The journey to the Wisconsin state girls basketball tournament began in earnest with opening games scattered throughout the Stateline this past week.
Here is a roundup of area teams for the 2016-’17 season.
The Comets shared second place with Badger last year with a 9-5 conference mark, three games behind Union Grove and Wilmot. That was a tremendous jump after getting skunked in league play a year earlier.
Delavan-Darien must play without second teamer Jennah Speth, who registered a team-high 13.4 ppg. But it will soldier on in trying to improve on its 13-10 overall record with sophomore standout Katharina Lopez (12.8) and senior Kenna Timmerman (9.8).
Junior Jaida Speth (5.7) and senior Alex Gonzalez (3.1) must take on much bigger roles because Lopez will miss considerable time with an ACL injury.
The Badgers must make up for the loss of Samantha Tisa, who was third in the SLC in scoring at 13.7 and second in rebounds at 7.8, earning a spot on the league’s first team.
Senior Jenn Freeman (11.2) is back after making the second unit, while junior Courtney Oomens (8.1) garnered honorable mention status, and big things are expected from both as Badger tries to better its 12-11 finish.
Juniors Chloe Kleeman (6.2), Marissa Nurnberg (5.1) and Madison Smid (4.2) also possess plenty of experience and will be counted on heavily.
The once-proud program and perennial contender has fallen on hard times, winning fewer games each of the last four seasons since posting a 9-5 conference record in 2011-’12.
And the Elks likely will struggle again after going winless last winter (0-14, 0-23).
Elkhorn also faces life without top performer Megan Skoczylas, who earned honorable mention.
Top returnees include junior Olivia May (3.7) and sophomores Riley Rand (6.3) and Payton Christensen (5.3).
The Demons finished 8-6 in SLC competition and 12-12 overall and should contend for an upper-division spot behind junior star Jessa Burling, who topped the conference in scoring (15.0) and rebounding (8.4). Those efforts placed her on the league’s first team.
Also back is senior Megan Wallace, who averaged 11.2 ppg and earned honorable mention laurels.
This experienced bunch also returns seniors Ashlyn Barry, Mackenzie Zwiebel and Adeline Jachim, who all chipped in from 4.5 to 6 ppg.
Rock Valley North
The 2014-’15 Division 3 state champions fell in the regional finals last year, finishing 22-2 after dominating league action again with a 16-0 mark, six games ahead of McFarland.
Judy Harms’ Whippets should contend for the trophy again behind returning senior first-team choices Myriama Smith-Traore and Rebekah Schumacher. Smith-Traore, the All-Walworth County and conference Player of the Year, averaged 17.4 points, 15.1 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots and will want to go out on a high note before taking her talents to Marquette University after being the only unanimous Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association D-3 All-State team selection.
Schumacher chipped in 13.6 ppg, led the conference in assists (4.7) and added 4.5 steals. She has committed to NCAA Division II program Quincy University.
And don’t forget honorable mention selections Allison Heckert (9.3) and Ali Ketterhagen, both juniors.
Whitewater is chasing its fourth consecutive North crown and has not lost a league contest since falling to McFarland on Dec. 10, 2013, a string of 40 straight wins.
The Trojans arguably have the league’s biggest hole to fill, losing scoring champion and first teamer Katrina Santos (17.8), who finished second in rebounding (12.6) to Smith-Traore.
Jeff Brown’s returning contingent will include honorable mention choices in senior Maddie Rosin (6.5) and sophomore Mackenzie Lindow (6.1), along with soph Erin Rice (6.9).
East Troy suffered its third consecutive losing campaign after making back-to-back D-2 state tournament appearances, finishing 5-11 in league contests and 9-14 overall.
Rock Valley South
Big Foot is gearing up to eliminate Brodhead’s six-year stranglehold of the league’s top spot, which the rivals shared last winter.
The Chiefs boast a strong lineup despite the loss of leading scorer Morgan Courier, who averaged 13.6 ppg while making the South first team.
That unit also included Courtney Schoenbeck, who scored at an 11.0 clip as a sophomore as Big Foot finished 14-2 in conference competition and 19-5 overall.
Payton Courier also is back for her junior campaign after averaging 10 ppg and making the league’s second team.
Rick Schoenbeck’s squad also features honorable mention seniors Brooke Wellhausen (5.6) and Olivia Briggs (8.8).
Dustin Burg takes over from B.J. Mertens, whose Panthers finished in the conference basement at 1-15 and 3-20.
The Panthers had not defeated a Rock Valley opponent since February 2013, also against Parkview, when they upended the Vikings late last season.
Palmyra-Eagle hopes to improve its perch in the standings behind senior Sarah Seiden and junior Lauren Stefanczyk, who both earned honorable mention laurels.
Seiden led the team at 10.4 ppg, while Stefanczyk was right there at 10.1.
The Bulldogs took their lumps during a 5-11 showing in the conference, but they finished 10-13 overall.
They could move up a notch or two behind the likes of senior Lauren Higgins and juniors Leslie Olson and Bella DeNotto, who all earned honorable mention accolades.
Olson led the offense with 8.3 ppg, while Higgins was second at 7.2 and DeNotto third with 6.1. Higgins topped the team in rebounding at seven per game.
Indian Trails Blue
The Eagles went unbeaten in league action and finished 11-12 overall.
Faith Christian returns a formidable lineup despite losing Sabrina Johnson. Sophomore Zoe Vyskocil joined Johnson on the league’s first team, while senior Moriah Skrede and junior Gretal Botsch earned spots on the second unit and senior Hailey Vyskocil was an honorable mention pick.
Jerod Boyd takes the coaching reins from Suzy Bittmann after Central failed to win a conference outing while compiling a 6-17 overall finish.
Not much is expected of the Hilltoppers this season, although they return senior and honorable mention selection Bridget Bittmann (8.4).
They must replace leading scorer Laura Klein, who pumped in 10.7 ppg.
Sophomores Elizabeth (5.6) and Emma Klein (6.2) will attempt to pick up the slack.
Kerry Storbakken’s Cougars fell one game short of a third consecutive 20-victory season, finishing 19-7, including a 14-4 mark and third-place showing in league play.
Craig must replace one of the program’s top players for a second straight year, losing conference scoring leader and first teamer Delaney Schoenenberger a season after Alison Hughes graduated.
Annie Schumacher (13.0) and Kamryn Brittingham (8.4) also are gone. However, the Cougars’ lineup still features Ali Carlson, who made the third team after averaging 8.8 ppg, and fellow senior Sam Pierson (5.1).
The Vikings’ 9-9 record placed them fifth in the always-tough league race. That helped them finish 14-10 overall, losing four contests by four or less points during Jennah Hartwig’s first year after replacing Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Tom Klawitter.
Parker also must replace its best player in league first team choice Bree Porter, who topped the team at 15.4 ppg, reaching double digits in 22 of 24 outings.
While Porter has taken her skills to NCAA Division II school Hillsdale (Mich.), the Vikings’ fortunes will hinge a lot on senior Julia Hartwig. She led the Big Eight in rebounding (11.0) and averaged 15.3 ppg.
Also back are senior Kameron Blaser (5.6), sophomore Brooke Graesslin (4.0), junior Jacy Benway (3.7) and senior Sydni Brewster (3.1).
The Purple Knights have not won a league game since December 2013, a string of 49 straight losses against rivals.
Teshonna Bennett’s first Memorial squad never tasted victory last year, something the program hasn’t done since the season opener in 2014-’15.
This year’s chances for improvement will depend on players such as senior Sydnee Marshall (4.4) and juniors Aniah Williams (11.1) and Nadiya Connor (5.8).
WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- The plays taking center stage on Walworth County high schools next month showcase some wonderful theater, with several presenting familiar stories given a new twist.
Big Foot High School
Audience members will see a familiar fairy tale turned on its head with “The Cinderella Complex” at the newly remodeled auditorium at Big Foot High School, said director Rachel Wenndt.
The race for coveted spots in the WIAA girls state basketball tournament at the Resch Center in Green Bay begins this week.
Regional action begins Tuesday, Feb. 23, for schools not receiving first-round byes, while everybody joins the fray on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 26 and Feb. 27.
Sectionals in all five divisions are scheduled Thursday and Saturday, March 3 and March 5.
The Final Fours will be held Thursday through Saturday, March 10 through March 12, in Titletown.
The National Football League hired its first female official in 2015, and the Buffalo Bills hired the first full-time female assistant coach in January.
So, with the penultimate professional game -- Super Bowl 50 -- on tap this weekend, it only seemed appropriate to visit with a couple of Stateline area women who in recent years have joined hundreds of others around the country in realizing their dream of playing football.
Although it wasn’t their goal, two Walworth County residents’ love for the sport is helping change stereotypes and turning heads.
Alexandra Bjelopetrovich of Whitewater and Kara Haines of East Troy are members of the Madison Blaze, an entrant in the five-team Midwest Conference of the Independent Women’s Football League.
“I definitely believe that the ladies of the IWFL and WFA -- Women’s Football Alliance -- are erasing the stereotype of women and football,” Haines said. “Most everyone I tell reacts funny like, ‘No way, are you serious?’ And I’m like so serious. It is intriguing to most, which is good, because most are like, ‘Well, you’re girls,’ so it’s not as good. But when they come see it, they are like, ‘Holy c---, this is legit!’”
Bjelopetrovich agreed that progress has been made, but work remains.
“I think we are making great strides in defeating stereotypes about women in football,” the Lake Forest, Illinois, native said. “The reaction I normally get is, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and then the next statement is normally, ‘I didn’t know Madison had a team.’ So there is still a great deal of work to be done as far as increasing exposure and spreading the word.”
Meanwhile, the team conducted tryouts and began workouts in January in preparation for the start of the season in early April.
That means, despite their experience, putting in a lot of hard work because they know the competition won’t get any easier.
“The competition in this league is higher compared to other sports I’ve participated in simply because we are all fighting to show how great women’s football is,” Bjelopetrovich said. “And because it’s not as well known, we get less opportunities to show people. So when we get a chance, we really turn up the heat and make sure it’s worth your while.”
Haines echoed those thoughts.
“All these girls are B-A-D,” Haines said. “A lot of women say, ‘Oh, I like football, but I could never play.’ So for us who do play, we are a special, unique, tough group of women.”
And these two have been mainstays for the Blaze.
Bjelopetrovich is starting her third year with the organization. She has performed everywhere along the offensive line but prefers the center position.
“My strengths are being a good leader and role model and setting an example of what women’s football is all about,” Bjelopetrovich said. “I also believe that one of my biggest strengths is making people laugh and making it fun, because if it’s not fun, who’s going to want to do it? I would like to improve in all aspects of the game. I learn something new every day of every season and want to make sure that I’m never not learning something new.”
The multipurpose and multitalented Haines is more often in the spotlight, playing running back, quarterback and punt and kickoff returner, not to mention as a long snapper and defensive back.
“I love to contribute in any way I can,” Haines said. “I love offense and defense. As long as I’m out on the field, I love playing anywhere.”
Regardless of their roles, both have helped the Blaze become one of the league’s top franchises. And they said participating in the playoffs makes them hungrier to keep playing.
“We have been very successful … one of the top four teams (out of 35 to 40) in the league the past three years,” Haines said. “Competing in the playoffs is what you work hard for all season. It’s a huge honor and rewarding. The playoffs have been the best sports experience I’ve ever had in my life. The level of play is at an all-time high, and the competition is the best in the league. I get to see this beautiful country and play a sport I love. Last year we went to Houston, Salt Lake City and the Carolinas. There’s nothing better.”
Bjelopetrovich said being in the playoffs has been a great experience.
“I have had the opportunity to travel to a lot of new places and played with the best of the best,” she said. “It’s like family vacation with 45 people. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s that combination of camaraderie and competition that keep both women, lifelong athletes, coming back for more action.
Bjelopetrovich played boys baseball and basketball and was captain of the wrestling team in grade school, moving to Whitewater in seventh grade. She then played tennis, basketball and softball for the Whippets.
Bjelopetrovich underwent reconstructive surgery twice, suffering torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees as a prep, but she has avoided any major injuries with the Blaze.
“I always wanted to play football, and when I got into high school was planning on trying out,” said Bjelopetrovich, a clinical systems analyst for UW Health who counts being a paranormal investigator as one of her hobbies. “But my mom drew the line for some reason. I searched online for women’s football and the Madison Blaze came up. I would love to play as long as humanly possible.”
Haines is an East Troy native who earned 13 letters for the Trojans, participating in golf, tennis, basketball, soccer and track. She attended UW-Waukesha for a semester, where she played soccer on the co-ed team just for fun.
“I really went to play basketball, which I did,” Haines said. “Then shortly after first semester, I figured school wasn’t for me.”
That led her to football. She played one year with the Wisconsin Warriors, but then latched onto the Blaze, who were called the Cougars at the time.
“Going into my first year I really just wanted to do something fun to stay in shape, and it turned out to be more serious than I intended,” Haines said. “I’m a competitive person, so that was a good thing for me.”
It’s part of the equation, but competing in an individual sport or event often involves more than winning the battle of mind over matter. Sometimes it involves balancing the two.
“It’s a matter of swimming my race, because I’m the only one in the blocks,” Whitewater High School senior Benny Liang said.
Nobody knows that more than Joan Domitrz, who is in her seventh season in charge of the school’s boys swimming program. She has coached with the Janesville YMCA and the J-Hawk Aquatic Club and was the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater men’s and women’s coach for 10 years.
Although the postseason for fall sports remains in high gear, we’re taking an early look at the upcoming winter sports schedule, starting with girls basketball. Practices -- along with boys and girls hockey and gymnastics -- start Nov. 9 for Wisconsin teams in the Stateline area.
Janesville Craig earned only the school’s second piece of the conference championship and first since 1980 last year, sharing the title with Verona at 16-2. However, the Cougars (22-4) couldn’t handle rival Middleton’s late surge, losing by nine points after leading by eight through three quarters in the Division 1 sectional final.
WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- No one has deeper roots in their community or stronger family ties than the Harmses of Whitewater.
Gary Harms has worked at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater since 1985, and his wife, Judy, has coached the Whitewater High School girls basketball team since 2000.
Their daughters, Leah and Kelsey, played for their mother, who led the Whippets to the WIAA Division 3 state title last spring, and are employed at UW-Whitewater, where Kelsey is finishing her degree in early childhood and special education.
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