Tigers’ state championship a team effort

by Matt Kraus
Review Correspondent

ASHLEY REINEMANN of Howards Grove looks to pass against Lexi Donarski of Aquinas in Saturday’s D-4 state basketball finals. – Photo by Terry Schaller ASHLEY REINEMANN of Howards Grove looks to pass against Lexi Donarski of Aquinas in Saturday’s D-4 state basketball finals. – Photo by Terry Schaller The 2016-2017 Howards Grove girls basketball team may have been a team of destiny. With seven experienced and contributing seniors on the roster, a state championship run seemed inevitable as the season began in November.

From the freshman year of those seniors, when Brittany Schaller led the varsity team in assists and steals and Olivia Stauss earned a varsity letter, to their senior season in which most of the seven seniors were playing on varsity for at least their third season, this group of girls learned how to play together, support one another and win as a team.

The Tigers are well-prepared, disciplined and calm. Tiger head coach Georgeff does not offer a boisterous, overdramatic presence on the sideline. She leads in the same calm manner that her players demonstrate on the court.

Perhaps, Georgeff can remain calm when Schaller is your team’s leader. Schaller leads as a point guard who handles the defensive pressure and brings calm to breaking a press or defensive trap; as a scorer, not necessarily by her desire to score but by the needs of the team and what the defense gives her; and as an overall leader who fires up or calms down her team.

Schaller’s leadership was never more evident than in the final 3-4 minutes of the Division 4 state tournament games last week at the Resch Center in Green Bay. HG defeated Durand in the semifinals, 44-37, and edged Aquinas (La Crosse) in the finals, 44-43. The Tigers’ needed to extend their defense and turn up the intensity.

What followed was the entire defense scrambling, coming up with deflections, steals and the game-sealing layup by Schaller after a Kaitlynn Near steal against Durand. Schaller’s lategame defense was at the same level that fans saw when she was a freshman and sophomore – 100-percent energy, creating constant chaos for the opponent’s ball handler.

“I had to change my defense the past two seasons because I was getting into foul trouble but we needed pressure in these games and I did what was needed,” said Schaller.

“Brittany is a coach on the court. I have never had a player who was more like me than she is. She always stays calm and is our leader,” said Georgeff.

“Brittany is our leader. She brings us together and takes charge,” said Stauss.

The two state games offered many opportunities for the Tigers to lose confidence and panic, or give up, but the Tigers do not get down on themselves or one another when things are not going their way.

When senior forward Sam Yancy picked up her second personal foul less than four minutes into the semifinal game and played only five minutes in first half, there was no panic. Taylor Bubolz and Kayla Bender combined for nine minutes played, and the starters and Near picked up the remaining minutes. The result was a 21-20 Tigers’ halftime lead and a fresh Yancy with only the two fouls for the second half.

Playing in the low post and being the focus of the Tigers’ offense, Yancy sees a variety of defenses, mainly being doubleand triple-teamed once she gets the ball. She was constantly being bumped and grabbed against Durand. Yancy was held to just three points and four rebounds, and, while frustrated she did not complain about a lack of production but instead she continued to work.

Yancy demonstrated the unselfishness and team-play philosophy with one key play late in the semifinals. Near missed a free throw with 18 seconds remaining in the game. Instead of trying to grab a rebound in traffic, Yancy tipped the ball out of the lane and in Near’s directions. Near was able to gain possession and score a layup, giving the Tigers a 42-37 lead with 14 seconds remaining.

Never quit is the expectation of the Tigers and their fans. Even trailing Aquinas by nine points two minutes into the second half, the Tigers continued to play their game, although they struggled to get within five points for most of the half. Eventually the breakthrough that the Tigers’ faithful was waiting for came.

Aquinas led 40-32 with five minutes left but the Tigers came storming back. Near and Addi Gerber hit jump shots and Yancy made two free throws to bring the Tigers within two at 40-38 with 1:32 left.

A three-point play by Stauss gave HG a 41-40 lead. After an Ashley Reinemann steal Stauss made 1 of 2 free throws for a 42-40 lead.

Stauss sank two more free throws to give the Tigers a 44-41 lead with 10.2 seconds left. Kyah Steiner’s long two-pointer at the buzzer made it 44-43 and the Tigers’ victory is a new page in HG basketball history.

As a team that pressed full court to control tempo and get other teams out of rhythm, and played intense half-court defense, the trip to state saw more zone defense from the Tigers. Even in the zone, the Tigers’ were quick to rotate to the ball and played their brand of on-the-ball, pressure defense.

Early in the state finals, the fast-break style of Aquinas seemed to catch the Tigers off guard but the Tigers were able to improve their transition defense and limited Aquinas to 10 fast- break points for the game. The full-court press, fans were accustomed to seeing, all but disappeared against Aquinas and its style of play.

“We didn’t press Aquinas much because we didn’t think it would work,” said Georgeff.

Stauss is the player every team needs to be successful. A player who can do everything well. A point guard when needed, a player who can hit a jump shot or drive to the hoop and score on offense. Stauss can play inside and outside.

Defensively, she will defend all over the court. Stauss is the quiet leader who at the end of the game fills a scorebook with stats, and does what is needed to help a team win.

Near, Gerber and Reinemann are key role players for the Tigers. Gerber is a scorer who can step up at any time and lead the team in scoring as she did against Durand. She is able to play in the post or outside, and help control a game with her size and ability to rebound.

Offensively, Near is a threat to any team’s defense, she can score from the outside but she is at her best when she drives to the hoop, beating her defender and forcing help to come and free up Yancy for a rebound or to receive a pass. If help does not come, Near is able to score on the drive, causing a defensive dilemma for any opponent.

Reinemann is a unique player. Watching her you would think she is too frail to do anything inside and yet every game she will come up with one or two rebounds in the lane and usually at an important time.

Watching her play defense, you can see she understands the spacing and positioning of the offensive players. Especially in a zone she is always moving to find the best defensive position to be able to defend multiple players as the ball moves.

Losing seven players from a state championship basketball team is never an ideal situation for a coach and a team but Georgeff found a way to get the young players experience throughout the season. The state championship experience can be a motivational tool for the returning players but being around a group of seniors like the Tigers may be the best training.

“We got to be around their [the seniors’] leadership and see how to play as a team,” said sophomore guard Caitlin Schmid.

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