APPLETON – Xavier’s opening hurdle at the WIAA state boys’ basketball tournament couldn’t be much higher.
The Hawks face an enormous challenge in their 3:15 p.m. Division 3 state semifinal Thursday against another 26-0 team, Ripon.
The contest should have a championship game feel. Ripon is ranked No. 1 among Division 3 teams in the Associated Press and wissports.net state polls, while Xavier is No. 2 in both.
“They’ve been ranked No. 1 pretty much the entire year and people have been saying that it’s their year,” said Xavier coach Matt Klarner. “They have an incredible amount of talent and they’re a really good basketball team. We’re excited for the challenge.”
Ripon, winner of the East Central Conference, is coached by former University of Wisconsin-Green Bay player Dean Vander Plas. His son, 6-foot-8 Bennett Vander Plas, and 6-4 senior forward Eddie Muench are the catalysts of a tall, talented Tigers team.
Muench averages a team-high 23.0 points per game and is a major threat from the perimeter with 80 3-pointers. Vander Plas averages 19.5 points and 12.3 rebounds and is shooting 57 percent from the floor.
The Tigers also have a top-notch point guard in senior Melvin Lee (12.3 ppg).
“Bennett (Vander Plas) is just a force,” said Klarner. “He’s one of the top players in the entire state. And then they have Eddie Muench, a tall athletic wing who can score from inside and outside. They also have a lightning-quick point guard (Lee) who can get to the rim. And they have good athletes surrounding them.
“They really have the complete package: size, length, athleticism and skill. They are everything people have said they are.”
Ripon beat Waupun, last year’s Division 3 state champion, 53-50 in a sectional semifinal before topping Martin Luther 78-63 in the sectional championship. Martin Luther is ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, while Waupun is No. 6.
“They have three really good players and like us, they like to run,” said Xavier junior Nate DeYoung. “Should be a great game.”
While Xavier will be making its third straight state tournament appearance, this will be Ripon’s first state tournament game since 2003.
“It should be a really fun game, a battle of two unbeaten teams,” said Hawks junior guard Sam Ferris. “We need to play a really good game.”
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The freewheeling Hawks are averaging 83.0 points per game, while the Tigers are scoring at a 72.0 ppg clip.
“We’re going to have to just continue to play our game offensively, try and play with some tempo and spread the ball around and put points on the board because we know they’re going to be really difficult to stop,” said Klarner.
“We’re going to have to play within ourselves offensively and do what we normally do. On the defensive end, we’re going to have to find a way to slow them down and limit the shots they get. We always talk about winning the rebounding battle and that’s something we pride ourselves in.”
The Hawks boast a balanced attack led by guards Hunter Plamann (21.3 ppg) and Ferris (14.0 ppg), DeYoung (11.8 ppg), guard Cal Christensen (9.6 ppg) and forward Will Schlicht (8.5 ppg). Sixth man Henry Egan (9.5 ppg) and Nick Otto (4.3 ppg) give the team firepower off the bench. Plamann has connected on a team-high 46 3-pointers followed by Christensen (45), Ferris (40), Egan (29) and Otto (27).
In the other Division 3 bracket, Prescott (23-3) and Lake Mills (24-2) collide in a 1:35 p.m. semifinal. Lake Mills is ranked fourth in the AP poll and Prescott is fifth.
Prescott is led by big man Owen Hamilton, a 7-1 senior who is averaging 24.6 points and 12.3 rebounds. The Northern Illinois recruit has blocked 83 shots.
Lake Mills is powered by the 1-2 punch of guards Alex Rainey (19.8 ppg) and Brady Wagner (17.4 ppg). It is the first time the L-Cats have played in the WIAA state tourney.
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or email@example.com; on Twitter @twfroberg