I have to admit, two minutes in, I thought it was going to be a blowout.
The Arrowhead girls, undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state, boasting incredible depth and talent at every position, rattled off the first 10 points of the game Jan. 3 in a battle with another undefeated squad, Mukwonago. Packed into a crowded MHS gym, I figured MHS with its lineup of two freshmen and two sophomores simply wouldn’t be able to match wits with the Warhawks.
But that was wrong. Mukwonago weathered two 10-0 runs by Arrowhead in the first half, hit key shots in the home stretch and pulled away late at the free-throw line for a stunning 58-46 win. Freshman Dru Henning fearlessly attacked the basket, sophomore point guard Grace Beyer showed why she is likely one of the best players in the state, and fellow sophomore Natalie Andersen made some plays that demonstrated a massive improvement from last year — and that’s saying something considering she played regularly off the bench for a 2016 state finalist.
It’s not that Arrowhead floundered, though. Third-year varsity players Megan Peterson and Liz Erdmann hit from beyond the arc with confidence, 6-1 junior post Caitlyn Harper was able to work for open looks inside, and the Warhawks still looked supremely talented even with point guard Karissa Hucke sidelined by injury.
The scariest part of what looked like a battle worthy of the state tournament was that it featured two teams with five seniors on the roster between them. Four of those players are on the Arrowhead roster and only three (Grace Gilmore and Erdmann for Arrowhead and Nikki Huber of Mukwonago) started the game.
These two are among the cream of the crop in Division 1 basketball in Wisconsin. And they should be next year, too. And the year after that.
They’ll meet again in the Classic 8 season Feb. 3. Would it be so unrealistic to think they’ll meet a third time Friday, March 10, at the Resch Center in Green Bay in the Division 1 state semifinal?
A look at the road ahead for the area’s best basketball teams:
The Mukwonago girls face many Madison area schools in the sectional, and undefeated Middleton is by far the biggest obstacle. Middleton was ranked fourth heading into the week and will be a candidate to reach No. 1 at some point this season. Middleton just won the prestigious Rathke Tournament in Franklin, topping Oshkosh Lourdes in overtime. Like Mukwonago, the Cardinals enjoy scoring balance distributed among three players in double figures and three others at 5.0 ppg or better. All five of Mukwonago’s starters average 8.5 ppg or better, though Beyer (18.6) has turned into a clear-cut top scorer. Madison East, another school in the state rankings, will be another top challenge in the sectional.
The Arrowhead girls must get past De Pere (9-2, ranked seventh) and Germantown (9-1, ranked sixth) to reach state. Germantown has collected some high quality wins this year over Kettle Moraine Lutheran, Sussex Hamilton, Homestead and DSHA, with an overtime loss to that same Lourdes Academy team at the Rathke representing the lone blemish. Kenzie Schmitz (20.0 ppg) is the clear captain of tfor surhe ship. De Pere just won an eye popping 98-16 outcome over Sheboygan South on Jan. 3, but there are a couple reasons why Arrowhead should feel confident in a meeting against the Redbirds. For one thing, De Pere lost to Classic 8 opponent Waukesha West, 38-35, and fell to Bay Port, 47-38. Arrowhead crushed Bay Port earlier this year, 72-50, and then beat West, 50-38. Arrowhead and Germantown were scheduled to meet Jan. 7 in what promised to be a highly intriguing potential playoff preview.
Appleton North figures to be the new No. 1 in girls basketball next week, with Milwaukee King another of the state’s best and also undefeated. Those two could meet in the other semifinal if they get that far.
The Pewaukee girls are perennially one of the state’s best, and at 9-2 heading into a big Jan. 6 meeting with Pius XI, they’ll be among the best again. Their problem remains the same – New Berlin Eisenhower (and New Berlin West, the other team that has beaten PHS this season) is in the same sectional. That’s been the roadblock every year. Eisenhower, the defending state champion, was ranked No. 2 in the state heading into a colossal showdown with No. 1 Beaver Dam on Jan. 7. West is ranked No. 6, with its lone loss against a surging Brookfield East team. The Pirates are ranked eighth, but they did lose by just 1 point to West. Assuming the Pirates maintain their current trajectory, it seems almost destiny that they’ll be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, meaning they would have to face both New Berlin teams just to reach the sectional final (where they would face a team that is currently unranked, perhaps Pius in a “down” year).
The Pewaukee boys, meanwhile, have a different school to worry about in that same D2 half-sectional: Whitnall. The Falcons made it to state last year and have two elite players on their roster in junior (and Wisconsin commit) Tyler Herro and senior Kevion Taylor. But the Pirates are right at that level, and at 10-1, are ranked eighth, with Whitnall (6-2) actually ranked lower in 10th after a lopsided loss to Kaukauna. With Eisenhower, Waukesha North and Greendale scuffling a bit thus far, Pewaukee and Whitnall are the clear-cut favorites to emerge from that half of the sectional. Awaiting on the other side could be fourth-ranked Pius (8-1), which just stunned LaCrosse Central between the holidays and was scheduled to meet Pewaukee on Friday. None of the other state-ranked teams are in the sectional, meaning this is a superb opportunity for the PHS boys in 2017. At the very least, the top threats will be conference foes with whom the Pirates are familiar (though North has proved to be a tough out the past two years).
The Arrowhead boys took a couple lumps between the holidays against high-level talent from Milwaukee Riverside and Oshkosh North, but make no mistake: The Warhawks have a path to the state tournament, as well. The favorite in that sectional is currently Kimberly (7-0), which has wins over sectional foes De Pere and Bay Port and recently took down powerful Kaukauna on Jan. 3, 66-63. The Papermakers are going to be the team to beat, no doubt. But at the moment, the only other ranked team in the sectional is Menomonee Falls (ranked No. 8 at 8-2). Obviously, that’s not to discount some tough foes, such as Bay Port (5-2), the program that ended Stevens Point’s long winning streak earlier this year, and De Pere (5-2), a perennial power whose two losses have come to No. 2 Point and No. 3 Kimberly. Sheboygan North is 6-1, with its lone loss against Bay Port. It will still be daunting, but Arrowhead’s losses have been justifiable, and it figures that a loaded schedule will pay dividends by season’s end. That includes a meeting with Middleton (ranked No. 5) on Jan. 7.