APPLETON – There may have been only one sure way to stop the Xavier Hawks from getting another crack this season at the coveted gold ball.
But the WIAA wasn’t going to force the Hawks to shoot at 12-foot rims.
A keenly focused and highly efficient Xavier team has been like a rolling boulder all season and the 26-0 Hawks enter the 102nd annual WIAA state tournament hungry for the state title that has eluded them the past two seasons.
Closing the season at the Kohl Center is a rare achievement for most basketball programs, but it has become the norm for coach Matt Klarner’s Hawks — the final stop on basketball thrill rides stacked with victories and dazzling numbers.
But there has always been a jarring blow at the end of the journey and the Hawks are looking for a feel-good finish in Madison after settling for the silver ball as Division 3 state runner-up the past two seasons.
Klarner’s Hawks lost to Brown Deer, 74-60, in the 2015 state title game and dropped an agonizing 59-58 decision to Waupun in the 2016 state championship.
The latter went down to a final shot at the buzzer by the Hawks which caromed off the rim. With a better bounce, the gold ball would be sitting in the Xavier trophy case today.
But it didn’t drop, leaving the returning Hawks with no choice but to try and turn last season’s heartbreak into hunger.
“Oh yeah, it was hard to take,” said junior post player Nate DeYoung. “We were upset, but we knew we had the team and the mindset to get back there. And here we are, ready to go. We’re on a mission. We’re going to try and win it all, and we’re firing on all cylinders right now.”
If they can pull it off, the Hawks would make program history. Xavier captured WISAA state boys’ basketball championships in 1963 and 1995, but no Hawks team has won a WIAA title.
“Winning state would mean a lot, especially after coming so close last year,” said junior guard Sam Ferris. “It (the state final loss) was pretty tough at first, but I think we’ve used it as motivation to kind of power our run. For the seniors, there’s a little bit of unfinished business there.”
It will be Xavier’s fourth overall appearance at the WIAA tourney.
“Winning the gold ball is what every kid and coach in Wisconsin dreams about,” said Klarner. “It’s why you get up at six in the morning in November to practice and why you do all the work over the summer. It’s what we’re fighting for.”
Stellar guards Ferris and Hunter Plamann played major roles on last year’s state runner-up, while DeYoung was a key player off the bench. Plamann was the sixth man for the 2015 Hawks.
“It was pretty frustrating because we had such a good team last year and came so close,” said Plamann. “But we knew we had some good kids returning and felt like we could get back there. I feel like we’ve put it all together. Hopefully, we can finish the job this time and get that gold ball for Xavier.”
Neither Klarner nor his players talked much during the regular season about getting back to the Kohl Center. But it was clearly a goal that the Hawks felt was reachable. The Hawks open state tourney play Thursday with a difficult semifinal against another 26-0 team, Ripon.
“After making it to the championship the past two years, I think it was almost like an expectation to get back to state,” Plamann said. “But it’s a different team every year and it’s pretty hard to get there. You can get knocked off any night. So it’s pretty cool getting there for a third year.”
The Hawks weren’t challenged in a majority of their games, winning 21 of their 26 games by double digits.
“I’d say last year’s loss was a big driving force for the kids,” said Klarner. “They saw how close they were and it’s difficult when you come that close to reaching your goal and don’t quite get it. That was part of the attitude they came in with this year and part of the determination they had.”
The Hawks were a model of consistency and played outstanding basketball on both ends of the court. Xavier averaged 83.0 points per game and allowed 60.5.
“Credit the kids and how hard they’ve worked and how consistent they’ve been,” said Klarner. “In order to sustain success, you have to focus on daily improvement and keep focused on short-term goals. This group has done that very well. All three of the groups that went to state the past three years have done that really well.
“It’s something we always talk about, not getting ahead of ourselves and just looking at the next game and the next goal and working hard to get it. This group has been as consistent as any I’ve ever coached. By bringing energy and intensity every game and sharing the ball and playing unselfishly, that’s why our record is what it is. That’s why we’re going back to the Kohl Center.”
The Hawks’ unselfishness can be traced to a strong team chemistry. Ferris, Plamann, DeYoung and Ryan Schmitt have been playing together since their early days in elementary school, and their familiarity with one another has led to a close, cohesive team.
“Our team chemistry is really good,” said DeYoung. “We’re always hanging out with each other on weekends, doing homework together. There’s just a great brotherhood here.”
Add a quality coach in Klarner and the ingredients are all there for a state tournament team. Xavier has gone a remarkable 74-8 over the past three years and has posted a 121-32 record in Klarner’s six seasons as Hawks coach.
“One of the things that makes him a good coach is the way he prepares us,” said Plamann. “His scouting reports are great. During practice, he tells us who is going to do what and what the other team is going to be doing. When we get on the floor, we already know what they’re going to do before they do it.”
The Hawks are a fun, freewheeling team to watch. They like to push the ball and launch 3-pointers, yet they take good care of the basketball, play sound man-to-man defense and don’t take a lot of bad shots.
“He (Klarner) does a really good job of game-planning and gives us a lot of freedom out there,” said Ferris. “He’s not yelling at you if you take a bad shot.”
Plamann (21.3 points, 7.6 assists, 5.9 rebounds per game) leads a diversified Xavier attack which also gets solid production from Ferris (14.0 points, 8.2 assists per game), DeYoung (11.8 points, 10.7 rebounds), Cal Christensen (9.6 ppg), sixth man Henry Egan (9.5 ppg), Will Schlicht (8.5 ppg, 4.7 rebounds) and Nick Otto (4.3 ppg).
“I think our team shares the ball really well, especially our guards, ” Ferris said. “We pass the ball pretty well on offense and find the open guy.”
The Hawks drilled 229 3-pointers this season on a whopping 606 attempts, an average of 23 per game. Plamann (46 threes) Christensen (45), Ferris (40) and Egan (29) lead the Hawks on the perimeter. Xavier made an average of eight 3-pointers per game and shot 37.9 percent from beyond the arc.
“He (Klarner) is a math teacher and he always tells us that three is better than two,” said Plamann.
For Klarner, the three-ball is a big part of a winning system built around energy and aggressiveness.
“We want to play downhill, “ said Klarner. “We want to be the aggressor. We want to be making the plays and creating the offense. There’s a lot of ways to win basketball games, but this is what works for us and it’s what has worked for our previous teams.
“We want to score points and see if the other team can keep up with us. It’s a lot of fun to coach, a lot of fun to watch and a lot of fun to play.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or email@example.com
Division 3 state
Kohl Center, Madison
1:35 p.m. – Prescott (23-3) vs. Lake Mills (24-2), followed by Xavier (26-0) vs. Ripon (26-0)
2:30 p.m. – Semifinal winners
State champion Appleton North featured on Varsity Roundtable
Kari Brekke and Callie Pohlman of the WIAA Division 1 state champion Appleton North girls’ basketball team will be our guests today at 7 p.m. on Varsity Roundtable, our weekly prep sports program. Join host Ricardo Arguello for a fun and fast-paced conversation, and don’t miss the shout-out segment of every show. Watch live on postcrescent.com and Facebook Live.