APPLETON – The seeds of championship timber were planted long before the Appleton North basketball team walked off the Resch Center floor at the WIAA state girls’ basketball tournament in Ashwaubenon.
They were sown through the team’s “boot camp” consisting of early morning conditioning drills, as well as countless summer tournaments and years of experience battling in the rugged Fox Valley Association and in challenging nonconference matchups.
The end result was the city of Appleton’s first WIAA girls’ basketball state title delivered by a special group of student-athletes who carried the pressures of a top ranking only to meet and overcome every challenge presented in the Division 1 state championship victory over De Pere 49-34 late Saturday night.
Those players gathered in the Appleton North High School commons Sunday afternoon to celebrate with fans and parents and reflect on their undefeated season.
“It’s incredible. It’s so amazing,” Lightning senior Callie Pohlman said. “We’re just so blessed to have all these people here for us. Our family and friends. We’ve had such a great support system this year. All the hard work we put into this season and to have that championship gold ball, it’s amazing. I’m just so proud of everyone.”
The crowd was treated to a North band performance as well as a routine from the school’s cheer team, which also won the Wisconsin Association of Cheer/Pom coaches high school title in the All Girl Small Division.
“We always talk about this being a family and the texts we got from our alumni said they felt like this win was as much theirs as these kids,” Lightning coach Joe Russom told the crowd. “We’re blessed to have great kids and great parents and North is a great place. I love it.”
North traversed an imposing schedule that included victories against top teams from Indiana as well as an FVA lineup that included heavyweights Hortonville, a state qualifier in Division 2, and Appleton West. The Terrors were the only team to take the Lightning past regulation, losing 50-46 in an overtime game Jan. 14.
The Lightning upped its game in the postseason, blasting Oshkosh West (70-33) and Oshkosh North (62-47) in the regionals before downing Appleton West (61-47) and Chippewa Falls (79-52) in the sectionals.
Appleton North then wowed the Resch Center crowd Friday by dismantling Milwaukee King 75-52. The Generals had entered the game ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 18 overall in the nation by USA TODAY.
North then used a 20-4 outburst in the second half to fend off De Pere to capture the state title and finish the season with a 28-0 record.
“When you look at what these girls accomplished, the one thing they always went back to was their mental toughness,” Russom said. “We played some good teams and we got pushed, but they always fought back and that’s a credit to them and buying into everything that we do.”
North junior standout Sydney Levy, who led the Lightning in scoring this season, was thrilled to have shared the championship moment with some of her best friends.
“I think that this season we were super successful, not just because of the talent we have on our team but also because of how much we love each other and spending every day with these girls the last couple of months,” she said. “It’s incredible and there’s no one else I would rather end the season with.”
Senior forward Kate Lukashewich pointed to the team’s coaching staff, especially Lucas Jadin, as having a critical role in the team’s success.
“Lucas Jadin did an amazing job,” she said. “We did a whole lot of mental visualizations and really focused on what we needed to take care of and what other people were saying and what other people were wanting to happen and what their predictions were. He really made us buy into his program and kept us sane.”
That North’s win also netted the city its first WIAA girls’ hoops title was also something special for Lukashewich.
“It’s unbelievable that it’s never been done and we’re the first team to have done it,” she said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other girls by my side.”
Ricardo Arguello: 920-993-71919 or email@example.com; on Twitter @PCRicardo