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A rank of athletes from area high schools competing at the next level based on last year's accomplishments, exposure and impact. By JR Radcliffe

There are many unanswerable questions when it comes to discussing the history of high-school sports in greater Milwaukee. Who’s the best athlete in area history? Who’s the best team? Which athlete has been the most surprising at the next level?

But there’s at least one discussion that seems fair — which area athletes are the biggest right now?

Looking at graduates from the high schools we cover in the Lake Country/Now Newspapers footprint and considering their success at the college and pro level, which current athletes from the area are cream of the crop? Take all rankings with a grain of salt, of course, and this list only encompasses current competitors with at least a year under their belt since graduating from high school, ranked based on exposure, impact and accomplishments over the past calendar year.

NOTE: Brianna Decker (Dousman native) and Kevin Zeitler (Waukesha) are excluded because they did not attend high schools in the Lake Country/Now coverage zone. Zeitler signed a lucrative offseason contract as an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns in the NFL, and Decker played a prominent role in the U.S. women’s hockey team winning the World Championships in Michigan.

More: A look back at the 2016 Suburban 16

1. JJ Watt, Pewaukee (NFL, Houston Texans)

Indeed, the past year was a rough one for Watt, who missed the vast majority of the 2016 NFL season with injuries. But the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is still one of the biggest brands in all of sports, and he’s still considered the 35th best player in the league by NFL.com even after seeing action in just three games last year.

2. Gwen Jorgensen, Waukesha South (Olympic triathlete)

Jorgensen enjoyed a meteoric rise on the Olympic circuit, but her experience at the 2012 games ended in disappointment. That set the stage for 2016, when she became the first U.S. woman ever to win Olympic gold in the triathlon, securing her medal on one of the final days of the Rio de Janeiro games. She tweeted out recently that some of her race memorabilia can be found at the Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C.

3. Joe Thomas, Brookfield Central (NFL, Cleveland Browns)

There’s been very little dropoff from Thomas, ranked as the 25th best player in the NFL by NFL.com after making his 10th consecutive Pro Bowl (every year he’s been in the league). The offensive tackle will go down in history as one of the greats to play his position. In July, he opened up about some of the adverse health effects he has experienced playing pro football.

4. Rick Wagner, West Allis Hale (NFL, Detroit Lions)

Quietly, the University of Wisconsin product put together a solid career at right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, and this offseason, his efforts paid off. He signed a deal with the Detroit Lions to become the highest-paid right guard in the league, with a deal worth up to $50 million. The Packers will get a good look at Wagner, who joins ex-Packer TJ Lang as an addition to Detroit’s front.

5. TJ Watt, Pewaukee (NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers)

The youngest of the three Watt brothers delivered a sensational year with the Wisconsin Badgers football team, helping the squad to a BCS Bowl Game and Cotton Bowl victory, then getting drafted with the 30th overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Watt was named first-team All American by ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated and was consensus first-team All Big Ten in his junior

6. Zak Showalter, Germantown (formerly Wisconsin men’s basketball)

Showalter capped off a memorable career with the Badgers by draining his biggest shot yet, a 3-pointer just before the buzzer that forced overtime against Florida in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 this past year. Florida wound up winning on a 3-pointer at the buzzer in OT to send the Badgers to a heartbreaking loss, but Showalter was part of a team that went to two Final Fours and fashioned a quality four-year career.

7. Allazia Blockton, Dominican (Marquette women’s basketball)

What a year for the Marquette women’s basketball team. Helped along by the unanimous first-team All Big East selection as a sophomore, Marquette won the Big East Conference Tournament (she made the All-Tournament team, as well) and netted the highest NCAA Tournament seed in program history. She averaged 17 points and six rebounds per game. The Golden Eagles finished the year 25-8, and Blockton became the fastest player in program history to reach 1,000 career points.

8. Joe Schobert, Waukesha West (NFL, Cleveland Browns)

A new look to the Browns defense could pay dividends for Schobert, who saw action in 16 games of his rookie season and made four starts, with 16 tackles. The former University of Wisconsin standout stopped by the Initial Reaction podcast shortly before the draft in May.

9. Jesse Thielke, Germantown (Olympic wrestler)

The outcome wasn’t what Thielke was hoping for, but few athletes can say they stood on the Olympic stage as Thielke did in Rio de Janeiro, competing at 59 kilograms for the United States in Greco-Roman wrestling.

10. Mehryn Kraker, West Allis Central (pro basketball, formerly UW-Green Bay women’s basketball)

Kraker is playing basketball professionally in Spain after she capped a huge career for the UWGB Phoenix and was drafted by the Washington Mystics of the WNBA (who subsequently released her). Kraker was named Horizon League Player of the Year as a senior and espnW’s Mid-Major Player of the Year after she finished her GB career with 1,671 points and helped the squad get back to the NCAA Tournament. She chatted with the Initial Reaction podcast in April.

11. Marwin Evans, Oak Creek (NFL, Green Bay Packers)

The hometown boy plays for the hometown team when Evans was able to make the Packers as an undrafted free agent last year. He saw action in 16 games and made six tackles, and he started his second camp with a bang when he hauled in an interception in the first preseason game of the year Aug. 10. Evans wasn’t a heralded prospect coming out of Oak Creek, and now he’s playing in front of Lambeau Field crowds.

12. Devin Harris, Wauwatosa East (NBA, Dallas Mavericks)

It’s been a long, solid career for Harris in the NBA, and even though he’s in the twilight of it at age 34, he still got 16 minutes a game last year for the Mavs and scored 6.7 points per game. There is some question whether the team will bring him back in 2017.

13. Nick Bellore, Whitefish Bay (NFL, Detroit Lions)

Bellore signed a free-agent deal with the Lions in the offseason after an absolute breakout season with a San Francisco 49ers, when he was pressed into duty at linebacker and made 10 starts. Primarily a special teams player, Bellore has seen time with the Jets, as well, after signing there as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He stopped by the Initial Reaction podcast in October.

14. Alex Rigsby, Arrowhead (U.S. women’s hockey team)

Rigsby played in net for three games during the United States’ triumph in the IIHF World Championships, an event ending with the Americans topping Canada for gold. The bigger story surrounding the event, however, was the team’s ability to successfully lobby for changes to pay and benefits from USA Hockey, threatening to boycott the event if their expectations weren’t met.

15. Jordan Niebrugge, Homestead (PGA golf)

Niebrugge is still finding his way in his first full year as a professional golfer, but he did get a chance to bask in the spotlight when he made the cut at the US Open, held at Erin Hills Golf Course in the Town of Erin. He stopped by the Initial Reaction podcast before playing in the Open.

16. Brad Nortman, Brookfield Central (NFL, Jacksonville Jaguars)

The punter, in the second year of his deal with the Jaguars, was 10th in the NFL last year in net punting yardage.

Others to know:

Ben Askren, Arrowhead. The mixed-martial artist had just one match in the past year, a victory that moved him to 16-0 in the welterweight class. Askren, 33, is perhaps even better known now for his successful wrestling academy.

Beau Benzschawel, Grafton. Second-team or third-team All Conference in the Big Ten last year (depending who you ask), the junior offensive lineman is on the Outland Trophy Watch List to start the year for the 10th-ranked Badgers.

Ben Bredeson, Arrowhead. Playing offensive line for the Michigan football team, Bredeson was named freshman All-American by one publication when he earned a letter in his true freshman season.

Harrison Cleary, Oak Creek. Remarkable freshman season with the Minnesota-Crookston men's basketball team in NCAA Division II, setting school single-season scoring record (640) and single-game record (42). Averaged 22.1 points per game, named conference Freshman of the Year and Hero Sports Division II Newcomer of the Year.

Katie Drabot, Cedarburg. An All-American in the 200 freestyle and member of national-champion swimming team at Stanford. Also part of a Pac-12 championship relay.

Luke Fischer, Germantown. The Marquette big man helped his team shock No. 1-ranked Villanova during the regular season and qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Troy Grosenick, Brookfield East. A goalie in the San Jose Sharks organization of the NHL who has seen action in two career games, with most of his work done in the AHL.

Taylor Higginbotham, Germantown. Second-team All Conference pick in women’s basketball at Western Illinois helped her team make a dramatic run to the NCAA Tournament.

Brian Keller, Germantown. New York Yankees draft pick in 2016 is having a good year on the mound in the Florida State league. Former UW-Milwaukee standout.

Steph Kostowicz, Oak Creek. After netting first-team All Conference last year in the Horizon League for women’s basketball, she averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per game this season and made the second team. She was also named WBI All-Tournament after leading her team to the semifinals of that postseason event. Also competes for the UWM track team.

Cassidy Mihalko, Franklin. Playing with Calfiornia Baptist in NCAA Division II, Mihalko notched a number of lofty accomplishments, leading to overseas playing opportunities and a NCAA Woman of the Year nomination. She was Player of the Year in her region and a two-time All American.

Riley LaChance, Brookfield Central. After a tough sophomore year, LaChance returned to form as a junior with the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team, averaging 10.5 points and 3.9 assists for an NCAA Tournament qualifier. Was among the nation’s best 3-point shooters.

Paul Miller, Kettle Moraine. First-team All Conference choice in Summit League led North Dakota state men's basketball team in scoring at 16.7 points per game as a junior last year and also averaged 5.2 rebounds. 

Becca Murray, Germantown. Three-time Paralympian led United States wheelchair basketball team to Paralympic gold in Rio de Janeiro, topping reigning gold medalist Germany in the final. 

Bryce Nze, Arrowhead. Had a strong freshman season for UW-Milwaukee men’s basketball after injuries short-circuited his final year-plus at Arrowhead. His .662 shooting percentage was the highest ever for a freshman at UWM and nearly set the school record.

Chikwe Obasih, Brookfield Central. Wisconsin defensive lineman was honorable-mention All Big Ten last year and will anchor a front for a squad that is ranked No. 10 to start the season.

Anthony Pettis, Dominican. In July, Pettis jumped back to lightweight and recorded victory at UFC 213, his 20th career win on the MMA circuit.

Serena (Ramsay) Burla, Waukesha West.After beating cancer, she took 11th in August in the marathon at the IAAF World Championships in London (the No. 2 American).

Ty Sabin, Catholic Memorial. At Ripon College, scored the second-most points in conference history and picked up a contract overseas in Denmark.

Joel Stave, Whitnall. After making the practice squad with the Minnesota Vikings last year, Stave is now trying to catch on with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Diamond Stone, Dominican. He saw seven games of action with the Los Angeles Clippers in his rookie NBA season, but Stone was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason and subsequently released.

Reed Timmer, New Berlin Eisenhower. Averaged 15.3 points per game and 3.1 rebounds with Drake University, netting All-Conference accolades for a second year in the Missouri Valley. Will be a senior this winter.

Derek Watt, Pewaukee.Played in all 16 games last year in his rookie year in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers (now the Los Angeles Charges), primarily serving on special teams.

Duane Wilson, Dominican. After playing a key role in the Marquette University men’s basketball team’s shocking upset over top-ranked Villanova during the season, Wilson announced he was transferring to Texas A&M.

Who'd we miss? Let us know at jr.radcliffe@jmg.com.

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