The road to Green Bay is a tough one to navigate. No, I’m not talking about Highway 29… I’m talking about the road to the state high school girls basketball tournament. Over the …
The road to Green Bay is a tough one to navigate. No, I’m not talking about Highway 29… I’m talking about the road to the state high school girls basketball tournament. Over the past 48 seasons, since the girls state tournament began in 1976, only three teams from Pierce County have managed to earn a trip to state. That tricky journey for the 2023-24 season begins on Feb. 20 with the first round of regional play. Will there be a team from our area making the trip this year? We’re about to find out!
While several teams from western Wisconsin have played in the state tournament, some multiple times, it’s been a rare feat for the teams from Pierce County to make that trip. The first came in 1991 when coach Dave Berg took the Ellsworth girls to Madison with a 21-3 record. The Panthers were co-champions of the Middle Border Conference with Bloomer and Durand, all with 12-2 conference records. After receiving a bye in the first round of regional play, Ellsworth vanquished Amery 57-38 and Rice Lake 63-37 to advance to the sectional tournament. There the Lady Panthers faced 22-1 Hayward, which had gone to state two years prior, and defeated them 59-44, with four girls scoring in double figures, to move on to the championship game. In the final they faced the previous year’s sectional runner-up, Black River Falls on their home court, and Ellsworth earned its first trip to the state tournament in a close, hard-fought contest, winning 49-46.
The Panthers were paired with Grafton (21-4) in the opening round at state and their up-tempo game wore down the Black Hawks and earned them a 48-40 victory, sending them on to the Division 2 state championship game. In the final they faced 22-3 Prairie du Chien and battled them the entire game. The Panthers trailed by one point at halftime, were tied 33-33 after three quarters, and were within three points with 31 seconds remaining, but came up on the short end of a final score of 56-47. The team performed extremely well and was proud to bring the “silver ball” home to Ellsworth High School!
When asked what he remembers most about that team, Coach Berg said, “They were a special group that came up as freshmen in my second year of coaching. They took their lumps along the way but continued to work hard and improve and ended up being the second-best team in the state their senior year. There were several good teams and excellent players in the area at that time, so they really had to earn each victory.”
The core of the team in 1990-91 were seniors Michelle Fisher, Kelly Catura, Sarah Gruber, Karen Schade, and Jacy Dumermuth, and sophomores Karen Fenske and Lori Strusz.
I asked Berg what his favorite memories of the tournament were, and he replied, “It was a lot of fun, as it should be, but the kids approached it with a seriousness and a maturity that set them apart. Also, the community thing… The school district hosted a nice dinner on Friday before the tournament, there was a great fan rally after the final, and a nice ‘welcome home’ on Sunday. It created lasting memories, and the girls still gather for reunions every four or five years and the stories start flying… not just about basketball, but also about the activities and memories surrounding it.”
In Spring 1993, most people expected Elmwood to make a run for the state tournament… the Elmwood boys that is! No one expected the Elmwood girls to be in contention. After all, they finished in fourth place with an 10-8 record in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference. The Raiders, coached by Arland “Chet” Lien, were 10-10 overall going into tournament play. They defeated Plum City in their opener, with Jennifer Forster scoring 16 points, and Reece Krings and Amy Christman adding 11 each. The Raiders never trailed against Clayton to win the regional title, then upset Luck (with a record of 20-3) by a 50-39 score, bolstered by Jodi Nelson’s five three-pointers, to reach the sectional championship game in Ladysmith. It took double overtime to defeat the Winter Warriors 60-56, with Forster pouring in 22 points, and the Raiders were rewarded with a date to play on the big stage at the UW Fieldhouse in the Division 4 state tournament.
The town of Elmwood was in a basketball frenzy with the boys playing a sectional game on Thursday evening in Spooner, the girls playing a state tournament game on Friday morning in Madison and then back to Spooner for the boys sectional final on Saturday night (which they lost, to South Shore). In their first and only state tournament game Elmwood faced the Niagara Badgers, which sported a 23-2 record. The Raiders fell behind early, trailing 15-6 after one quarter. Elmwood closed the gap to 26-21 by halftime but eventually lost by a 52-46 score. Joanna Schwebach led the Raiders with 14 points.
Bev Glaus worked at the scorers’ table for all the Elmwood games, so I contacted her for information. She spoke of how the excitement of that season was hard to beat with the success of both the boys’ and girls’ teams, and how the events surrounding the games brought the whole community together with enthusiasm for the teams and pride in their accomplishments.
“The tournament run for the girls filled the school and community with excitement! The double overtime game versus Winter was amazing. Our girls were so excited, giving everyone the opportunity to go to Madison!” Glaus said.
The only other Pierce County girls’ team to compete at the state level was the 2014-15 River Falls Wildcats, led by current coach Ian Sticht. River Falls finished fifth in the Big Rivers Conference with a 5-7 record, with all seven losses coming at the hands of Division 1 teams, but the ‘Cats powered their way to state with tournament wins over Ashland, Menomonie, Onalaska and Mosinee to carry a 15-11 record into the state tournament.
Against Ashland the Wildcats trailed 15-9 after one quarter and were tied at the half before sealing a 53-42 win on their home court behind double doubles from both Hannah Brager and Karly Murphy. In the regional championship, the game was also tied at halftime until the Wildcats started the second half on an 11-0 run and coasted to a 52-32 victory over the visiting Mustangs from Menomonie. The Wildcats then traveled to Menomonie to face off against Onalaska. Brager gave the Wildcats a 31-30 lead at the end of the third quarter and Breanna Weiss hit a three-pointer to start the fourth quarter to propel them into the sectional championship game at Marshfield by a final score of 49-40. The sectional final found the Wildcats trailing Mosinee by three points through the third quarter, but they started the fourth quarter on a 10-0 run, and the underdog ‘Cats sunk nine free throws down the stretch to seal the 49-40 victory, making history with the program’s first ever state tournament appearance.
On Friday the 13th at the Resch Center in Green Bay the River Falls five faced the 23-2 Cedarburg Bulldogs in a Division 2 semi-final game. After trailing the Bulldogs 16-4 after one quarter the Wildcats battled back to tie the game at 18-18 midway through the second quarter, but Cedarburg went on a 9-2 run of its own to end the half leading 27-20. Breanna Weiss started off the second half with a three-pointer and Karly Murphy’s basket cut the lead to three, but again Cedarburg went on a run to lead 38-29 after three quarters. After the Bulldogs stretched the lead to 13, Lexy Getschel hit a three and followed it up with an “and-1” to get it back to a single digit deficit, but that’s as close as the ‘Cats would get, and Cedarburg prevailed by a score of 51-41. Karly Murphy led all scorers with 19 points to go along with a game high 14 rebounds.
When asked what stood out in his mind about that tournament run Coach Sticht replied, “One of the things that always sticks out to me is that we were 11-11 going into the playoffs that year. We always joked that we needed to win a playoff game so we would have a winning record. I think everything that happened in the playoffs that year were favorite memories: We won a regional championship at home; Then in the sectional semi-final against Onalaska, Lexi Getschel started the second half by knocking down a couple of shots which forced Onalaska out of their zone, Breanna Weiss was 3 for 3 from the three-point line, and Lynsey Bilicke and Sydney Mueller both hit threes late in that game to seal the win; In the sectional final we went on a 10-0 run to start the fourth quarter, led by Hannah Brager and Karly Murphy; I also vividly remember sitting in an empty gym in Marshfield after we beat Mosinee, still in disbelief that we were going to Green Bay the next week!”