Jerry Petitgoue feels this could have been the best Cuba City team he's had in his remarkable career
The possibilities were seemingly endless.
And today was the day some of those possibilities were supposed to come to life.
But COVID-19 -- the dreaded novel coronavirus -- forced everything to come to a screeching halt.
The WIAA cancelled the state tournament, as we all know by now, on March 12 in an effort to avoid further spreading of the disease. Literally a couple of hours after 40 teams across the state had qualified for sectional final contests, the WIAA pulled the plug on the season.
2020 is the only time in the history of the WIAA boys' state basketball tournament the event is cancelled, dating back to the first tournament in 1916.
Thus the Kohl Center will be quiet today, instead of full of players, coaches, bands, dance teams, student sections and general fans watching state semifinals in Divisions 3 and 4.
Nonetheless, we will take a look at 10 storylines that might have been, two each in each of the five divisions.
So away we go ....
1) Sussex Hamilton's quest for the school's first state crown
Coach Andy Cerroni guided Sussex Hamilton to the state tournament in 2018, so fans got a chance to watch 6-foot-9 junior sensation Patrick Baldwin Jr. during his freshman season. Baldwin scored 22 points and had six rebounds in a 57-56 loss to eventual champion Oshkosh North. Not bad for a freshman. But watching the gifted wing prospect two years later would have been a treat for state-tournament fans. He is taller, stronger and even more gifted than he was 24 months ago. Ranked No. 3 among all players in the United States in the class of 2021, Baldwin owns scholarship offers from all the bluebloods -- Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA. Marquette and Wisconsin, of course, have offered as well. And then there are two others in the mix with deep ties to the family. UW-Milwaukee is considered a strong contender since Baldwin's father, Patrick Baldwin Sr., is the head coach of the Panthers. And Northwestern, where Baldwin Sr., played and later served as an assistant coach, is also a strong contender. But that is secondary to the fact Baldwin and his teammates appeared poised to capture the school's first title in boys' basketball. Of course, the Chargers' road to a Gold Ball was still full of extremely difficult hurdles, starting with a sectional final game against a Brookfield Central squad that beat Sussex Hamilton twice during the regular season. But Sussex Hamilton was my pick to win it all and Cerroni's club was playing at a very high level at the right time of the season. Baldwin Jr. still has next year to make a return trip to Madison for the state tournament. But he'll have to do so without some very talented teammates, including seniors JT Hoytink, Carson Smith and Lucas Finnessy.
2) The battle for Madison
Madison La Follette (23-1) and Madison East (20-4) were set to play in a sectional final at Sun Prairie. The two Big Eight Conference powers had split their regular-season games. So the rubber match would have been for all of the apples, much less bragging rights for a year on the eastside of Madison. The energy and enthusiasm the two arch-rivals would have created inside the Sun Prairie gym would have been off the charts. Both squads were very, very good with standout players and proven head coaches. And the winner would have had a legitimate shot at capturing the state championship. But sadly standout seniors Isaiah Stewart, Ben Probst, Derek Gray and David Gray of La Follette along with Anthony Washington, Keonte Jones, Marcus Justice and David McKinley of East will never get the chance to settle who is better on the court.
1) Nicolet vs. La Crosse Central
Oh boy, fans from Superior to Kenosha were excited about the possibility of watching Duke recruit Jalen Johnson (6-9) of Nicolet play against Wisconsin recruit Johnny Davis (6-5) of La Crosse Central in a potential WIAA Division 2 state-title game. Provided both teams got past sectional final and state semifinal contests, Nicolet and La Crosse Central would have played for the title in a hugely anticipated game. In fact, there was a good chance the Kohl Center would have run out of tickets for the session, which would also include the Division 1 final on Saturday night. Johnson is ranked among the best in the nation, and Davis recently won the Mr. Basketball award. Both are stellar prospects who compete with a passion for the game. Others, of course, would have factored immensely into the contest as well. Juniors Kobe Johnson (6-3) and James Graham (6-7) of Nicolet are potential NCAA Division I recruits while La Crosse Central also featured Wisconsin recruit and Johnny's twin brother, Jodan Davis (6-5), along with senior Terrance Thompson (6-7), who owns several offers from scholarship schools. Some feel these were the two best teams in Wisconsin, regardless of division. Hard to know if that is true, but there is no doubt both were among the top five teams in the state. And the star power of the game would have had the Kohl Center crowd buzzing from opening tip until the final horn.
2) Wauwatosa West as a Cinderella team
Competing against the stellar teams within the Greater Metro Conference night in and night out either toughens you or crushes you. Wauwatosa West didn't win the league title, or really come all that close. Brookfield Central was the champion with Sussex Hamilton finishing second and Brookfield East third. The Trojans finished fourth with an 8-8 record. But the incredible talent within the conference prepared Wauwatosa West well for the playoffs. And even though the school had a coaching change late in the season after Marc Mitchell resigned and assistant Chris Newbauer took over, the Trojans played exceptionally well in March, beating Shorewood, Wisconsin Lutheran and Milwaukee Lutheran entering its sectional final game against New Berlin Eisenhower. Had the Trojans beat Eisenhower, it would have entered its very first appearance in the state tournament with a 17-9 record and a head coach who had exactly eight games under his belt. And yet, nobody would have taken Wauwatosa West lightly. Largely because of the schedule the Trojans played during the season, but also because the team featured some very talented seniors in Justin Steinike (6-1), Khristian Green (6-1), Jaylyn Kelly (6-0) and Dylan Parker (6-2).
1) The unveiling of the state's top defensive team
After watching 73 games and 88 different high school teams in the state this season, it is my sincere belief no team in Wisconsin played better half-court defense than Racine St. Catherine's, one of three unbeaten teams in the WIAA along with Division 4 powers Cuba City and Stratford. The Angels had the quickness, the desire and the physical strength up front to make life miserable for opponents. Coach Nick Bennett, the son of former UW-Stevens Point coach Jack Bennett, nephew of ex-Green Bay and Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett and cousin of Virginia coach Tony Bennett, teaches defense like to rest of the clan in his family. And that probably surprises nobody. But the fact he is able to get his high school players to exert so much energy on the defensive end of the court is highly impressive in this era of individual highlight videos. Nine times during St. Catherine's 25-0 campaign opponents scored 40 or less points. The Angels allowed a mere 45.4 ppg while scoring 75.3 ppg themselves. Junior guards Tyrese Hunter (6-1), Jameer Barker (6-2), Kamari McGee (6-0) and Calvin Hunter (5-9) are ball-hawking demons with good length, anticipation and lateral quickness while seniors Elijah Lambert (6-4) and Elijah Sabala (6-1) along with junior Marcel Tyler (6-4) relied more on positioning and physical strength to keep opponents away from the basket. With five of its top seven players expected to return next season, the Angels again will be a team to watch.
2) The best player in the state few talk about
Parker Nielsen plays for Prescott High School, located just a few miles from the Minnesota border. He shared Player of the Year honors in the Middle Border Conference with New Richmond's Joey Kidder, and played in the WIAA State Tournament as a freshman and sophomore. The 6-foot-5 point guard averaged 27.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists as a senior for coach Nick Johnson and the Cardinals, who had put together a 10-game winning streak entering its sectional final game against a very good team from Wisconsin Dells (24-1). Yet Nielsen is rarely mentioned when discussing the top players in the state. He scored more than 1,600 career points and was a key player on Prescott teams that won the Division 3 state crown in 2018 and finished second in 2017. But he doesn't compete in the Milwaukee, Madison or Fox Valley media markets so he is often overlooked. And that's too bad because the NCAA Division II recruit for West Texas A&M can really play. Certainly, he would have needed to play at a very high level for Prescott to beat Wisconsin Dells. But it would have been very interesting to see what he could have done in a potential match-up with the defensive-oriented backcourt from St. Catherine's.
1) Football angst turned into basketball glory?
Disappointment reigned in Stratford last November when the unbeaten and highly regarded Tigers' football team lost to Lake Country Lutheran in the WIAA Division 5 state-title game, 22-13. The loss left a sour taste in the mouths of the Stratford players, who had reeled off 13 straight wins before the crushing loss to the underdogs from Lake Country Lutheran. Basketball began a few short days later for some of those football standouts, including University of Wisconsin grid recruit Ben Barten. Led by the muscular Barten, a 6-foot-6 mountain of a man who averaged 15.3 points and 9.5 rebounds, Stratford won every game it played this winter. The Tigers (24-0) are a perennial football power, but have never qualified for the state-basketball tournament. A win over Iola-Scandinavia (24-1) in the sectional final would have positioned Stratford for a chance at a state title on the hardwood, something it couldn't grasp on the gridiron.
2) Cuba City's quest for perfection
Jerry Petitgoue has had some stellar teams over the years at Cuba City. Eight of his squads during his 49 seasons as head coach at the school qualified for the state tournament with his clubs in 1981, 1991 and 1998 winning state titles. But the winningest coach in Wisconsin prep history says this year's club was the best he's ever coached. No doubt the Cubans were loaded with talent. Seniors Brady Olson (6-0) and Jackson Noll (5-11) will play at the collegiate level with Olson committing this week to NCAA Division II Parkside. Junior Brayden Dailey (6-6) owns several scholarship offers from NCAA Division I programs and junior forward Jack Misky (6-4) also figures to go on to play at the collegiate level. What's more, the talented players within the Cuba City program were playing extraordinarily well as a team, sharing the ball, playing strong defense and rooting for each other in each and every game. The result was a 25-0 record heading into a sectional final against Markesan (20-5). A potential state-title game pitting Cuba City against Stratford or perhaps Milwaukee Academy of Science (20-3) would have made for outstanding viewing. And there is a very good chance the Cubans would have hoisted the Gold Ball and thus culminated the first time one of Petigoue's squads finished with a state title and unbeaten record.
1) A WIAA first
Carrie Ewan is in her second year as head coach at Rib Lake. Her son, senior guard Levi Ewan, is one of the better players in the northern Wisconsin and recently was chosen as Player of the Year in the Northern Division of the Marawood Conference. Had Rib Lake (22-4) defeated Laona/Wabeno (19-7) in the sectional final, Carrie Ewan would have become the first women to coach a team in the boys' state tournament, which spans the past 105 seasons. That's an incredible stat. And it would have been an enormous accomplishment. Picked as the Coach of the Year in the Marawood North, Carrie Ewan and has been around the game her entire life. She earned several all-league awards while playing for Rib Lake in the Marawood Conference in the late 1980s as Carrie Quednow. She is one of four females serving as head coach of boys teams in Wisconsin. The others are Joy Webster at Lake Holcombe, Amy Ring at Prentice and Lisa Karau at Ashland. Had Rib Lake qualified for the state tournament, listening to Ewan discuss the challenges and rewards of being the first female head coach in the event would have been fascinating.
2) Jacob Ognacevic rewriting the record book
Sheboygan Lutheran senior Jacob Ognacevic (6-8) is a Valparaiso University recruit who just completed one of the most remarkable seasons in state high school history. And it could have been even more incredible had the Crusaders played a few more games. Playing on a team that won 25 of 26 games and was favored to successfully defend its WIAA Division 5 state title and thus compete in three more contests, Ognacevic finished the season with a 39.4 points per game average to lead the state. He scored a whopping 1,024 points during the season. Wausaukee's Anthony Pieper, who scored 1,063 in 1992-93 and 1,032 in 1991-92 for Wausaukee, is the only player in the history of high school basketball in the state to score more points in a season than Ognacevic. If Ognacevic had reached his average of 39 points a game in the sectional final and two state-tournament games, he would have ended up with 1,141 points for the season and easily eclipsed Pieper's record. Even if he played in just the sectional final and netted 39 points, he would have tied Pieper at 1,063. Ognacevic completed his four-year high school career with 2,501 points to rank sixth on the state's career scoring list.