GREEN BAY – A memorable ending to a legendary coaching career, a rather unique state championship performance and an unexpected playoff run on a new home field were produced by local high school teams this year.
Those feats headline the list of the top 10 prep sports stories for 2016, as voted on by the members of the Green Bay Press-Gazette sports staff.
1. Notre Dame’s Nowak gets state sendoff
Green Bay Notre Dame football coach John Nowak announced in March that the 2016 season would his final one.
His players ensured it would be a memorable one.
The Tritons advanced to the WIAA Division 3 state championship game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for a second straight year in November and brought home a runner-up trophy to add to the collection of state hardware the program has claimed under Nowak, who led Notre Dame to four WISAA state championship games and four WIAA state championship games in his legendary career.
Nowak, a 2004 inductee to the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, went 225-115 in 31 seasons as a head coach at Notre Dame and Premontre.
The Tritons went 12-2 this season to return to state and were powered by a running game that featured senior Nate Ihlenfeldt, who was second in the state with 2,253 rushing yards and combined for 31 touchdowns.
2. Coleman pair wins D3 boys state track and field title
The Coleman boys track and field team was the only local squad in any sport to win a WIAA state title this year.
It accomplished the feat with only two individuals.
Josh Pillath and Gunnar Patz secured the program’s first state championship by combining for 39 points to tie Wild Rose and Marathon for a share of the D3 title.
It was a unique sight to see the pair hoisting a team trophy on June 4 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in La Crosse.
Pillath showed to be a rather unique talent. The Wisconsin Track Coaches Association male athlete of the year produced top three finishes in four events, including state titles in the 110-meter hurdles and high jump, a runner-up finish in the 300 hurdles and a third-place medal for the discus in totaling 34 points.
The University of North Dakota recruit was one of two competitors in any division at the state meet to medal in four individual events and was the only one there competing in a running, jumping and throwing event.
3. Pulaski’s proving ground
Pulaski broke ground on the Red Raider Field of Dreams project in April and had Saputo Stadium built in time for the football team’s home opener on Sept. 2.
Following a one-win season, the squad proved it could work a quick turnaround on the ground as well.
The Red Raiders used a punishing running game to not only qualify for the WIAA playoffs for the first time since 2012, but advanced to the Division 2 state quarterfinals for the first time since 2009 by rallying from a 21-point deficit at home with 599 rushing yards to upend Holmen 56-49.
Pulaski also enjoyed state runs by its softball, girls soccer and girls tennis teams this year. Those squads will be getting new or renovated homes as well by the spring of 2018 as part of Phase II of the privately funded $4.9 million project, which also features the construction of baseball and softball diamonds, additional tennis courts and the conversion of the middle school field into a soccer complex.
4. Preble hits and kicks way to state
The Green Bay Preble baseball team advanced to the WIAA state tournament for the first time since 2002 and advanced to the D1 semifinals in June at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute. Fifteen of the Hornets’ 30 games were decided by two runs or fewer, including a 7-6 victory over Wausau West in the sectional semifinals that saw them rally from a four-run deficit.
The Preble boys soccer team enjoyed similar success on the pitch.
The Hornets finished as the D1 state runners-up for the second time in four years, coming up just short of winning the program’s first state title during a 1-0 loss to Milwaukee Marquette in November. Preble had a 26-game unbeaten streak and received votes in the USA TODAY/NSCAA national top 25 poll this year.
5. Notre Dame girls return to the Resch Center
The Notre Dame girls basketball team made the short trip to the Resch Center for the third time in four years after winning overtime contests against Pulaski and Beaver Dam to qualify in D2 for the WIAA state tournament in March.
The Notre Dame girls volleyball team also found its way back to the Resch Center in November.
The Tritons qualified for state for the second straight year and finished as the D2 state runners-up, becoming only the second Green Bay-area team to play in a state championship match since the Resch Center began hosting the WIAA state tournament in 2002.
6. Phenomenal Pirates
Bay Port had several individuals earn high honors this year.
Cole Van Lanen was the only football player from Wisconsin to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Jan. 9. Before going on to become a redshirt offensive lineman for the University of Wisconsin, Van Lanen closed out his prep career by repeating as the D1 state shot put champion and earning his sixth state medal overall by placing third for the discus during the WIAA state track and field meet in June at La Crosse.
Matt Lorbeck helped the Pirates capture the Fox River Classic Conference football title this year and was named the WFCA defensive player of the year. The Northern Illinois recruit was also the only player from Wisconsin selected to the American Family Insurance ALL-USA Football Team, earning second-team accolades as a linebacker.
Meanwhile, Isabelle Lee and Emma Lasecki made an instant impact in their respective sports. Lee went 33-3 as a freshman and finished as the D1 state runner-up in girls tennis, while Lasecki’s freshman season saw her earn FRCC swimmer of the year honors and three D1 state medals.
7. Pole vaulters set the bar for excellence
The best girls pole vaulters in the state were located in the FRCC this year, bar none.
The top four spots on the D1 podium for the event at the WIAA state track and field meet were occupied by competitors from that conference. The top five heights on the state honor roll were also obtained by individuals in the FRCC.
De Pere’s Kylie Swiekatowski was the best of the bunch, clearing 12 feet, 7 inches on June 3 to win her second state title and break the WIAA state pole vault record for D1. De Pere’s Grace Kowalkowski and Olivia Fabry along with Green Bay Preble’s Sheridan Michaud and Jensen Van Duyse all cleared 12-0 this year to tie for second on the state honor roll compiled by WisconsinTrackOnline.com.
8. NEC wrestlers show their might
The North Eastern Conference showed its muscle at the WIAA individual state wrestling tournament. The newly formed 10-team conference produced four state champions overall in Division 2, including title victories by three local competitors.
Oconto Falls’ Nate Trepanier (145 pounds) completed an undefeated season to claim a state title. Denmark’s Brock Bergelin (113) won a state title for a second straight year. Luxemburg-Casco’s Bryce Bosman (106) won a state championship as a freshman.
The NEC also produced a pair of D2 state runner-up finishes by Wrightstown’s Ben Klister (145) and Josh Verbeten (152). It was a fitting sendoff on Championship Saturday at the Kohl Center in Madison on Feb. 27 for Wrightstown coach Bill Verbeten, who retired following 37 years with the program.
9. Blazers make a new state run
N.E.W. Lutheran enjoyed another state run, but the one it made in June was of a new variety for the school.
The Blazers qualified for the WIAA state baseball tournament for the first time in program history, allowing longtime coach Mike Stock to end his career in the dugout at Fox Cities Stadium during a D4 semifinal game.
The N.E.W. Lutheran boys basketball team also made its familiar trip to the Kohl Center for the WIAA state tournament. The Blazers made its fourth straight appearance and sixth in seven years by advancing in D5.
10. West De Pere makes request to move
West De Pere requested during a WIAA area meeting in September that it would like to move out of the Bay Conference and into the Fox River Classic Conference.
Citing growing enrollment projections, school officials hope to see the switch made for the 2019-20 school year.
West De Pere is one of two remaining charter members of the Bay Conference, which was formed in 1970.
Meanwhile, the WIAA board of control made final approval in August for Peshtigo to move from the M&O Conference to the Packerland Conference, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.
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