HORTONVILLE – The world was a different place the last time Hortonville competed in the WIAA state girls’ basketball tournament.
Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president.
The Internet, email and “Seinfeld” were still a few years away.
And the Green Bay Packers were still mired in a post-Lombardi funk, unable to find a quality quarterback and a winning coach.
It has been 30 years since Hortonville lost to Brown Deer 47-46 in overtime at the 1987 Class B state semifinals, and the Polar Bears are hoping for a longer stay in their return trip.
Hortonville (20-5) will play Cudahy (19-7) on Friday at 1:35 p.m. in a state semifinal at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
“It’s a really exciting time for our program and our community,” said Polar Bears junior guard Shay Frederick. “Being able to make it to state with my best friends and the girls on the team is really rewarding, especially with all the hard work we’ve put in.”
Polar Bears coach Celeste Ratka was still eight months away from being born when the Polar Bears made the program’s one and only state appearance at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse in the spring of 1987.
“That is kind of odd that it last happened the year I was born — makes me realize how old I am,” said Ratka, with a laugh.
Hortonville came close to reaching state the last two seasons, losing to Onalaska 59-52 in a 2016 sectional final and to Mosinee 41-31 in a 2015 sectional semifinal. Frederick and post player Morgan Allen were part of both teams.
“Those losses were definitely motivators,” said Allen, who will play Division I college basketball at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Returning players like myself knew what it felt like to lose those games and we didn’t want to let it happen again.”
They didn’t. The Polar Bears disposed of New London 55-40 in their sectional opener and blew out Menomonie 74-44 in Saturday’s sectional championship.
“It hurt losing in the sectional finals last year,” Frederick said. “It was heartbreaking and that’s why this is so rewarding. It’s great to be able to say that we’re finally going to state.”
Ratka, who played under her maiden name of Hoewisch in her prep days at Hortonville (2002-06) and college career at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, couldn’t get the Polar Bears to state as a player.
But she got it done in her first year as a prep coach.
“All the credit goes to the kids,” said Ratka. “They really bought into what we were doing right from the beginning and we meshed right away. They’ve shown a great heart. They’ve really wanted this and have been hungry to get better and get another opportunity after coming up a little short last year.”
Despite a lack of actual coaching experience, Ratka started the job with impressive credentials after an outstanding college hoops career at UWGB, where she scored 1,425 points and was a prominent member of four NCAA Tournament teams. She played briefly overseas before working as a video coordinator from 2012 to 2015 at the University of Illinois for former Phoenix coach Matt Bollant.
“Her knowledge of the game is incredible,” Frederick said. “It’s second to none really, and she brought a great coaching staff along with her. They’ve been great leaders for us.”
Hortonville started fast under the new coach, winning its first six games. The Polar Bears eventually finished second in the Fox Valley Association (14-4) behind unbeaten Appleton North, the No. 1-ranked team in Division 1.
“Right from the beginning, she (Ratka) was great for our team,” said Allen. “She set expectations high and she was definitely prepared for this.”
Frederick, a top-notch shooter, and the 6-foot-1 Allen give the Polar Bears major threats on both the perimeter and inside the paint. Frederick leads the team with a 17.1 scoring average and has drilled 76 3-pointers. Allen averages 15.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and is shooting 56 percent from the floor.
Emily Nelson (8.0 ppg), Olivia Griesbach (6.5 ppg), Olivia Bogan (4.7 ppg), Lexi Walter (3.9 ppg) and Claire Van Beek (2.5 ppg) have also been solid contributors for the Polar Bears.
“I was extremely blessed to come into a situation where I had really talented players and really good kids with high character and high basketball IQs,” said Ratka, whose father, Dean Hoewisch, serves as her top assistant. “They were like little sponges when we were going through the teaching things. They kept wanting more and were eager to learn and grow.
“Still, you can never fully prepare yourself for that first year. I had great help. I had great assistants around me that made my life a lot easier and took a lot of pressure off me. Plus, my husband and my entire family were amazing. In moving back home, this is what I wanted: having family around to be a part of our lives and part of the experience. I honestly couldn’t have done it without them.”
While Hortonville is rated eighth among Division 2 teams in the wissports.net rankings and received honorable mention in the final Associated press poll, Cudahy is unranked.
Still, the Packers have enough talent to take out the Polar Bears. Hannah Kulas, a 5-11 junior, and Bailey Eichner, a 6-1 senior, are tall, talented players who have been extremely productive. Kulas averages 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds, while Eichner contributes 12.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. They are also the Packers’ top 3-point shooters and have combined for 62 threes.
Eichner will play Division I college basketball next season at William & Mary.
“They’re a really good, well-coached team that is playing their best basketball,” said Ratka. “Hannah Kulas is a really talented player. Bailey Eichner is really long and really athletic and she can handle the ball.
“Their coach (Bob Maronde) was the high school coach of one of my Green Bay teammates (Sarah Eichler) and you can see that his kids believe in the system. They’ve been on a really good run and are going to be tough to beat.”
With it being the Polar Bears’ first state tournament game in three decades, Hortonville figures to be a lonely place Friday afternoon. The Polar Bears have received strong fan support all season and expect to see plenty of red and white in the seats at the Resch.
“Going to state is just a great way to represent our town,” Allen said. “We get so much support from the community. I’m super excited for everyone.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @twfroberg
Division 2 state
Resch Center, Ashwaubenon
1:35 p.m. – Hortonville (20-5) vs. Cudahy (19-7), followed by Beaver Dam (26-0) vs. Monroe (21-3)
Saturday’s 2 championship
6:35 p.m. – Semifinal winners