KAUKAUNA – Mike Schalow and his Kaukauna Ghosts appreciate the recognition, the respect and the rave preseason reviews.
But they are fully aware that conference titles and gold balls aren’t won in November and know there is a catch to opening the boys’ basketball season with a top ranking.
They will be a team under a microscope this winter and expected to produce like a champion. That seems to suit the highly skilled Ghosts just fine.
Kaukauna tips off a season of high expectations Tuesday at Ashwaubenon and the Ghosts won’t find themselves in an underdog role anytime soon.
They are ranked No. 1 among Division 2 teams in the 2015-16 Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook preseason poll. Fox Valley Association rival Hortonville is rated No. 7 in Division 2 and Seymour is No. 10.
Kaukauna, which returns two of the area’s elite players in slick sophomore point guard Jordan McCabe and junior shooting guard Adam Smith, is also listed as No. 3 among Wisconsin teams in the MaxPreps Wisconsin preseason boys’ Basketball Fab Five rankings behind Division 1 powers Stevens Point and Milwaukee King.
“We have that ranking for a reason and it’s a good confidence builder to start the year with,” said Smith. “But we need to live up to that. When you’re ranked No. 1, they expect a lot out of you. We just have to play like it. If we continue to play like we have in open gyms and scrimmages, we should be fine.”
Kaukauna is coming off a strong 20-4 season and was ranked No. 1 at times in Division 2 state polls. Still, the Ghosts fell short of achieving their top goals. They tied Neenah for second in the rugged FVA at 15-3 behind league champion Kimberly and were eliminated by state qualifier West De Pere 70-60 in a Division 2 regional final.
“We know there’s a target on our back that is probably only going to get bigger throughout the season,” said McCabe. “But the skill level on our team is absolutely tremendous, all the way across the board. We play in one of the most hard-nosed conferences in the state and know we’re going to have knock-down, drag-out fights to the finish. But we feel that we have as good a chance as anyone of bringing that title home.”
The gifted 5-foot-11 McCabe is considered to be one of the best players in the state. An extraordinary ball handler who can easily get to the rim, shoot and distribute, McCabe averaged 14.2 points and 4.9 assists as a freshman, while drilling a team-high 60 3-pointers. He was a second-team all-FVA pick, while Smith received honorable mention.
“I’ve been playing with him since the third grade and it makes it a lot easier on us shooters when he can use his dribble and get into the lane and dish,” said Smith. “He can also finish whenever he wants to. He can go by anyone.”
McCabe has already received Division I scholarship offers from DePaul, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, UW-Milwaukee, Missouri and West Virginia. Expect that list to grow over the next three years.
“His role has to continue to evolve,” said Schalow. “He’s still a young player, despite the fact that he has a high skill set. He’s played at a high level in terms of AAU ball, but there’s always things to get better at. He’s a very coachable young man who puts a tremendous amount of time into the game.
“He’s where he’s at because he works so hard. He’s committed to the game.”
The Ghosts graduated key players Carter Belling, the team’s second-leading scorer, inside threat Nic Patterson and defensive whiz Derek Hansen, but have a deep, talented roster.
The 6-foot-2 Smith averaged 12.7 points and 4.8 rebounds as a sophomore. Also back are two seniors who played significant minutes last season: 6-3 Marcus Moreau (6.3 points, 4.6 rebounds) and 6-2 Dalton Erdman (2.8 ppg). Moreau is expected to provide an inside presence, while Erdman is a talented athlete who should fill a more prominent role.
Juniors Brad Vosters and Bailey McDaniel and sophomores Dylan Kurey (6-6) and Eric Carl (6-4) lead the list of promising newcomers. Carl is a transfer from Shawano and started with the Hawks as a freshman, averaging 9.2 points. Despite his height, Carl plays more of a wing position than inside the paint.
The Ghosts were a guard-oriented team last season and will remain that way, but have more size and flexibility than a year ago.
“I think we’ll be improved in a couple areas,” said Schalow. “We’ll have a little more depth than last year. And we’ll have a little more length with guys like Dylan Kurey and Eric Carl. Those are two areas that we were a little deficient in. I think we have a good nucleus of players.”
McCabe is excited about the Ghosts’ talent level and eager to get rolling.
“We have a lot of firepower,” said McCabe. “Coach always talks about all the weapons we have and it makes my job a lot easier. Guys like Adam (Smith), Dalton (Erdman), Marcus (Moreau), Dylan (Kurey), our new transfer (Carl) and the rest the newcomers all have definite skill sets and attributes that should really help us a team. And the work ethic is there as well.”
The Ghosts also have the expert coaching of Schalow, who is starting his 21st season with the Ghosts and 29th as a prep coach.
“He’s got something for everything,” said Smith. “If a team comes out in a 1-3-1 zone or a 3-2, he always has something to counter with and we prepare for those things all week. There’s no one who puts more time into it than coach Schalow.”
Kaukauna, the Division 2 state runnerup in 2012, hopes to make a deep tournament run, but its goals start with the tough task of winning the always-strong FVA.
“As far as our goals and aspirations, we want to cut down some nets this year,” said McCabe. “It starts with conference, and the FVA is as tough a league as there is. We have to fight and improve every night.”
The Ghosts will face no cupcakes along the way. They have beefed up their nonconference schedule with heavyweights like Milwaukee Washington, Homestead, La Crosse Central and Ashwaubenon, coached by former Kimberly head coach John Miron.
“It’s a very challenging nonconference schedule – we didn’t cheat ourselves,” said Schalow. “And the FVA is the FVA. There’s so many great players and coaches. A big key for us is to stay healthy and we’re trying to keep our guys in the mindset of taking it one day at a time.
“We have to keep getting better. We have set some ultimate goals, but those are things we have to go out and achieve — unlike what’s been given to us at the beginning of the season.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @twfroberg