Now in its ninth year, the Midwest Players Classic has quickly become a sports staple in the Coulee Region, with teams that would otherwise never play in this area making their way to the La Crosse Center to face the best the community has to offer. Past results from the MPC have reaffirmed that calling Coulee Region boys and girls high school basketball some of the best in the state is not just hyperbole. Over the last nine years, Coulee Region teams (including Caledonia for closeness sake) are 21-14 since the event began in 2011, with teams from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, Sioux City, and Cedar Rapids areas learning first hand programs like La Crosse Central and Logan, Aquinas, Onalaska, G-E-T, and Caledonia are not to be overlooked. And this Saturday, the fun is renewed again at 300 Harborview Plaza, with a full day of basketball that features 10 team ranked in the Top 10 of their respective divisions by the Associated Press (with five teams either ranked #1 or #2). And in perhaps the biggest indication of the growth of this event, this year the pool of teams has been expanded from 14 to 16 participating schools. Maybe it’s just my penchant for prep hoops, but I have a strong feeling we’re on pace for one of the best Players Classics ever, buffeted by perhaps the best all-around lineup of teams. With that in mind, let’s breakdown each of the eight contests:
GAME 1: La Crosse Aquinas Blugolds (Girls) vs. Hayward Hurricanes; 9:15 am
Not a whole lot more can be said about the job head coach Dave Donarski has done in building a juggernaut at Aquinas high school. When you have a program that yearly makes spectators ponder “Is THIS the best version of the lady Blugolds I’ve ever seen?” you’re doing something right. And Saturday the 2018-19 version will be on display in the first game of the day against Hayward, a school making their debut appearance in the MPC. Aquinas already has an impressive resume coming into the event, with an undefeated 15-0 record that is padded with several impressive victories over Dowling Catholic of Iowa, DeLaSalle, Minnesota (whose boy’s team will be discussed later), and third-ranked in Division Three and 12-2 Marshall, Wisconsin. The duo of D1-bound talent in juniors Lexi Donarski and Courtney Becker have been unchallenged most of the season, but don’t sleep on junior Taylor Theusch, who sneakily has averaged 16 points per game in her last five contests. Don’t expect Hayward to present much of a challenge this weekend, but if they have any sort of a fighting chance, it rests on a senior-laden roster led by Emily Neff, who is the lone player for the Hurricanes to average over 10 points a game.
GAME 2: La Crosse Aquinas (Boys) Blugolds vs. La Crescent Lancers; 10:50am
When we look at the Aquinas boys program, Brad Reinhart has a team in the midst of a midseason turnaround. The year began to look like a lost cause early, with a 1-6 start highlighted by a 36 point home loss to Onalaska. But since following that defeat with a loss to Eau Claire Regis, Aquinas has gone on something of a tear, winning four of their last five. It’s been a nonconference dominant schedule for the Blugolds so far, with the team having played just four MVC games so far. It will be nothing but conference games following the matchup with the Lancers, so games begin to take on significant meaning from here on out. But don’t underestimate the Lancers, who have yet to lose a Three Rivers East game and play aggressively in big games. Luke Schwartzhoff and Zach Todd have built a formidable scoring twosome, and the Lancers are looking for their own statement win on the heels of losing four games since the New Year. We’ll see if Aquinas can conjure up some of the same magic they used last year in the playoffs that got them as far as a sectional loss to Mineral Point (more on them later, also).
GAME 3: La Crosse Logan Rangers vs. Kaukauna Galloping Ghosts; 12:25pm
With CJ Siegel moving on after last season, the Rangers have been trying to find an identity this year, and have had mixed results so far. Just since January 1st, we’ve seen both the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that makes up the 2018-19 Logan season: a 39 point defeat at home in a rivalry matchup against Central on the third, followed seven days later by a gritty, satisfying 62-61 overtime win over G-E-T. The team that showed up in the later game will have to show up on Saturday against Kaukauna, an eighth-ranked and defending state champion squad. This is the school that benefitted from four years of Jordan McCabe, the 2018 Mr. Basketball and AP Player of the Year who is now getting considerable playing time at West Virginia, and yet has had no trouble changing the guard. They have a new lineup of leaders highlighted by 21 ppg Minnesota Duluth commit Donovan Ivory, and are battle-tested in their own right by way of several high profile nonconference games and a rigorous Fox Valley Association schedule. This one may be a 20+ point win for the Galloping Ghosts.
GAME 4: Caledonia Warriors vs. Mineral Point Pointers; 2:00pm
Caledonia basketball often floats under the radar when it comes to area coverage whereas the football team, though not without cause, is covered at length. But that should not be the case, as the Warriors are eighth ranked in Minnesota’s Class 2A heading into the MPC. The reason for the success lies squarely on the King family line of solid basketball talent, highlighted last year by the electric senior guard Owen King. While he has moved on, the legacy continues this year with junior leader Noah King and the up and coming freshman Eli. They highlight a Caledonia team that features five players averaging double figures and is looking for another state championship appearance.
They’ll face a sixth-ranked in Division 4 Mineral Point team that despite its relative geographic isolation from big city ball has big league talent. That talent includes sophomore Division 1 prospect Brayden Dailey, who averaged over 20 points per game as a freshman and has already visited with Iowa and Wisconsin, and junior Isaac Lindsey, last year’s SWAL conference Player of the Year with high interest from Greg Gard as well as looks from South Dakota State, DePaul, and UNLV. One x-factor to look for in both teams will be fatigue, as the Pointers play conference leading Darlington the night before, while Caledonia will be playing its third game in as many days, including a mammoth Friday night Class 2A state title rematch against Minnehaha Academy. Speaking of which…
GAME 5: La Crosse Central Redhawks vs. Minnehaha Academy Redhawks; 3:35pm (coverage starts at 3:30 on ESPN La Crosse)
In what is arguably the marquee matchup of the day, and one that many wanted to see last year, two teams that have each won a state title in the last two seasons clash (Central in 2017 and Minnehaha last year over Caledonia). The matchup everyone will be watching pits Top-10 2020 recruits Johnny Davis and Jalen Suggs, but that only begins to tell the story about these two programs. Those who come to the Center will be hard pressed to miss the 6-11 Minnehaha sophomore Chet Holmgren (some have listed him as 7 even), a three-star recruit nationally already on 247sports.com who has averaged just south of 18 a game this year. And for the Red Raiders, Jordan Davis has really started to take off lately; since not scoring in the loss to Brookfield Central, he has scored double digits in all but one game since (Jan 3 at Logan was the outlier, and it wasn’t needed in a 29 point win). I can’t imagine this game being a blowout either way, since the two programs have an even talent distribution and a next level head coach who knows how to handle a big game. Central will have the benefit of a day of rest, whereas Minnehaha is fresh off the aforementioned 2A title rematch against Caledonia. Though with the talent on each side, that should hardly be an issue; expect a shootout that could come down to the last shot.
GAME 6: DeLaSalle Islanders vs. Sun Prairie Cardinals; 5:10pm
After having a moment to catch our collective breaths, we move on to a David-Goliath style matchup for Game 6. Those who follow Minnesota boy’s basketball, and in particular basketball from the Twin Cities, have likely heard of the DeLaSalle Islanders. They are the #1 team in Class 3A, and prior to last season’s upset loss to Columbia Heights had won an astonishing six consecutive state titles. They boast a George Washington University-commit in senior forward Jamison Battle (26.6ppg) and Stanford-bound senior Tyrell Terry (25.4ppg) who make about as dynamic a twosome as we’ll see at the MPC (even more so than Schwartzoff and Todd for La Crescent).
Going up against them is Sun Prairie, a Big Eight school that despite not standing out much in the crowd really has no bad losses in their 9-4 season, and does boast a recent good win over conference foe and ninth-ranked in Division 1 Madison Memorial. The Cardinals won that defensive struggle on the shooting arm of senior Brock Voight, the lone player in double figures that night. He’ll need to rally the troops around him for Sun Prairie to have any shot against one of the standout programs in Minnesota across all divisions.
GAME 7: Martin Luther Spartans vs. Minneapolis North Polars; 6:45pm
Back on January 8th, the above-mentioned Islanders of DeLaSalle were on the tail end of an incredibly difficult four-game section of their schedule. They had lost to nationally-ranked Findlay Prep of Nevada, beaten #16 nationally Mountain Brook of Alabama by one point, and lost to the reigning South Dakota AA state champ Yankton. Their final opponent in this stretch was Minneapolis North, the current #2 in 2A just their second year in the class after jumping up from 1A in an attempt to gain exposure. The game ended up a 66-57 DeLaSalle victory, but that was a testament to how good the Islanders are and not a knock against the Polars. They have beaten some top-notch teams themselves, including Milwaukee Washington, Sioux Falls O’Gorman, and more recently a 79-74 win over Caledonia on January 12th (Off topic, notice how many of these teams have played games against other MPC teams? Just more confirmation of how stacked this year’s roster of teams is). The team has a fearsome foursome of scorers paced by senior Eli Campbell, who is on the watch list for Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball award for 2019. The other three, Nasir El-Amin, Davon Townley Jr, and Josh Hodges, all have turned in high scoring performances, with Townley Jr. in particular going off in their last few games averaging over 18 points a game over the last four.
They take on Martin Luther of Greendale, which boasts two of the hotter recruits from a southeast Wisconsin area loaded with talent. Senior guard Xzavier Jones has been highly consistent and is garnering interest from Bradley, UW Green Bay and Saint Louis. Meanwhile senior point guard Trequan Carrington has performed well in tournament/showcase games so far this year, averaging 20 points in those three games. This one may not resonate with Coulee Region fans from a “local favorites” perspective, but those who arrive early for the Ona-Oconomowoc game will likely see yet another barn-burner.
GAME 8: Onalaska Hilltoppers vs. Oconomowoc Raccoons; 8:15pm (coverage begins at 8pm on ESPN La Crosse)
The Hilltoppers haven’t played in the finale of the MPC since its inception back in 2011, where they beat Milwaukee Bay View in front of a crowd of 1,350 as Matt and Tony Thomas each scored 17. That changes this year, as the next generation of Hilltoppers faces Oconomowoc out of the Classic Eight. The legacy of that 2011 team will be represented on the floor as the Arenz and Olson names live on in Carson and Hank respectively, but perhaps the player with the most attention being paid to him this weekend will be Tyrell Stuttley. His first half performance against Central on January 11th was likely the best of his high school basketball career, but the game became a “what could have been” story as he picked up his third and fourth fouls about 10 seconds apart in the second half and had to sit during a crucial stretch of the game. He finished with 26, but one wonders how differently that game would have been had he been in during what ended up being a huge Central run.
Onalaska has had off since that game to prepare for Oconomowoc, a team that much like Kaukauna gets battle tested every year by playing in a highly competitive conference. The Classic Eight features teams that always feature great athletes like Arrowhead, Catholic Memorial, Waukesha West, and Muskego, but the Raccoons have held their own, winning three straight since dropping both games at the Ab Nicholas tournament in Waunakee. This up and coming team is led by a duo of juniors in Caleb Flatten-Moore (14.3ppg) and Drew Fisher (11.3ppg), but will be highly tested in its fifth straight game away from home. If they can defend the perimeter like Central did, this one has at least a chance to end the MPC the way everyone wants: down to the wire.
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