What a difference one season can make.
The Green Bay Southwest girls basketball team finally has returned to respectability thanks to a young star and a roster full of underclassmen.
The Trojans took another step forward with a 48-42 win over Manitowoc in a WIAA Division 1 regional opener on Friday night, setting up a showdown at top-ranked De Pere at 7 p.m. tonight.
Southwest (15-8) now has won more games this season than it did the last two seasons combined. It also will finish above .500 for the first time since 2002-03.
There have been some forgettable seasons and several coaching changes during that time, but after winning five or fewer games in six of the last seven seasons, the Trojans appear to have some staying power.
Of the 12 players on the roster, 11 are underclassmen.
“I am absolutely delighted, I mean, 15 games really kind of exceeded my expectations this year,” Southwest coach Casey Zakowski said. “But you can see that the kids play well together.”
They also have sophomore Natisha Hiedeman, who already is one of the best players in the 12-team Fox River Classic Conference. The 5-foot-7 guard is exactly what the Trojans need, since Zakowski loves Southwest’s tough half-court defense but knows the offense still is a work in progress.
Hiedeman scored a game-high 22 points and hit five 3-pointers against Manitowoc, helping the Trojans build what appeared to be a comfortable 32-15 lead with 4 minutes, 56 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The offensive display hardly was surprising. Hiedeman led the FRCC in scoring at 16.1 points and was third with 55 steals, one season after she was a second-team all-conference choice as a rookie.
“There are people who are really good when they are young, and then people catch up to them,” Hiedeman said. “But I’ve been playing basketball for a long time, and I just practice.
“We just play as a team, and I play my game.”
Hiedeman is one of the best talents Zakowski has coached during a long career that has included both boys and girls teams. Normally, he might be worried how other players would deal with one of their teammates receiving so much attention.
But not on this team.
“She is well-liked by the kids,” Zakowski said. “She is just one of the kids. She has a great sense of humor. She doesn’t go around pretending she is better than anybody else.
“Just her demeanor and who she is, she is pretty well grounded.”
She needs help sometimes, too.
After starting out hot against Manitowoc, Hiedeman cooled down. It allowed the Ships to go on a 15-1 run to end the third quarter and open up the fourth.
Manitowoc trailed just 33-30 with 4:50 left, but Sydney Champion would not allow it to get closer.
The junior guard-forward hit a clutch 3-pointer with 4:20 remaining that put Southwest up by six and gave it some much-needed breathing room.
The Trojans were able to make enough free throws over the final minute to seal the win, although they were just 13-for-25 from the line.
Junior forward Samm Pedersen (11 points) also finished in double figures for the Trojans, who have won two straight since a season-high three-game losing streak last month.
“They punched us in the mouth, and we could have responded better,” said Zakowski, whose team avenged a 45-41 loss to Manitowoc on Feb. 14. “I wasn’t surprised Manty made a run. That team is really athletic. That’s a good team.
“We just missed a few shots, and they caught a little fire. Was I nervous? Absolutely. But I give these kids credit. They hung in there.”
Manitowoc 8 5 12 17 — 42
Green Bay Southwest 9 13 10 16 — 48
Manitowoc: Gabriel 4, Fischer 11, Grotegut 10, Hackmann 8, K. Wolowicz 5, Winans 2, M. Wolowicz 2. 3-pt: Fischer 3, Gabriel, Hackmann. FT: 7-13. F: 19.
Southwest: Katers 2, Champion 5, Hiedeman 22, Pedersen 11, Steffens 2, Niccum 6. 3-pt: Hiedeman 5, Champion, Pedersen. FT: 13-25. F: 14.