Take note, prep basketball fans. Here are key story lines and much-anticipated games to keep an eye on as Fox Valley high schools get a new season rolling.
5 STORY LINES TO WATCH
1. All eyes on Little Chute: Having two Division I recruits on the same team is the rarest of occurrences for a team in the Fox Valley, but besides Kenny Lowe and Turner Botz, the Mustangs return their other three starters and two top reserves from last year’s team that went 23-3.
Every coach dreams of having a team like this, but Mickey Martin knows his Mustangs will be just about every opponent’s state championship game this season. That will not be easy. Along with great expectations comes great pressure, and the key is to find ways to let the kids just be kids and allow their talents to flow to the surface.
Fortunately for Martin, two of assistants — Dan Valentyne and John Miron — went through similar situations when they were head coaches at Freedom and Kimberly, respectively. His other assistant, Shane Kundsen, also has a wealth of knowledge in that department from when he was an assistant coach at Appleton West during the Brian Butch years. That experience and knowledge could prove to be invaluable to the Mustangs this season.
The state’s Division 3 field is uber difficult, but the Mustangs will properly prepare themselves with a tough non-conference schedule that already included last year’s Division 4 state champion Dominican plus battles with East Troy, Seymour, Whitefish Bay and Omro.
No team will be watched more closely than Little Chute this season.
2. Terror-iffic? Appleton West will be the favorites in the Fox Valley Association boys’ race and has a legitimate shot to return to the WIAA state tournament for the first time since 2003.
The Terrors are long, lean and very athletic and are led by 6-6 senior Jake Verhagen, who has committed to play Division 1 basketball at Eastern Illinois. Surviving the Fox Valley Association is never easy but it also helps prepare teams for tournament time like few others can.
Depth could be an issue, especially with the loss of 6-10 Division 1 recruit Matt Heldt, who transferred to Neenah. How well the Terrors play defense will likely determine how far they go this season, but there is no doubt when they’re firing on all cylinders they are one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the Fox Valley.
3. Another new look at Neenah: Longtime assistant coach Scott Bork takes over a tradition-rich Rockets program that is seeing its third head coach in three years. That’s never easy on players, but if anyone call pull this roster together it’s the former guard from Fox Valley Lutheran.
He has a good nucleus to work with in Adam Pohlman, Nathan Pronschinske and Appleton West transfer Matt Heldt, a 6-10 sophomore already getting Division 1 offers. Neenah versus Appleton West used to provide some of the highest quality basketball this area had to offer. It may again this season.
4. Now what, New London? The Bulldogs were the toast of Division 2 girls’ basketball in the state the past two years, winning consecutive state championships, including a 28-0 mark last season.
But coach Troy Krause has stepped aside, and mainstays Tara Knapstein and Bridget Pethke have graduated.
Andrea Flease is the new head coach and will look to Brenna Heise to take on a greater leadership role within the team.
The losses have been significant but a tradition has been built, and don’t expect New London to fade into the woodwork. This will be a successful team once again and this will be a program to continue to watch.
5. Can Xavier, Kimberly rise again? Seeing Xavier and Kimberly at the girls’ state tournaments used to be a sure sign spring was on its way.
Kimberly has won four WIAA state championships but hasn’t been back to the state tournament since 1998. Xavier appeared in 16 of 24 WISAA state tournaments, won the 1978 title and finished second nine times, including eight to Milwaukee Pius. But the Hawks have never qualified for the WIAA state tournament since the WIAA-WISAA merger in 2000-01.
The Hawks return nearly all of their top players from last year’s 20-5 team that lost 59-50 to eventual Division 3 state champion Kewaunee in the sectional final. Kimberly returns eight letterwinners and three starters from last year’s team that also went 20-5. Seeing those two programs battling for state berths is, well, good for the soul.
6. Home sweet home? For first first time the girls’ state basketball tournament will not be played in Madison, as the WIAA announced last April the event will be held at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon in 2013 and 2014 due to a conflict in scheduling at the Kohl Center.
This will be the first time in 36 years the girls’ tournament will not be played in Madison.
This announcement has been met with mixed emotions, in part because the boys’ state tournament will remain in Madison. The Resch Center has made the girls’ state volleyball tournament a special event, and now the question is, can it do the same for girls’ basketball?
Can’t miss games
First the boys:
Xavier vs. Little Chute (Dec. 6 at Little Chute, Jan. 25 at Xavier): This was a great rivalry before, and then last year, well, the whole jar of Tabasco got dumped into the chili. Without reliving all the messy details, let’s just put it this way: these two schools created a whole new meaning to the words March Madness. As for this year, be sure to get there early. Real early.
Seymour at Little Chute (Dec. 19): Little Chute won this game at Seymour last year on a last-second shot. All the key players are back, including Sandy Cohen and Dakota Oskey for Seymour, ranked No. 2 in the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Division 2 preseason rankings. Little Chute is No. 1 in D-3. Just cross your fingers this year’s game will be as good as last year’s.
East Troy at Little Chute (Dec. 27): East Troy is one of the best teams in D-3 with the 6-9 Prahl brothers, Brett and Alex, who will be heading to UW-Milwaukee. They also have Army recruit Nathan Dodge. We all know what the Mustangs have. Game on.
Appleton West at Minneapolis DeLaSalle (Feb. 2): The Islanders are the defending Minnesota 3A state champions and have won six state titles overall. The Terrors remain the only Appleton public school to win a state title. Road trip!
And now the girls:
Kimberly at De Pere (Jan. 12): The Redbirds return two starters from last year’s 24-4 state championship team, and they just so happen to be their top two scorers. The Papermakers also are coming off a 20-win season. This also may be a preview to a key tournament game, as both schools will be in the same sectional.
New London at Fox Valley Lutheran (Dec. 11): Two strong programs featuring two of the area’s top players in the Bulldogs’ Brenna Heise and the Foxes’ Abby Huntington. This will be a good test for both schools and a nice treat for basketball fans.
Xavier at St. Mary Central (Dec. 29): These schools were arch rivals in the old Fox Valley Christian Conference for many years until the WIAA-WISAA merger saw them go their separate ways. Seeing them together again on the same court is like comfort food.
— Mike Woods: 920-993-1000, ext. 232; or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @PCMikeW