As earlier mentioned, the defender can move laterally or backwards and still be OK if he or she had previously gained a legal guarding position. But a defender cannot step toward an opponent and initiate contact either with the body or their vertical arms moving into a shooter's vertical position. So the body and the arms may have looked great to the players, fans and coaches, but if the feet took them into the player, be it even a half-step that you see in the tightly played post, it's a foul on the defense.
Pictured: Mukwonago boys basketball coach Jim Haasser objects to a referee's call during the first half of the team's game against Brookfield Central iin the Luke Homan Invitational at Central on Dec. 28. Photo by Peter Zuzga.
Somewhere along the way, a damaging slide home in the 1970 All-Star Game became the symbol of a great player's career, but also the symbol of a bygone baseball mentality, one strangely lamented by Major League Baseball.
When Pete Rose famously surged home and took out 23-year-old rising star Ray Fosse, separating Fosse's shoulder in the process, "Charlie Hustle" was already one of baseball's biggest stars, characterized by his hard-nosed play. Fosse made the All-Star team the next year, but the collision became widely accepted as a moment that dramatically shortened Fosse's career, and Fosse still has an icy relationship with Rose to this day.
Naturally, as a player who made his name running people over and sliding headfirst into bases, Rose wasn't thrilled when he heard Major League Baseball was taking steps to eliminate home-plate collisions.
"First of all, if they can eliminate concussions, I'm all for that," said Rose to legendary baseball writer Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. "But I've thought and thought about it. The only concussions I can remember recently in baseball is Justin Morneau, and he got that sliding into second base. I know this is mostly about Buster Posey but he got hurt when he got his ankle caught and twisted it."
Posey, the National League MVP in 2012, was lost for much of the 2011 season when he broke his leg on a home-plate collision in May. As baseball saw one of its top young stars lost to this type of injury, momentum began to roll toward reforming the structure of the game.
"I'm a traditionalist," Rose said. "I thought the game has always been pretty good. About the only major changes they've made to the game since 1869 was when they lowered the mound after the 1968 season and the designated hitter. I mean, the game is going pretty good, isn't it?"
Sure, but baseball has changed dramatically since Rose was a player, all the same, and there's a middle ground in which a sport can retain its traditions while evolving with the times. Rose's collision with Fosse became the rallying cry for MLB officials interested in returning some sense of pride to the All-Star game, which had drifted into the status of optional showcase instead (which it is, but that's another column) instead of passionate rivalry. Now, even though it's a touch hypocritical for the same league to weed out plays like that one, baseball has smartly taken a step forward, rescuing part of its game from the dark ages. There's a difference between being Old School and Old World.
Major League Baseball made no bones about it: with the increasing prevalence of concussion awareness and growing caution with the ailment, it makes sense to bar intentional collisions at home plate. For the plan to begin in 2014, it will need approval by the players association in January, but MLB can install the change without approval in 2015, if need be.
Though youth leagues and prep-level baseball are likely to have greater safety precautions than MLB, it's telling that high-school players are already barred from initiating intentional contact anywhere on the diamond.
"It is supposed to be an automatic ejection if it is judged to be intentional at any base or on any tag play anywhere on the field," said Lake Country Lutheran head baseball coach David Bahr, whose team played in last year's thrilling Division 4 state title game. "But we had one 6 years ago that was flagrant and blatant and the umpire let it go. We haven't had any since then, as most players are well aware of the rule – which comes with the automatic ejection as well as having to sit out the next game as well.
"I'm quite sure BJ Sabol would have run over the catcher at the state finals last year on the failed squeeze bunt attempt if that was an option instead of just running into an easy tag. What we coach them to do in those situations is to get in a rundown so that the other runners can advance."
Kettle Moraine coach Brian Adamczyk, who led the Lasers to the summer state baseball tournament last year, also understands the need for a change.
"Unfortunately the number of concussions we see is rising," he said. "We are seeing record numbers of concussions in athletes of all ages. So much that we are seeing rule changes in youth sports, high school, and even the NFL in an effort to discourage these types of injuries. While I am opposed to any drastic rule change in baseball and I believe in the sanctity of the game, I believe this change will decrease the number of head injuries and may lengthen a few careers."
A good change
Johnny Bench, a Hall of Fame catcher and Rose's teammate, has been one of the foremost proponents for the change. From my perspective, the rule makes sense on a couple levels, notably in the consistency of action. Players aren't encouraged to initiate massive collisions on the basepaths, yet a full-force plunge into the catcher is considered good baseball and rewarded if the ball gets dislodged.
In my mind, the play also betrays the idea behind baseball. It's a non-contact sport, characterized by skill and grace. To me, this play is simply a leftover from the days when the game wasn't crafted more carefully or logically (along with allowing a batter to advance on a dropped third strike, but that's yet another column for another day).
"I've never felt this play served much of a purpose in the game," Sussex Hamilton coach Mike Schramek said. "A better percent of the time, a guy trying to score in this situation should have never been sent in the first place. So when he is allowed to collide with the catcher, he essentially is given an opportunity to bail out a coach for making a bad decision."
Plus, it happens rarely enough to not really make a huge impact, even though the on-field rules of baseball seldom get an alteration of this variety.
"I don't think eliminating collisions at home plates is fundamentally changing the game," Bahr said, adding that rule changes in the NFL and NCAA basketball have had far greater impact in this regard. "Their occurrence is certainly less than once per game on average in the major leagues."
Pictured: New Berlin West catcher Tyler Stephens tags Kettle Moraine's Chris Trafton (24) out at home plate during the third inning of the summer baseball tournament in July.
Each year, I like to look back on some of the cooler stories I had a chance to write about in the preceding calendar year. I've been blessed in this profession, given a chance to chronicle some truly meaningful moments in the lives of student-athletes and coaches. Here are some of my favorites from 2013:
It just doesn't happen very often that in a sport predicated on head-to-head matchups throughout, the conference title comes down to the last night of competition. Last year, it happened with the Sussex Hamilton girls basketball team against Divine Savior Holy Angels for the Greater Metro title, and this year it was Oconomowoc wrestling against West Bend West for all the marbles in the Wisconsin Little Ten.
Oconomowoc hadn't won the league title since 1998 despite a proud tradition in wrestling, and when the win came, it was a jubilant experience, and our story ran with a picture that I know was hanging in the OHS wrestling room showing the reaction of coach Steve Olson.
The Raccoons wound up sending a remarkable seven qualifiers to state, came away with multiple podium finishes and seemed to ignite a fire within the school's athletics program that played into an outstanding spring and fantastic fall. The tide of success is swelling at OHS, and this was one of the pivot points.
One huge component of Oconomowoc's superb calendar year was the rise of its football team, which finished 11-1 and reached Level 3 of the playoffs for the first time since the 1980s.
Immersed in that season was a legendary 84-82 win over Wisconsin Lutheran, a game that I will surely never forget. As I stood on the sidelines attached to my phone, trying to furiously provide updates to the Twitterverse, I could sort of monitor how the game drew more and more interested observers from around the state as the score escalated.
I knew driving home that I would be asked many times what that game was like. The one thing that still sticks out to me is how meaningful that game was regardless of score, with a huge Homecoming crowd fully aware that this matchup with perennial conference champ Wisco provided a major proving ground for the exciting Raccoons team that had eyes on the Wisconsin Little Ten prize. It's those circumstances that escalated the game from novelty to epic.
I was fortunate to see two wild games this football season, including a crazy 45-44 win for Waukesha West over Mukwonago in overtime. I enjoyed covering both Mukwonago and Oconomowoc football teams this year as both enjoyed great playoff runs, journeys that intersected in Mukwonago's Level 3 win over OHS.
"Offensive line preps for year's biggest test," Oct. 29.
During that Mukwonago playoff run, it struck me that the time was right to do a story on Mukwonago's offensive line as it headed into a Level 2 meeting with undefeated Sun Prairie, considered by some to be the best team in the Division 1 field. With defensive lineman Craig Evans (ticketed for Wisconsin) among the big threats, Sun Prairie promised a difficult challenge for the big fellas up front.
I've said before I love giving coverage to the big dudes (and most football coaches love it as well), and I also like looking smart. When Mukwonago defeated Sun Prairie in a shocker, running this story two days before the big game looked like a bit of foreshadowing. Given the line's involvement with the wrestling program, it also allowed me to use one of my favorite headlines this year in the Mukwonago Chief, "The Heavyweights."
(Pictured: Mukwonago blockers include (from left) tight end Jeff Johnson, tackle Alex Winski, guard Charlie Younger, center Mitch Geisler, tackle Robet Kraklow and guard Tom Stingl.)
Some of the easiest stories to write are ones where athletes do something that transcends sports. For example, former Hamilton wrestler Chad McLaughlin became a brief internet sensation simply for showing kindness to a young fan at Miller Park. And then there was former Catholic Memorial hoops player Derek Schell, who became the first NCAA Division II men's basketball player to openly admit he is gay.
Schell clearly understood what he was up against in making the announcement, and he fully embraces both any backlash and the possibility of creating good, providing a template for other athletes in his shoes to move past the burden of hiding who they are. As should be said every time a story like this comes to light, there will come a time when stories like these don't matter anymore, because it simply won't be a big enough or rare enough deal. But for now, Schell is a pioneer as he continues his basketball career at Hillsdale College.
"Child's Play: The Cost of Youth Sports," Aug. 13-27.
For some time, our editor-in-chief has encouraged me to produce more content on the youth sports scene, and I've resisted to a degree because it's so vast. We can't offer traditional coverage of youth sports because there are simply too many teams, and I've secretly believed that concept of coverage would do more harm than good. What he meant, however, was something along the lines of this series, looking at the elements to consider for parents and participants in the booming business of youth sports.
I produced three components to the series, analyzing the costs, the health risks and the dynamics of year-round participation, and I think there was a lot of good information to share. I did feel hamstrung a little bit by the scope of what I was trying to do; the topic is so vast and very hard to encompass even in a series of stories. I hope they at least provided a glimpse into the issue, which touches far more readers and members of our community than varsity sports.
When both Sussex Hamilton and West Allis Hale found themselves dealing with the tragic loss of a student-athlete, the two student fan bases used modern resources to organize a tribute when the two programs clashed in a Greater Metro Conference boys basketball game. In a bit of a surreal scene, the Hale students wore Hamilton colors and the Hamilton students returned the favor and wore Hale's green to the game, creating an atmosphere that demonstrated the healing power and the significance of sports.
I wasn't there to see it myself, unfortunately, but it was refreshing to speak to those involved.
Jeff Budzien appreciates the Iron Bowl finish like everyone else, even if there is a tinge of sympathy for Cade Foster, the University of Alabama kicker who missed three field goals (one blocked) in a game that provided one of the most exciting finishes in college football history.
"It was a fun game to watch and I think the joy of watching a close game trumps the sadness of a field-goal kicker," said Budzien, who starred at Arrowhead before enjoying a decorated career at Northwestern University. "We're all kind of fighting the same fight. I never want to see a kicker miss a big kick like that. Maybe one kick is easy to stomach, but going 0 for 3 or 0 for 4, that's a sad deal. The good thing is I've been reading a lot from Alabama fans, and some of their fans are sticking behind him. It's kind of crazy some fans have given (Foster) death threats. The quarterback and linebacker have stuck up for him in a public forum, and that means a lot."
Foster's struggles led Alabama to turn to freshman Adam Griffith for a 57-yard attempt with 1 second on the clock of a tie game against Auburn on Nov. 30, a game holding extreme importance in the BCS National Championship picture. The kick was short, but more importantly, returned 109 yards for a touchdown by Auburn's Chris Davis on a play that sent No. 4 Auburn to a stunning 34-28 win over Alabama.
This is the life of a high-profile kicker. Foster, one of the nation's best NFL kicking prospects according to NFLDraftScout.com, simply had a bad day. Budzien fortunately hasn't had a day like that in his college career, and his only two misses field-goal misses this season (42 and 49 yards) came in fairly easy NU victories. He's made all 136 extra-point attempts in his career and was named the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year for a second straight season after sharing the honor last year.
Budzien is ahead of Foster on that list of kickers at NFLDraftScout, ranked fourth and given a grade that places him on the fringe of getting drafted. He'll likely have an opportunity to at least show an NFL team what he can do, but these are uncharted waters — and unpredictable ones for a kicker.
Of the 32 kickers currently starting in the NFL, only 13 were drafted. Though many hail from traditional football powerhouses, the variation of origin is far and wide, with representatives who played at such colleges as Missouri Western State, Georgia Southern, Montana, Drake, San Diego State, Louisiana Tech, Memphis and Bowling Green.
"I'm hearing great stuff from agents and scouts; I think now it's just a wait and see game," Budzien said. "I put some great seasons on film, and there are other kickers who have stronger legs than me, but if a team was in the market for a kicker that will make every field goal, I think I'm the No. 1 person on their board. It depends what a team needs, and it's something I'll find out."
Budzien, who played in two state-championship games with Arrowhead and won the 2007 crown with the Warhawks, led the nation with 23 field-goal makes this year, boasting the second-best percentage of any kicker with 20 attempts or more. And yet, he wasn't one of the three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation's top kicker — an omission that drew the ire of Wildcats fans.
"After the Lou Groza, I learned not to expect awards or recognition," Budzien said. "(The Bakken-Andersen) is a big honor and I was still very thankful to receive it."
In addition to the Groza snub, Budzien's team has had its ups and downs. Northwestern struggled this season, dropping six games in a row, including two in overtime, to miss becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2006 despite starting the year in the national rankings.
Still, Budzien did his part. He had the luxury of working with the same snapper (Pat Hickey) and holder (Brandon Williams) for all five years in the program. He planned to take them out for a steak dinner Wednesday night.
"We came in as freshmen together, and I bet we've had 75,000 reps together over the last five years," Budzien said. "It's become so automatic. I owe them a lot. Even at Arrowhead, I had to make a snapper change, so I'm pretty blessed. Most times extra points are missed, it's because of a botched snap and hold."
Budzien didn't start his career handling kickoff duties, meaning his on-field experience was limited to extra points and field goals. He said the extra attention he paid to extra-points as a result eased his ability to make every one. He played in the Gator Bowl last year, where Northwestern won its first bowl game in 63 years.
"I didn't realize until after the game the impact (that win had) on this university and the alumni who came through," Budzien said. "Just that camaraderie of the locker room and the team aspect is something that I'll greatly miss."
He may still get another chance in the National Football League, however. He just has to find the right opportunity, and a little luck doesn't hurt in the inexact science of identifying an elite kicker.
"I probably wouldn't say the top 32 kickers in the world are kicking for NFL teams," Budzien said. "There are some great kickers that aren't (on a team). There's so much overlooking in (college recruiting), maybe because people are developing still in high school and aren't at their full physical peak. Then there's a coaching philosophy; some high-school coaches think they should go for it on every fourth down and not give the kicker a chance.
"The Kohl's Kicking Camps in Waukesha and all over the country are a good vehicle for kickers to get noticed and recruited. Maybe 15 kickers a year get full scholarships and maybe 1 or 2 per year land permanently (on an NFL team)."
Volk wrapping his career
Budzien's classmate at Arrowhead, Jared Volk, is also wrapping an impressive college career at Northern Illinois.
The Huskies, ranked No. 14 in the nation, were scheduled to play in a fourth consecutive MAC Championship game Dec. 6 on national television. With a win, the team could be back in a bowl game after last year's appearance in the Orange Bowl.
The redshirt senior starting left guard lives with quarterback Jordan Lynch, who could be a Heisman Trophy finalist. Last year's team became the first MAC school to receive a BCS bowl berth, and this year's team comes into the MAC title game at 12-0.
The line has allowed only eight quarterback sacks, tied for second in the country, with an offense that racks up more than 540 overall yards and 310 rushing yards per game, part of a ridiculous 42.8-point scoring average.
Pictured: Jeff Budzien celebrates a Nov. 16 field goal against Michigan with holder Brandon Williams (Associated Press).
The Western Illinois football program has a proud tradition, most recently winning a national FCS championship in 2003. There's nothing wrong with the Leathernecks, though the team had a first-year coach this season, hasn't seen the playoffs since 2010 and no longer stands as a regular postseason powerhouse.
So it's easy to think Western Illinois is getting a steal with Franklin quarterback Sean McGuire, committed to play for Western next season. McGuire showed an elusiveness not often available to someone his size (6-3, 200 pounds), not to mention an accuracy that made him one of the state's premier passing quarterbacks, in the state-championship loss to Arrowhead on Friday.
But in Wisconsin, even when a quarterback shows all the attributes that a college program would perceivably desire, seldom to state prospects wind up starting for Division 1 programs.
"For (a college program) to invest in a scholarship, you have to have guys who can make you miss at quarterback," said Waukesha West assistant coach Jeff Trickey, whose prestigious quarterback camp will set up shop at 30 locations all over the country. "The 3-step, 5-step kid who's a really good athlete is nice, but nowadays they need that athletic-type lower platform athlete at quarterback. It's a combination of length and ability to move in a small space, those are key ingredients. Your ability to throw a football and make great choices comes next. That narrows the field, that height requirement and the overall athleticism in the lower platform."
In other words, even if a quarterback racks up legendary numbers, the odds are against a guy like Greendale's Josh Ringelberg (5-11, 183), a junior who set the Division 3 state-final passing record in a loss to Monona Grove with 270 yards, or Arrowhead's Johnny Duranso (6-1, 180), who would have set the D1 passing record were it not for McGuire's 250 yards in the same game.
Just a sophomore, Duranso has room to continue growing taller, and his tremendous performance in Arrowhead's state-championship effort (235 yards, three touchdowns) will certainly broaden his profile.
But then there's Appleton Xavier's Matt Ferris, who set the state record with 50 touchdown passes this season and stands 6-5, 175. And yet, Ferris has not committed to a Division 1 program and could wind up playing basketball on the next level. So the question again … what does a Wisconsin quarterback have to do to get a Division 1 program's attention?
"In the southern-tier states – California, Arizona, Texas Florida – they specialize their kids at a very young age," Trickey said. "They have much bigger high schools in most areas, which really holds back kids from being multi-sport athletes. If you're an athlete, you're year-round. It's spring football for you. Coaches can coach their kids virtually all year. If you don't, you're going to be behind at the quarterback position. It seems when we go out west and southwest, the quarterback position is identified much earlier; they take their better athletes in fifth, sixth seventh grade, and if the boy is really talented, he's going to start his progression of playing quarterback there."
The prevailing sentiment in Wisconsin pushes athletes to play multiple sports and not concentrate so heavily in one discipline all year, and Trickey also feels that's best for high-school kids. It doesn't mean there aren't excellent quarterbacks in the north, but when the kids in the south are playing year-round, the opportunities to be noticed are infinitely greater.
"They have more 7-on-7 tournaments in the spring and summer and can run them like practices," Trickey said, referring again to the opportunity for coaches to work with their kids almost year-round. "They're playing 7-on-7 and have seven coaches. There's a mindset of specialization (in warmer climates). They've got so many kids that they can find a kid with more length early on and make him a great quarterback."
Joel Stave of Whitnall stood at 6-5 and racked up big-time statistics in high school but settled for a preferred walk-on spot at Wisconsin – one that paid off when he emerged as the program's starting quarterback the past two seasons. Franklin's Lance Baretz, who preceded McGuire, also walked on at Wisconsin after a decorated career.
Muskego's Adam Schulz, a walk-on, was recently promoted to starting quarterback at Utah when starter Travis Wilson was injured.
Though it's an unscientific process, a look at the state's All State quarterbacks since 1999 reveals very few Division 1 prospects. Several were converted to other positions, such as Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin), Justin Sinz (Purdue) and Johnny Eagan (Northern Illinois). Three played at North Dakota (Brent Goska, Trey Demler, Danny Freund). Brian Kuhtz of Waukesha North spent some time at Wyoming, and Brian Brunner of Hartford (All State in 2002) became Central Michigan's starter in 2008. Tony Stauss of Racine Horlick (1999) briefly started at Northwestern.
But beyond those names, only Stave and Tyler Donovan (2003 Arrowhead graduate) played a full year at quarterback in what can be perceived as a major college program. Donovan led Wisconsin to the 2007 Outback Bowl.
Cudahy's John Navarre, a 1999 graduate, joined the University of Michigan and set a new school record for passing yards in a season (3,331) and career (9,014) before getting drafted in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL Draft. Tony Romo, perhaps the most high-profile quarterback to hail from Wisconsin as the leader of the Dallas Cowboys, slipped below the national radar at Burlington High School (graduating in 1998) and attended Eastern Illinois.
There's another element in play, too, and that's how the quarterback position is recruited. Schools aren't likely to offer multiple scholarships at the position each year, unlike other spots on the field.
"What we're finding all over the country is that quarterbacks and their families do their homework," Trickey said. "They look at a USC or Alabama or a Florida State and see exactly who they have that position, if he's a redshirt, 5-star or 4-star. It's tough for even upper-echelon programs to sign 5-star quarterbacks two years in a row because they see what's there."
Trickey's camps (TrickeyWrightQBR.com) will include stops at Waukesha West, Verona, Wausau, West Bend and Green Bay, in addition to camps on both coasts. Trickey was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009.
Pictured: Sean McGuire delivers a pass in the state-championship game against Arrowhead. (Staff photo by C.T. Kruger)
In keeping with an annual tradition upheld by virtually all sports columnists, I present my Sports Things to be Thankful For, 2013 edition. My annual musings have an annual disclaimer: these aren't going to be the heartfelt, serious things most people are thankful for around the holiday season. Instead, these are things that maybe you take for granted, possibly because they fall well below the threshold of Things That Are Really Important In Life:
The Swing Offense. It's the subject of ridicule outside of Wisconsin, and even most fans of the Badgers basketball team will groan when the slow, calculated style of play is brought up in conversation. But there is a reason Wisconsin can be competitive with any team in America, essentially every year. Last year's Badgers team, despite a disappointing NCAA Tournament run, did beat Indiana and Michigan on its way to the Big Ten title game. No matter the level of talent on the team, Bo Ryan's system works, and I'm not sure Wisconsin basketball would be anything to get excited about without it.
Aaron Rodgers. Now is the time to really appreciate what the Green Bay Packers have with their quarterback, with the team in a tailspin after his collarbone injury. It's created a malaise over the state's football scene, but at least we know (with our limited volume of evidence) that the team really does have a player who can turn a mediocre squad into a great one. I never want to hear anyone complain about Rodgers holding onto the ball too long again on the heels of games where interceptions played a huge role in the loss.
Elite area football. For fans of prep sports, Level 3 and Level 4 football games are about as entertaining as it gets. The community turnout, the level of play and the setting of football in late October and early November creates the best atmosphere of the season, right up there (in my estimation) with state wrestling, sectional basketball and state boys volleyball. In the area, teams from Oconomowoc, Mukwonago, Arrowhead and Lake Country Lutheran all reached Level 3, and Pewaukee and Sussex Hamilton were capable of getting that far with tough Level 2 matchups against Catholic Memorial and Homestead, respectively. It's fun to be a prep football fan in the coverage area.
2011. With each passing month, I'm starting to think there may never be another year than this one, when the Packers opened the season with a Super Bowl victory, then went 15-1 in the 2011 regular season (before a 2012 playoff exit). It was a year when the Brewers enjoyed a 96-win season and run to the NLCS, and both Wisconsin and Marquette made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. It feels as though the Wisconsin sports scene has been a little snake-bitten since then, with Rodgers' injury among the more recent disappointments.
The Bucks' struggles. As a local sports fan, I obviously don't want to see a team start off as poorly as Milwaukee has in the NBA, besieged by injuries and offensive ineptitude. But despite the contrarian in me, I really just don't see how it benefits Milwaukee to have lukewarm success this year, and I subscribe to the prevailing idea that a bad season means the Bucks will dramatically improve next year after adding from a loaded draft class. We saw last year how hollow a playoff berth can be, and there simply is no better way to become an upper-tier NBA team without a superstar-quality talent. They don't have that now and they're not going to get it on the free market. I don't know if the franchise's intention was to struggle this season, but I really think ultimately, that will be a positive outcome.
Great photography. Newspapers have been an evolving business, particularly in the last decade, but even as quality camera equipment has become more accessible, I'm really proud of the photographers we have on staff and think they set us apart from what can be obtained elsewhere. Guys like Scott Ash, Peter Zuzga, C.T. Kruger and Todd Ponath have helped make our prep sports coverage far more meaningful and colorful to our readers, and they have the awards to back it up.
Carlos Gomez's Gold Glove. I admit it, I truly believed the voters for the Gold Glove awards would give the center field honor in the National League to Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh. The awards have become a punch line among baseball fans, routinely awarded to questionable selections who possess the best offensive acumen (so much that it has become a running joke when a player "has the offensive numbers" to win a Gold Glove). McCutchen, who ultimately won National League MVP, probably has a higher national profile than Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez, even though Gomez's highlight-reel catches have provided insight into his magnificent defense, and he even had his best offensive season to boot. Fortunately, the rise of defensive metrics has helped voters become more informed, and when Gomez won the award, it gave Milwaukee its first Gold Glove since Robin Yount in 1982. It was totally deserved for a player that gave Brewers fans something to watch during a terrible 2013.
Expanded replay. I believe the game of baseball will be better off when baseball institutes its expanded use of video replay next year, even if the system has a clunky implementation with a stupid challenge system. Eventually, this element will be crafted to integrate properly into Major League Baseball, and it will add virtually no extra time to the game time.
Returning home fakeouts. For whatever reason, it has become a popular tradition for servicemen and women to return home from military service earlier than expected, then stun loved ones who had been brought onto the field at a sporting event under alternate pretenses. ESPN recently compiled a music video chronicling a number of these occasions, including fathers who disguise themselves as catchers during ceremonial first pitches at baseball games or as mascots at basketball games. My son was born almost two years ago, and I swear something must have changed in my brain chemistry when he arrived, because those videos pretty much get me every time. There's just something special about marrying two things that bring us so much emotion: family and sports.
"Jump Around." It took me a long time to warm up to this Wisconsin Badgers football tradition, perhaps because it started so recently (1998) and featured a song that didn't really have any distinctive link to Wisconsin or the Badgers community. But it has become one of college football's great moments when everyone at Camp Randall Stadium jumps in concert to the House of Pain song before the start of the fourth quarter. It's an experience you just have to see for yourself.
Pictured: Students jump up and down to the song "Jump Around" during the fourth quarter of the Wisconsin Badgers win over Purdue on Sept. 21. (Photo by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
This story first appeared in July of 2012 in the Mukwonago Chief as the No. 1 moment in the "Mukwonago Moments" series chronicling the best athletics moments in MHS history. For the first time since this game was played, MHS will suit up in a Level 4 football game Friday against Franklin for a berth in the state-title game.
So many iconic movies possess the same storyline. Star player gets hurt, backup leads team to glory. Consult "Varsity Blues, "Friday Night Lights" or "Any Given Sunday" for examples.
How often does reality meet the fairy tale? In 2004, the Mukwonago football team had no particular desire to find out, but in a Level 4 football game against Menomonee Falls with a massive crowd watching, there was no time to blink. Several times before, the Indians had reached the state semifinals, but no Mukwonago team had broken through to reach the state championship game in Madison.
Quarterback John Witte, the leader of Mukwonago's triple-option offense, left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury. Senior Matt Bird was suddenly on the spot.
"I had always been ready," Bird said. "I had always known there was a chance I would go in. I had seen some time earlier in the season, so at no point did I feel I wasn't ready. We were deep at every position; that was something we had going for us."
Two weeks later, Mukwonago was state champion. The Indians (14-0) defeated Marshfield, 17-6, behind a remarkable individual effort from Witte, who shook off the effects of the preceding week's injury to rack up 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Mukwonago had its place in history, but it's hard to look at that championship game without thinking of the 15-14 grinder at Waukesha North one week earlier.
Bird of a feather
Menomonee Falls brought its own undefeated record into the Division 1 semifinal, but it came in knowing quarterback Henry Lau would not play. Mukwonago's advantage in that department lasted only through the first part of the game before Witte found himself rolled up by the tenacious Falls defense.
"I should have thrown the ball away instead of trying to make something out of nothing," Witte recalled. "Falls did a great job of collapsing on me, and I rolled my ankle pretty bad. I couldn't finish out the game."
Neither Witte nor Bird was envisioned to start the year at QB by the coaching staff.
"Brad Fehly was the quarterback at the beginning of the year, but we had to fortify the defense," said coach Keith Hensler of a player who had earned All Conference mention at cornerback the preceding year. "Witte had been doing such a great job for us. The offense just moved when he was in there. Matt kind of stood up and became a leader for the rest of that game. He gave a speech (at halftime). We decided as an offensive staff, we were going to go back to basic stuff the rest of the game and let Matt settle in there and see what he could do."
Bird had been used on passing downs throughout the year, but this wasn't a passing team, using the running abilities of Witte, Scott Perkins and others. On his first snap, Bird fumbled the ball. He threw an interception in the second quarter to Spencer Schultz that set up a tying score, and Falls took a 14-7 lead into the break.
Most movie scripts involve the backup struggling on his first few opportunities. This game was no different.
"I just remember it being such an up and down game," Bird said. "The emotions were so high. In coach Hensler's tenure, they had made it to the semifinal game three times before that. We wanted to do it for him and the coaching staff that had been there for so long. I just remember you'd have guys stepping up trying to calm people down."
Menomonee Falls missed a field goal before halftime and never got within the Mukwonago 44 in the second half.
"The defense had been lights out all year," said Perkins, who finished the game with 93 yards on 17 carries. "We didn't really get going (on offense) until the Waukesha West game when we put 35 up on them (in week 7). Up until then, our offense was just coming along, coming along."
It took until the fourth quarter for Mukwonago to drive into position to tie the game. But Perkins was stopped short of a first down inside the 1-yard line on fourth down, giving the ball back to Falls.
No matter, as Jeff Trinka finished off a safety on Falls running back Ryan Gorecki on the next play, pulling MHS back to within 14-9 and returning possession to Mukwonago.
"That was one of the special things about our team; we never went into a game or a play or series thinking that weweren't going to do what we were supposed to do," Perkins said. "It's one of the reasons we got so far, that confidence. It wasn't just an individual. Everyone had it."
Bird only finished 2 for 5 for 18 yards passing, but that wasn't his sole contribution. On second and 17 on the ensuing possession, Bird scrambled for 20 yards and a first down to the Falls 33. Backup fullback Pat Wright - replacing Perkins as he worked through his own leg and ankle ailments - rushed 21 yards to the 2-yard line.
On the next play, Wright deferred to Matt Gregory.
"That was probably the best play of my life, and all I had to do was hand off the ball," Bird said.
Gregory was into the end zone, and Mukwonago had a 15-14 lead. The Indians were able to wear down the clock and hold on.
"We always say that was a state championship game," Bird said. "Falls was the best team we played. If you play them 10 times, you're going to split. We were lucky enough that day. I remember feeling this weight off my shoulders. I felt like if we lost, it would have been me letting the team down.
"It was a life changing game. It's something I'll never forget."
Pictured: Matt Gregory scores the winning touchdown for Mukwonago in the 2004 Level 4 win over Menomonee Falls (file photo)
There's definitely a catch to being the best.
For Hamilton girls basketball standout Mackenzie Latt and her family, these have been a trying few days. Word came out Nov. 1 that Latt, the all-time leading scorer in the school's history and the cornerstone of the team's consecutive Greater Metro Conference titles, would be moving with her family to Michigan and spending the remainder of her senior year at Gull Lake High School in Richland, Mich.
It goes without saying that the change will be a big blow to the Chargers' chances at a three-peat. The 6-1 forward, who recently signed a Letter of Intent to play basketball for Davidson University in North Carolina next year, was named first-team All State last year in Division 1 in 2013, averaging 19.2 points per game and 6.2 rebounds.
If Latt were just another player, her family's relocation (father Scott accepted an executive marketing position after 2 1/2 months out of work) may not make a ripple. Instead, the Latts have heard some strong opinions.
"Mackenzie has been so selfless," said her mother, Dee, who served on the Hamilton coaching staff for five years. "She said, 'Now my brother (freshman Chris) can get into a new situation right away, and I can help his transition. It's only half a year for me and I'm gone either way.' It's not that she wants to leave Hamilton; she's played here all her life. It's a difficult thing. She has friends and family in the program. She's heard from people that think she's being selfish. She said, 'It's not even about me, it's so much bigger than me.'"
There are wrinkles to the story that make the circumstances cloudier. Hamilton will be under a new coaching regime this year, led by head coach Bill Scasny, after former coach Dan Carey accepted a position with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's basketball program. Scasny, a veteran coach who guided Divine Savior Holy Angels to seven WISAA and two WIAA state-tournament appearances, was chosen over a number of candidates, including Dee Latt and Vance Forrest, both assistants under Carey.
It's hard to tell if the coaching situation had played out differently whether the Latts could have explored makeshift ways to make everything work. But that's not fair to either side. Hamilton moved in the direction it felt best for the program as a whole, and Scasny's experience makes him a superb choice for any program. Meanwhile, it wouldn't have changed the fact that Scott Latt needed a job, and it would have been a lot to expect the family to live separately purely to preserve Mackenzie's role on the basketball team, even if it's technically feasible.
"We almost had to move when (Mackenzie's older sister) Danielle was a senior (two years ago)," Dee said. "He (Scott) had accepted a position in Baltimore, and at the 11th hour (circumstances changed). Two years later, we find ourselves in the same spot. He was offered this secure position, and we just have to take it. You take everything else out of the equation, and we need to have income."
Both Dee and Mackenzie were emotional in describing the situation. This is not something they considered lightly, not a move to respond to the coaching climate at Hamilton and not some way for Latt to increase her profile as a basketball player. If this was a family driven by those motivations, it seems logical Mackenzie's career would have started at a school with a greater track record of success. It may be hard to convince everyone of this, but this wasn't a basketball-driven decision.
Though it's a disappointing reality, Hamilton athletic director Mike Gosz came away with the same impression.
"It was a shock; I had absolutely no inclination this was going to happen," Gosz said. "I didn't know (Scott) was out of a job. When I got call from Bill on Thursday night, I was kind of in a mild state of shock. You don't want to believe it. Aside from her being a tremendous basketball player, she's just a great kid. You're losing a great family, good people in this community. I just wish she could stay for her senior year, but I understand the family component of it, obviously. You have to respect that. I assured them whatever I can do to ease the process through the transition, lean on me. My goal is help her be eligible on Day 1 (in the new school)."
Gull Lake certainly doesn't have a bad program, but it's not as if the Latts were looking around the Midwest for a powerhouse. The school made the move to Class A — the biggest schools in Michigan — two years ago and has been bumped from the infant rounds of the postseason the last two years. The squad went a respectable 13-7 last year and took third in the SMAC East. The team last made the state tournament as a Class B school in 2010, falling 72-39 in the quarterfinals.
Was there a possibility of Mackenzie staying behind somehow while her family relocated? It's been done before. But ask yourself: if your family were suddenly leaving in the next few weeks, or if someone asked to live with you starting in two weeks for the next several months, how easily could you make that transition? In this case, these are the final months Mackenzie gets to spend with her family before leaving to attend college on the coast.
"We just didn't choose to (split our family)," Dee said. "I wonder what people would say if they were faced with that situation. Mackenzie is older and more mature than a typical senior who would be kicking and screaming (as her family moved). It's not that she's not disappointed, but she won't say to us that she's not going."
It's true: Latt is one of the most mature high-school kids you'll find, and she has been since she started as a freshman for the Chargers. In three seasons, Hamilton went 54-17, and she scored 1,135 points — breaking the old school record midway through her junior year. She was at her best when the program won its first-ever conference title in a season finale win over Divine Savior Holy Angels in overtime two years ago. But more than that, she's an eloquent kid who adores the program and her place therein.
She's helped Hamilton become one of the state's best girls basketball teams. She's also strong enough to handle the scrutiny that comes with this change.
"I've been really blessed with some great experiences at Hamilton and as a Charger," Mackenzie said. "I've been a Charger my whole life. I have a lot of special moments from being able to play with my sister, being able to have my mom as my coach, building relationships outside of my blood family ... It's really hard to leave that. We've had some great moments."
I get the outside perspective. There are assumptions to be made. A coaching change, a parent who doesn't get the job, and a star player suddenly weighing his or her options. But this isn't a vendetta or helicopter-parent in action. It's a no-win situation.
The official confirmation of "Edward C. Rux Stadium" could not come at a more appropriate time.
As the Oconomowoc High School football team, with a record at 10-0 after Oct. 25, prepared for the WIAA playoffs, word came down from the Oconomowoc Area School Board that the stadium would be named in honor of the legendary coach, a WIFCA Hall of Fame inductee in 1999 who led the team from 1967 to 1999. He won 10 conference titles, reached the playoffs 12 times, and led the Raccoons to one state-championship appearance in 1987, a heartbreaking 3-0 loss to Fond du Lac.
The naming was designed to coincide with the improvements to the stadium, scheduled as part of the Athletic Fields Forever campaign. Assuming all elements go smoothly, the stadium will have a new track and artificial turf in time for the 2014 kickoff. A group of OHS alumni contacted several of Rux's former players in a campaign to raise the funds that would equate to the cost of naming rights, with the intent to name the stadium after Rux.
It's a nod to the good old days, which is important for a program that is slowly but surely finding the good old days on its own. From 1986 to 1988, Oconomowoc did not lose a regular-season football game, a feat that was never accomplished again at the school … until now.
The milestones have piled up, and as the outdoor athletic fields undergo improvements under AFF, the glossy shine seems to be rubbing off on the athletes themselves. Though success has touched all the sports at OHS, nothing quite galvanizes a community like a successful football team, particularly in Oconomowoc where city and small-town living seem to so perfectly co-exist.
Success across sports
For two straight years, Oconomowoc has won the Wisconsin Little Ten "All-Sports Award," and the school has a head start on this year's as well, with two conference champions, three runners-up and two third-place finishers among the 2013 fall teams.
Among them: the football team, which won the conference title for the first time since 2002, won a playoff game for the first time since 2001 and also topped Wisconsin Lutheran for the first time since 2001. On Homecoming before a mammoth crowd, that game became instantly cemented in legend when the Raccoons defeated the Vikings, 84-82, a game that made national headlines and shattered the previous state record for combined point total by 33 points.
It will surely serve as the signature moment of Oconomowoc’s turnaround until the school captures a state title. The school has just two state titles in the traditional WIAA sports since 1998 (Brad Blersch in wrestling in 2005, Courtney Walden in pole vault in 2010), with no WIAA team titles since 1981 (though the team does have two team titles in the fledgling wheelchair division of the girls track and field meet behind solo racer Melanie Watson, as well as a non-WIAA sailing title). Sophomore cross-country runner Marlie Houston headed to the state meet Saturday with a very strong chance to add to that mantle, and the football team is showing it belongs in the title conversation.
Last spring was perhaps a turning point for Oconomowoc. On the heels of the wrestling team winning its first conference title since 1998 – another return to glory for a program that once owned the WLT – Oconomowoc won spring titles in girls soccer, baseball, boys track and field and softball. The boys track team, which never had a chance to compete on its own track after it fell below proper quality conditions, was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state and came into the state meet as a potential winner. The 2013 senior class produced six Division 1 college athletes.
And now, there is football. Regardless of how 2013 plays out, the team has made a name for itself under fifth-year coach Ryan McMillen and given the community yet another reason to believe in the direction of the program.
Wisconsin Lutheran has asked the WIAA to seek realignment from the Little Ten, citing (reasonably) travel concerns. The domino effect of any change could alter the landscape of Milwaukee-area athletics, since it's never as simple as merely removing one team and replacing it with another. Several leagues could be affected, and with the unfriendly travel conditions in the WLT, it seems entirely possible that the conference's days are numbered as a whole.
Should Oconomowoc wind up elsewhere, perhaps an expanded or re-drawn Classic 8, the school will have yet another challenge against some of the state's premier athletic programs, including some very close geographic rivals. At this point, OHS seems more prepared than ever to take that potential scenario head-on.
The school already has a state-of-the-art field house and a community that supports its athletics. With the improvement in success rate and the improvement in facilities, Oconomowoc could be one of the best things going in a Waukesha County that collects championships like candy on Halloween.
When the Raccoons gaze upon the new-look Edward C. Rux Stadium, they'll have reason to think about the storied past, all the while adding chapter after chapter to the present.
Pictured: The Oconomowoc High School football field, shown in April of 2012, will be undergoing changes in the near future. (Photo by Todd Ponath)
Correction: The initial version of this article omitted Courtney Walden as a past state champion. Walden won the 2010 pole vault in girls track and field.
I'll admit it, there is one aspect of this year's WIAA football grouping process that threw me.
When the groupings were initially made early Saturday morning, the Division 2 field placed Homestead and Kimberly — possibly the two best teams in the state — in the same pod, then made a switch that swapped North Shore champion Homestead (9-0 overall, 7-0 in NSC) with Messmer/Shorewood (7-2, 7-0 in Midwest Classic), placing the former in the "northeast" and the latter in the "southeast."
Then, the move was switched back. Initially, the WIAA believed it had made a mistake by not equitably dividing undefeated conference champions, but upon further review, the initial placements had been correct. The language at issue in the WIAA precepts reads as follows:
"Each 32 team division will be divided into four geographical sections (A, B, C, D) of 8 teams each with priority given to having an equal number of conference champions in each section. In addition, undefeated conference champions (8-0, 9-0) will be identified. An attempt to equitably divide them throughout the geographical groupings shall be made."
I've always considered "undefeated conference champions" to mean "undefeated teams that also won their conference championship" (as in the "8-0, 9-0" example) but the WIAA clarified early this week in saying that simply meant "undefeated in conference." It sure seems like the WIAA realized that after first interpreting it differently. With the swap, each pool would have had one of these undefeated-overall teams, even if it betrayed the geography to a small degree. Without the swap, Messmer/Shorewood's pool (fronted by top seed Waukesha West and No. 2 seed Waterford) did not have an undefeated-overall but did have two conference champs, including a Messmer/Shorewood team that swept the Midwest Classic.
Though perhaps not central to the machinations of dividing the teams appropriately is the fact that Homestead's "northeast" pool can be perceived as significantly more talent-loaded than the "southeast." The swap would have been logical but did not fall in line with the process of constructing the bracket. If the WIAA looked at making the move with the idea that it made for greater subjective balance to swap Homestead and Messmer/Shorewood (there's no indication this was precisely what was being discussed), the WIAA was smart to reverse course and avoid that precedent.
Because here's the thing: despite the complaints that get levied against the WIAA each year, with the process called a "joke" and unfair toward someone in the draw, the process is the same every year. The WIAA can justify every move with its own regulations (though perhaps the language could stand to be tightened a bit), purposefully avoiding a situation where it uses anything other than conference records to compare teams. We all know that's not a true indicator of team excellence, but in the interest of creating an objective process, this is what the WIAA and coaches association has agreed upon.
Nobody is saying that Messmer/Shorewood, with an enrollment that lands it in D2 despite playing in a league full of smaller schools, could defeat Homestead, one of the favorites to win the Division 2 title. But in the eyes of the process, these two teams are 7-0 and should be treated as equals. When the regions are drawn, sending Homestead (which is north of Messmer) north and keeping Messmer/Shorewood south is part of fulfilling the ideal of dividing league champs.
The natural reaction — every year, despite our best efforts to educate — is "that's stupid." Why shouldn't the WIAA look at Homestead, realize it's one of the best in the state, and keep it from playing another of the state's best in Kimberly so early, especially when the difference in geography is so negligible? The answer: because it's unreasonable to expect the same treatment can be given across the board.
In Division 5, a team that has been among the top-ranked in the state all year (Stratford) is only a fifth seed. Could anyone in Milwaukee properly assess how to better divide Stratford, Colby, Marathon, Arcadia, Mondovi and Amherst? These are some of the state's very best at their level, but most Milwaukee-area prep football fans couldn't name one player on any of those teams.
With the breadth of teams and only so much information available in the world of varsity football, there's no such thing as an expert who can objectively look across the state and give each team an "eye test," even if we're just talking the best teams in the state. Without a committee of minds who know the merits of each team (because one cannot possibly exist), there's no possibility for a subjective evaluation for everyone. Even if you feel confident in saying Homestead and Kimberly should be separate, is it fair if you can't speak with the same level of confidence for D5 teams? It's unreasonable to expect the WIAA to know every team at every division, and they acknowledge that with their system.
Neither state poll can be trusted to give anyone a proper indication. I say this as an AP voter; I do the research necessary to make an informed opinion, but I'm obviously no expert on telling the difference between St. Mary Springs and Edgar. I couldn't tell you even on a bigger level if the Big 8 out of Madison (which does not play nonconference games) is better as a whole than the Classic 8. Thus, out goes the "strength of schedule" argument. We can take an educated guess which team is better, but that's not enough to group brackets differently.
The system we have now, in its second year, is infinitely better than its predecessor. Now, the WIAA only has to give us pods of eight, and the eight coaches in each group can make the subjective evaluations (which is why not every conference champ is given a top-four seed). Prior to now, the WIAA also used its objective measures to seed the top four teams, then paired matchups based on geography. The end result was a number of unfair opening-round or Level 2 matchups. This way, at least, the units of eight are seeded appropriately.
So please, before lashing out at the system for being unfair or biased, consider all the angles. Consider that the system is responsible for 224 teams, and no proper subjective measure works across the board to more fairly distribute the talent. It's really not that bad of a system.
Mark Stewart and JR Radcliffe discuss high school sports in this weekly video.
- The annual guide to March Madness (through the Wisconsin prism) (0)
- Area golf center finds new ways to enhance young golfers (0)
- Female wrestlers play key roles in Classic 8 (0)
- Questions on the table as WIAA tournaments begin (0)
- Area wrestlers thinking podium with postseason right ahead (0)
- Goodbye to the 2013 football season (0)
- A peek ahead at the March Madness radar (0)
- Alumni players have fond state memories (0)
- Local teams on the path to success in 2014 (0)
- Thanking those who gave state squads a helping hand (0)
- More Preps Alcove posts