It’s hard to argue against the notion that the last ten years of high school basketball in the Coulee Region have been some of the best in history, and so perhaps it’s fitting that this year the Midwest Players’ Classic celebrates its tenth year of exemplary hardwood talent at the La Crosse Center. The spirit of the great basketball culture of the area is personified each January, and this year figures to be one of the best in the event’s existence, with an incredible 11 of the 16 playing ranked in the Top 10 at the time of this writing. This iteration of the event also includes a Gonzaga-commit, two brothers who will continue their basketball careers at Wisconsin, and for the first time a girls basketball headliner. Let’s break down each game, looking at the past results for each team at the MPC, what they’ve done this season, and what strengths and weaknesses will be present in each match up.
West Salem vs Aquinas Boys (9AM on ESPN La Crosse 105.5)
It is fitting that the Aquinas boys will kick off the event, as the hosts have played in every MPC since its beginnings (obvious comment is obvious). In 2011 the Blugolds defeated Minneapolis South 62-55, and have gone 6-3 at the event overall. This year Aquinas boys basketball is still figuring themselves out at the midway point of the season, with senior wingman Gavin Wetzel and sophomore guard Quinn Miskowski averaging a tick about 10 a game. While this Aquinas team may lack the offensive fireworks of seasons’ past, it should be noted they have already played La Crosse Central and Onalaska once (we’ll get to the Hilltoppers in a little bit), and it’s hard to gauge a Division 4 team’s true postseason potential with those higher-division games early in the schedule. They get a good matchup in West Salem, who themselves are contending in the Coulee Conference a year removed from an 8-4 conference record. In their most recent game senior David Lattos was a valuable asset in overtime, scoring five points in a 53-49 win over Viroqua. Interestingly, despite the close proximity to La Crosse, the Panthers have only played in one MPC, losing in 2015 to an East Ridge, Minnesota team that went 20-6.
Names To Watch
Aquinas: Quinn Miskowski, Gavin Wetzel
West Salem: Josh Hauser, David Lattos
La Crescent vs Melrose-Mindoro
After a blazing start to the season for Jason McRoberts’ Mustangs, Melrose-Mindoro has cooled off considerably; a 4-0 start has turned into a sub-500 record after their loss Thursday against Black River Falls. There’s a lot of turnover from a 16-7 unit last year, and when your leading scorer from the previous year departs, it can be a struggle to find that next man up. While Mel-Min continues to iron out its identity, La Crescent comes into the MPC looking pretty similar to last season. This year the Lancers are led by a senior class highlighted by 19 PPG scorers Zach Todd and Luke Schwartzhoff, the former of whom put up 24 points in a win against Aquinas. 2019 was La Crescent’s first appearance in the MPC, while Mel-Min makes their debut this year.
Names To Watch
La Crescent: Zach Todd, Luke Schwartzhoff
Melrose-Mindoro: Jay Arzt, Tristan McRoberts
#9 (D2) DeForest vs St. Croix Lutheran
Our first ranked team in this season’s lineup comes to us from the Badger – North Conference, where the Norskies currently are in a three way battle with yearly contender Waunakee and Reedsburg for the title. The story of this DeForest team is Max Weisbrod, sophomore point guard and the son of head coach Craig Weisbrod. Max was commanding the troops for the team that won the Wissports.net Showcase Championship this past fall, and has improved both in physical stature and his skillset from a year ago. He played in just two games last season, but has grown from 5’10” to 6’ even and is averaging 13.6 a game while shooting 80 percent from the free throw line. They face St. Croix Lutheran, led by junior Zach Longueville and his 19 points a game. The Crusaders have won both of their previous MPC appearances in 2015 and 16, with Denver University-product Ade Murkey scoring 26 in the latter game, while DeForest is seeking their first MPC win after losses to Robbinsdale Cooper in 2013 and Caledonia in 2016.
Names To Watch
DeForest: Max Weisbrod, Trey Schroeder
St. Croix Luth: Zach Longueville
Speaking of the Warriors…
#1 (MN Class 2A) Caledonia vs #5 (D4) Lourdes Academy
Our first number one team of the showcase comes to us from the Three Rivers – East Conference, and boy what a year it has been so far for the four-time reigning conference champs. At the time of this writing, the Warriors have notched a perfect 13-0 record highlighted by an instant classic against Minneapolis North (another team we’ll get to in a second). In that game, brothers Noah and Eli King each went over 20 points, and in particular for the senior Noah it seemed like a signature game. Of his 25, 9 came in the overtime period, and he was surgical from behind the arc. His recent decision to de-commit from South Dakota State, where his brother Owen is getting decent playing time as a sophomore, will make the second half of his season that much more intriguing, and a big performance on Saturday in front of several more eyes than the average Caledonia home game could pay dividends.
On the flipside, Lourdes Academy has largely taken care of business this year, with a lone loss coming to the hands of #9 (D4) Roncalli. The offense runs through junior Preston Ruedinger, who in that Roncalli loss had a double-double with 30 and 10 while going 6-10 from three. Those long shots are his specialty; he was a 47 percent three-point shooter as a sophomore.
This is Lourdes’ first appearance in the MPC, while Caledonia has now played in every event since 2015, hoping to duplicate their performance last year against Mineral Point, an 85-57 win.
Names To Watch
Caledonia: Noah King, Eli King, Sam Privet
Lourdes Academy: Preston Ruedinger
#4 (MN Class 2A) Minneapolis North vs #9 (D1) Madison East
This one has the makeup of a really close game. Looking first at Minneapolis North, while watching them play last year against an excellent Martin Luther team, I kept in the back of my mind that they had been put up against a really difficult schedule (including South Dakota state-qualifier O’Gorman, Chicago’s Orr Academy, DeLaSalle, Caledonia, Hopkins, Minnehaha Academy, and Eden Prairie). In those games, the Polars went 2-5, and by proxy a ton of experience was granted to Willie Wilson. The sophomore point guard has become a name to watch for the next few years, averaging 17.4 ppg over his last five games including 26 in the aforementioned Caledonia loss Saturday.
They’ll go up against a fellow battle-tested program in Madison East. The Purgolders just got done taking Sun Prairie to the limit, and while the Cardinals ultimately prevailed in overtime, there was a lot to like from East. Senior Anthony Washington had a double-double in the loss and is attracting attention from D1 programs such as Marquette, Green Bay, and both North and South Dakota State. The Purgolders have a number of three-year varsity starters on their roster this year, with Washington and teammate Keonte Jones standing out; Jones scored 21 in a loss to second-ranked Madison La Follette on Thursday, and will be important to get going against the Polars.
This will be East’s first time in the MPC.
Names To Watch
Minneapolis North: Willie Wilson
Madison East: Anthony Washington, Keonte Jones
#6 (D1) Sun Prairie vs #2 (D2) Onalaska (5pm on ESPN La Crosse 105.5)
Our second full broadcast of the day figures to be a bit of a tougher test for Onalaska than what they faced last year in Oconomowoc. I don’t mean to disrespect the Raccoons, but Craig Kowal’s Hilltoppers just were another level up. This year’s iteration of Onalaska boys basketball is even better than last year’s, with guys like Tyrell Stuttley, Carson Arenz, Gavin McGrath, and Sam Kick all taking big strides from a year ago. This improvement was on full display last Friday in an 82-24 drubbing of Sparta, from a crushing defense that only finally let off the gas when the margin was over 40 points, to a constant three-point presence in Arenz and Kick and interior domination by Stuttley, McGrath, and by Victor Desmond once those two were largely out of the game.
On the flip side, Sun Prairie is riding high on the previously mentioned OT win over Madison East. They are diverse as far as ages go, which isn’t surprising as one of the largest schools in the state. The ringleader, senior point guard Colin Schaefer perfectly encapsulates what the Cardinals bring to the floor: he’s a crafty player who can apart to many different situations that unfold in a basketball game. Schaefer’s certainly also no stranger to adversity; he missed 19 games last year with an ankle injury, including Sun Prairie’s MPC win over big favorite DeLaSalle, but then averaged a sliver under 12 a game after returning, helping the Cardinals reach the D1 state title game. That tenacity and response to adversity has netted him a D2 offer from Northern Michigan.
One other factor to consider for this game: the Hilltoppers have a MAJOR game coming up the night before at home against La Crosse Central (7pm on ESPN La Crosse 105.5), and they could potentially be mentally exhausted if that highly anticipated matchup goes down to the wire. This will be Onalaska’s fifth appearance in the MPC and they enter play with a perfect 5-0 record, while the Cardinals are also perfect, albeit just 1-0, after last year’s win.
Names To Watch
Onalaska: Tyrell Stuttley, Carson Arenz, Gavin McGrath, Sam Kick
Sun Prairie: Colin Schaefer, Delaware Hale
#1( MN Class 3A) Minnehaha Academy Boys vs #2 (D1) Madison La Follette
This game was originally scheduled to be a rematch of last year’s marquee Minnehaha-La Crosse Central game that saw a record amount of people pile into the Center. After the Red Raiders pulled out of the MPC, however, Madison La Follette was chosen to replace them, and I think Brad Reinhart scored a big get in the current Big Eight leaders.
This matchup pits a team boasting a Gonzaga-bound top recruit against a team with one of the best guard make ups in the region. Minnehaha’s Jalen Suggs, the number one Class of 2020 player in the state of Minnesota, understandably has garnered a ton of the attention around the program; his 23 point performance in a nationally televised game against Sierra Canyon, California showcased a lot of what he will bring to the Gonzaga program: pure athleticism, floor awareness, and reading passes for steals, an ability enhanced by his experience as a quarterback and safety on the football team. When announcing his decision to commit to Gonzaga, he briefly mentioned trying to bring junior teammate Chet Holmgren there for 2021; Holmgren is #6 on the ESPN 60 for the Class of 2021, and is an absolute double-double machine. And I haven’t even mentioned Wisconsin football-bound Kaden Johnson or sophomore Pringe Aligbe, who has already played four years of varsity basketball starting in the seventh grade.
For La Follette, their answer will lie in the backcourt players. Seniors Isaiah Stewart and Derek Gray have elevated their passing abilities since appearing in a number of showcases this fall, and Stewart in particular is a Top 50 player in the state that has been itching for a chance to shine on another big stage. The last time La Follette was in a showcase game, Stewart scored 21 in a 17 point win WBY Shootout win over Brookfield Central, and in Thursday's win over Madison East put up 22.
Minnehaha has played in the last three MPCs, amassing a 2-1 record with wins over La Crosse Central and Stoughton and a loss in 2017 to Onalaska; La Follette is making its first appearance, and is the first city of Madison school in the event since Madison Memorial lost to Eastview, Minnesota in 2012.
Names To Watch
Minnehaha: Chet Holmgren, Prince Aligbe
Madison La Follette: Isaiah Stewart, Derek Gray
#3 (MN Class 2A) Minnehaha Academy Girls vs #1 (D4) Aquinas Girls
For the first time in the decade-long history of the Players Classic, there has never been a girls game wrapping up the action. That changes this year, and all those who will amass in the Center Saturday evening will get to see the powerhouse that coach Dave Donarski has built at Aquinas take on another regional power right in their backyard. Make no mistake, the Blugolds have played quality opponents during this dominant stretch, most notably games against Hopkins that have resulted in losses, but it’s been awhile since one of those tough games has been played IN La Crosse.
Regular followers of Coulee Region sports are familiar with the on-court exploits of senior Lexi Donarski, a McDonald’s All-American nominee who committed to Iowa State years ago and since then has only confirmed she belongs in at least the top three of great area ballers with a 22.5 point average this year and a 49 percent 3-point shooting percentage. But the Blugold puzzle is more than just one piece; names like seniors Kayla Bahr, Courtney Becker, and Taylor Theusch compliment Lexi’s game. Becker is D1 bound herself, heading to Drake next year while Theusch will take her talents to Minnesota State-Mankato. And perhaps most interesting, the next line of Donarski basketball talent is already producing, as Macy has averaged 8.7 a game this year and already has her own D1 offer from Green Bay.
Their opponents feature a two-headed monster in seniors Mia Curtis and Tanna Gallo. They are each in the Top 5 in Minnesota for three pointers made, and Mia also is tops in the state for both assists and steals. Not to mention Curtis is also the academy’s all-time scoring leader. Gallo will play college ball at Waldorf University, meaning she’ll be back in the La Crosse area once a year at least to play Viterbo, while Curtis still is deciding her next step.
The Aquinas girls have played in every MPC since 2015 and won each time, while the Redhawk girls are here for the first time.
Names To Watch
Aquinas: Lexi Donarski, Courtney Becker, Taylor Theusch
Minnehaha Academy: Mia Curtis, Tanna Gallo, Kate Pryor
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