By Adam Roberts – 1/13/2021
I know Stugotz has left ESPN for the new and exciting waters of pirate radio, but I will still channel the Gotz as I say…
Listenerrrrrrrs…*ding*…the Midwest Players Classic…*ding*…is BACK!…*ding*.
A couple of years ago the MPC set an attendance record when 4,325 people came out to watch the competition that day. The highlight match up delivered with a close 59-55 game between Minnehaha Academy and a Johnny and Jordan Davis-led La Crosse Central. While this year won’t match the attendance total from that day for obvious reasons, I’m gonna make a bold claim and say the percentage of close games could be the highest in the 11 year history of the event this year. Looking over the schedule, there aren’t a great number of clear one-sided games, so the fans that are admitted to the La Crosse Center have a great chance to see a possible repeat of last year. If you recall, only one game was played between West Salem and the Aquinas boys (not COVID related if you can believe that; a big blizzard the night before and morning of made travel inadvisable for a number of teams), but it was an incredible double-overtime affair that made for great radio. Fingers crossed for more of those! Let’s analyze each contest we’ll see this weekend:
AQUINAS VS LUTHER
When Aquinas head coach Brad Reinhart took over the Aquinas boy’s basketball program in 2015, he inherited a team expected to finish middle of the pack, both in the MVC and as a team overall. That’s largely what happened with the Blugolds finishing 15-12 overall and 6-6 in conference play. But lost in that record is what happened in March, where Reinhart coached his team through excellent postseason competition including a heavily-favored Bangor team in the WIAA Sectional Final to a state semifinal appearance in Madison against a Dominican team that featured eventual D2-bound Gacoby Jones and one Kostas Antetokounmpo. If you take anything away from that, it should be that Brad knows to use the weapons he has to make noise deep into the postseason, even when it’s not expected. In that same vein, Brad Schaper at Luther has built a winner this season using the tools at his disposal. At the time of this writing, the Knights are 4-0 after a late start to the season, and none of the games have been particularly close.
As for this match up, keep an eye on Isaiah Loersch; the 6’7″ senior improves on his brother Bennett’s skill set and is a notably more aggressive player in the paint. He’ll be teamed up with fellow 6’7″er Gavin Proudfoot often, making for a difficult match up problem for Aquinas. Expect the Blugolds to counter with outside shooting by feeding the rock to junior Quinn Miskowski; he’s averaging 19 a game so far, and following a 20-point loss to Tomah last week will be clamoring for a big game offensively while the spotlight is on them.
#8 (D5) BANGOR VS SOMERSET
Normally, the Cardinals of Bangor run straight through the Scenic Bluffs Conference, but this year they are likely to encounter some resistance from a very good seventh-ranked (D4) Cashton team. They were originally supposed to play the Eagles on January 7th, but that game had to be postponed for COVID reasons. Instead, they took on #2 (D5) Blair-Taylor and fell 75-64; side note, the Wildcats should get an invite to the MPC sometime soon, Randy Storlie runs a very tight ship at B/T (coincidentally the Wildcats ended Bangor’s playoff run last year right before sports shut down). This Cardinals team is not in quite the same stratosphere as last year’s team that lost just twice all year, but you don’t make the top 10 by accident. They average 72.7 PPG and currently shoot just under 50% including 45.3% from 3. Defensively, the Cardinals also make sure to keep pressure on you from start to finish, with opponents averaging just under 16 turnovers a game. As for individuals, keep an eye on Zane Langrehr; he recently scored 23 against New Lisbon in a win this past week.
Bangor faces Somerset, a first-time Players Classic participant that boasts senior Melvin Medina Ortiz. The 6’1″ guard recently dropped 22 on Rice Lake in a 69-51 win. Overall, the Spartans are right in the thick of the MIddle Border race with #6 (D3) St. Croix Central and New Richmond. In their matchups with both, they’ve fallen to New Richmond 69-64 on the 7th and to St. Croix Central 90-76 on the 12th.
#5 (D4) DARLINGTON VS #3 (D5) LOURDES ACADEMY
Fifth-ranked Darlington currently finds themselves in arguable their toughest stretch of the season so far. Ahead of the MPC, they beat Mineral Point 71-59, a program that lost to Caledonia in the 2019 MPC, and are looking at a contest against currently unbeaten Cuba City on Tuesday. But to this point, the Cardinals have largely risen to the challenge; their only two losses thus far are to two ranked teams in Madison Edgewood and Monroe. 6’4″ senior Carter Lancaster started the season ranked 40th in Mark Miller of Wissports.net’s Top 50 players from the Class of 2021, just behind Onalaska’s Sam Kick, and to this point he has played above that rank. The defending SWAL player of the year has offers from a few D2 schools and over his last four games is averaging 19 a game and shooting 61%. You can’t overlook his teammate Cayden Rankin, either; the 6’6″ forward played well in the Monroe loss and leads the team in assists.
They face a Lourdes team loaded with talent as well two years removed from a run to the D4 state title game. In that same Mark Miller list above, Preston Ruedinger ranked 20th and earlier this year against Laconia dropped 43 points with seven threes. Ruedinger has offers on the table from Winona State, Michigan Tech, and St. Leo. Additionally, Jack McKellips won’t put up 43 in all likelihood, but at 58% shooting he’s quite efficient, which in high school sports is a rarity to be treasured.
HOLMEN VS NORTHWESTERN (3pm on ESPN La Crosse 105.5 and espnlacrosse.com)
On Monday, the Holmen Vikings hosted an at-the-time #10 Tomah team that I’ve seen play multiple times this season and can say is probably the best team they’ve had this millennium (more on them later). Faced with an opponent no one expected them to beat, Cole Kalander put the team on his back. The 6’7″ senior UW-Oshkosh commit scored nearly half of his team’s points while teammate Ryland Wall ripped away seven steals, and the Vikings upset the Timberwolves 44-42. While a 2-3 record may not be glamorous compared to some of the other teams at this year’s Classic, a win like that is huge for the early resume of first year head coach Ryan Meyer. Meyer took over for 24-year veteran Steve Blank in May, and the 05-06 Holmen senior utilizes many of the same principles that carried Blank to nearly a quarter century at the position.
As for Northwestern, they make the three hour, forty-five minute drive down from Maple, WI for their first MPC appearance. The Tigers are equal opportunity scorers, with about half of their varsity roster capable of popping off. In their win against Barron on Tuesday, Monte Mayberry, Jase Nelson, Cole Lanti, and CJ Thompson all took turns leading the way and finished with 55 of the team’s 80 points. Defensively, however, they did allow five Bears to score in double figures.
#4 (D2) ONALASKA VS #3 (D1) MENOMONEE FALLS (coverage begins immediately after Holmen-NW on ESPN La Crosse 105.5 and espnlacrosse.com)
If there was any wonder whether or not the Onalaska boys were going to be competitive in Division 2 again this year, those thoughts were squashed this week when the Hilltoppers went up to Chippewa Falls and handled the ninth-ranked in Division 1 Cardinals 65-42. What Chi Hi, and others that face the Hilltoppers, found out is that North Dakota-commit Gavin McGrath is a huge problem to deal with. He reminds me a lot of Chet Holmgren at Minnehaha Academy; Holmgren has McGrath beat height-wise by a couple inches (7’1″ vs 6’11”), but much like the #1 senior in the nation according to ESPN McGrath requires the attention of the opponent at all times, opening up the floor for his already talented teammates like Victor Desmond and Sam Kick. The Chippewa Falls game is a microcosm of how those three feed off of each other and make it so tough for opponents to keep up.
But if there was a team in this event that could do it, it might be the Phoenix. Junior Seth Trimble has generated a lot of buzz as the #2 junior according to a number of publications; he already had an offer from UW Milwaukee going into the year and now has offers from places like Arizona State, Creighton, Nebraska, TCU, and USC. Maybe the only better junior is conference opponent Leon Bond at Wauwatosa East, but not far behind him is teammate Steven Clay, a 6’4″ wing that averaged over 21 a game last year while earning a first-team Greater Metro Conference honor with Trimble along with scholarships on the table from UWM, Maryland, and TCU.
#8 (D2) RIVER FALLS VS MONONA GROVE
The Big Rivers Conference, in my humble opinion, gets slept on far too often as one of the best basketball conferences in the state. Between the dominant Rice Lake teams from a few years ago, to the current leaders from Chippewa Falls, Hudson, and River Falls, there always seems to be a team from the conference that makes a big run in March. If that teams will be the Wildcats this year, it will largely be due to the production of senior Zac Johnson, the team-leader of all three major statistical categories. The Augustana-commit started out as an honorable mention all-conference freshman and has only improved since, primarily due to his superior physical strength compared to many others his age and size. Johnson was also First Team WBCA for Division 2 last year, and despite a loss to Hudson on Monday still managed to shoot nearly 60 percent for 32 points. He also had five threes in the game, and scored three against St. Croix Central in a win on New Year’s Eve.
Meanwhile, in what can only happen in a COVID-influenced season, their opponent Monona Grove will be making their season debut at the La Crosse Center. With Dane County holding out longer than others in limiting youth sports participation, all the Madison-area schools had a later start than the rest of the state, but the team that takes the floor Saturday will be one with a ton of accumulated experience; nine seniors fill the roster for head coach Dan Zweifel, with Connor Bracken the biggest (figuratively and literally at 6’5″) impact player returning from an 8-16 season a year ago.
HUDSON VS VERONA
As far as the Raiders go, they lead the Big Rivers at the moment. Although they currently are not ranked they could be 10th after this weekend if they take care of Menomonie on Friday and then defeat Verona Saturday. The 49th-ranked player in the 2021 senior class is a big reason why. Luke Healy is committed to Sioux Falls next year and has three 30+ point games under his belt this season already. As a team, the Raiders are prone to starting fast and allowing teams to get back into it in the second half; they’ve outscored opponents 304-222 in the first this season but have been outscored 310-286 in the second.
As a Dane County school, Verona like Monona Grove will be starting their season with their game this weekend. Reggie Patterson takes over the Wildcats following a 4-19 final season for Eddie Singleton last year. Last year was a forgettable one for the Wildcats, finishing 4-14 in the ultra competitive Big Eight ahead of only Janesville Parker.
TOMAH VS KAUKAUNA
In the finale of the day, we see a team with not a ton of recent success suddenly surging this year taking on a team that has recently sent players to Division 1 colleges. You might recall with Kaukauna names like Jordan McCabe, who before heading to West Virginia piloted the Galloping Ghosts to a D2 title in 2018. Two years ago they boasted the talents of Donovan Ivory who now plays at UMass-Lowell. Currently, while the team is loaded despite a 9-6 record some are keeping an eye on what 6’6″ freshman Jon O’Neill could become. He doesn’t play much at the moment with just 15 points scored on the season, but keep an ear out for that name the next few years. The star this year is undoubtedly junior Chirstopher Morgan, who is one of the best passing points in the state with a plan already to follow McCabe to West Virginia.
On the flip side, Tomah is playing in their first Players Classic, and coming in with high expectations per their 9-3 record and up until this week Top 10 ranking. In his second tenure as head coach, Jeff Brieske has three players with the ability to score quickly, rebound often, or make the players around them better in Dustin Derousseau, Carson Lindauer, and Zander Williams. Media members and coaches who’ve played or covered this Tomah team are in agreement that the development of this team a year removed from going 17-6 is notable, with the development of Williams as a formidable shot blocker perhaps the biggest difference. They were brought down to earth slightly on January 4th with a 20-point loss to Onalaska, and there’s also the aforementioned upset loss to Holmen earlier this week. But all this will likely do is give Brieske fuel to feed the fire as his players’ no doubt want to use this weekend as an opportunity to prove they belong in the Top 10 conversation.
So that’s that for this year’s preview. I’ll finish with a friendly reminder that ESPN La Crosse 105.5 and espnlacrosse.com will have all-day coverage from the Players Classic once again this year. This may be the best year yet to listen in due to the capacity limits in place for the event, so bookmark our website and be ready to enjoy a day of great prep hoops action!