APPLETON – Hoisting the gold ball on Championship Saturday is the No. 1 goal of practically every high school basketball team in the state.
It’s never been done by an Appleton school in the 41-year history of the WIAA state girls’ basketball tournament, but Appleton North has a chance to change that.
Can the Lightning end the four-decade drought and make local history by raising Wisconsin prep basketball’s grand prize at the Resch Center Saturday night?
It will take two strong games, but North has the skills and state tournament experience to get it done. The Lightning enter Friday’s 6:35 p.m. Division 1 state semifinal game against Milwaukee King unbeaten at 26-0 and ranked No. 1 among Division 1 teams in the Associated Press and wissports.net state polls.
If North players feel any pressure as a top-ranked team, they’re doing a good job of disguising it.
“All season long, we’ve been ranked No. 1 and I don’t think we ever really looked at it as pressure,” said North junior Sydney Levy, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recruit and the team’s leading scorer with an 18.9 points per game average. “We’ve tried to ignore all the hype and focus on what was in front of us.”
No Appleton public school has even reached a WIAA state girls’ basketball championship game. Fox Valley Lutheran (2003, Division 2) and Xavier (2015, Division 3), a pair of private schools located in Appleton, advanced to WIAA state title games before finishing as state runner-ups.
“There’s pressure there, obviously, but we don’t really feel it much,” said North senior guard Callie Pohlman. “It’s an opportunity to play basketball for another week against some great competition. We’re really hoping we’ll go far and hopefully we’ll get that gold ball.”
It’s the second straight state tournament appearance for North and the Lightning is hoping for a more extended stay at the Resch. North was beaten by eventual state champion Verona, 69-41, in its 2016 state tourney opener and didn’t play well, shooting just 28.6 percent from the floor. The Lightning returned a vast majority of last year’s state-qualifying team and probably won’t be battling as many butterflies.
“I wouldn’t say we were surprised to get to state last year, but the feeling is just different this year,” said Kari Brekke, the team’s superb junior point guard. “It was the first time there for all of us and we really didn’t know what to expect. This year, we’re just a more confident team.
“We face a very good Milwaukee King team right away and hopefully we’ll have more than one game. With us, the thought process is: just take care of business, play our game and hopefully we’ll be playing Saturday night.”
The Lightning’s game is built around high-energy defense. North pressures opponents relentlessly, plays a fast-paced game and scores a ton of points off turnovers. The Lightning is deeper than most opponents and has plenty of scoring options in Levy (61 3-pointers), Brekke (10.8 points per game, 42 3-pointers), Paige Schabo (10.7, 38 3-pointers) and Pohlman (8.5 ppg).
“We get in everyone’s face with tenacious defense,” Brekke said. “We use our bench a lot and we’ve been able to wear teams down and feed off turnovers, and just kind of feed off the chaos.”
North’s exceptional depth has made for team harmony and a winning chemistry.
“I think we have a real family atmosphere,” said Lightning coach Joe Russom. “Before a lot of games, I’ve said we’re playing the village tonight, which means everyone is going to play. We want to come at you in waves.
“The best compliment I got this season was from an FVA coach who said our top six would win the FVA, our second six would take third in the FVA and our JVs would finish sixth. That shows our depth.”
Russom is a firm believer that endurance wins ballgames and North is a better-conditioned teams than most foes. His Lightning squads always open practice in November with three or four days of “boot camp” built around intense conditioning drills – with no basketballs used. There have been years when he’s added a second one in the middle of the season.
“Boot camp really sets the tone for our season,” Brekke said. “If we can survive that, that makes the game easier.”
Despite the team’s high skill level, most of the Lightning players are multi-sport athletes who don’t specialize in basketball.
“We support multi-sport athletes. I’m a huge believer in that,” Russom said. “With the exception of maybe one player, all our kids play at least one other sport. And then when we start basketball practice we do a lot of different things to keep fit: like weight training and yoga.”
While some might consider the Lightning to be the Division 1 favorite, Russom knows that rankings and records mean little at the state tourney. The Lightning’s state opener will be an extremely tough test against another unbeaten team: 25-0 Milwaukee King, which is rated second behind North in the AP and wissports.net state polls.
“I see four teams there that are really good,” Russom said. “Jeff Kind (of Middleton) has led his team there multiple times and De Pere has been there multiple times, too.
“I don’t think it’s a situation like volleyball where you’ve got the No. 1 and No. 2 coming into state and playing each other right away and that’s the championship game. You’ve got four really good teams and whoever plays the best ball is going to win it.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @twfroberg
WIAA state girls’ basketball tournament
At Resch Center, Ashwaubenon
Friday’s Division 1 games
Appleton North (26-0) vs. Milwaukee King (25-0) – 6:35 p.m.
De Pere (24-2) vs. Middleton (23-3)
Saturday’s Division 1 championhip – 8:15 p.m.