Scouting during the COVID-19 era has certainly lent itself to challenges but you don’t have to be a John Wooden or Coach K to realize that when somebody is averaging 25 points per game, they’re pretty darn good.
Superior sophomore guard Savannah Leopold had a five-game stretch like that earlier this season and it no doubt brought her added attention, but the nice thing about this year’s Spartans girls basketball team is they have other players who can pick up the slack. And better yet, they’re all underclassmen.
With two sophomores and two freshmen leading the team in scoring, third-seeded Superior (8-4) opens the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at second-seeded Menomonie (6-6).
“We’re pretty fortunate,” Superior coach Dave Kontny said. “They’re quality kids who love the game and work hard in the offseason, and we’ll be lucky to have them for a few years. They all get along, and that’s the biggest thing. When you’ve got team camaraderie, it’s a lot easier to share the basketball.”
Leopold, the daughter of Spartans’ track and field coach Kris Leopold, leads the way at 18.7 points per game — about seven points per game more than last year — while draining a team-best 38 3-pointers.
Sophomore guard/forward Emma Raye is next at 12.1 ppg followed by freshmen guards Kloe Zentkowski (11.7 ppg) and Eva Peterson (8.8 ppg).
“We have four kids who are capable of scoring double figures any night,” Kontny said. “It’s just a matter of are they going to score 10, or are they going to score 25, because they’re all capable.
“Savannah has worked hard on her shooting and her game overall. It’s evolved. She isn’t just a perimeter player anymore.”
Leopold said the Spartans are only going to get better. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when Zentkowski and Peterson were on Superior’s eighth grade traveling team.
“As the years come, we’ll grow a lot,” Leopold said. “We’re still learning how to work with each other, and as we continue to figure that out, it’s really going to benefit us in the coming years. We’re going to keep getting better as we go.”
That’s not to say Leopold doesn’t want to win now.
“Oh, yeah, of course,” she said, laughing. “I’m always hungry for a win. I don’t like losing.”
Leopold is a gym rat on a team with multiple gym rats. Dad has the keys to the school, and she rarely misses an opportunity to get in an extra shooting or workout session. She also runs cross country and plans on running track this spring.
“This winter has been going good,” she said. “Honestly, the masks got in our way at the beginning of the season, but now, at the end, we don’t even think about it.”
Kontny said Leopold has added more versatility to her game. If teams are playing her tight outside, she can drive inside, shooting on the run or drawing a foul, where she is making 78% from the free-throw line.
“We look to her, we run plays for her, but I run plays for everybody,” Kontny said. “That’s the great thing about this team, on any given night, and we talk about this, whoever is feeling it, you’ve got to be looking for them.”
Zentkowski is a very well-rounded point guard. At 6-feet tall, she features a diverse game. She’s hard to guard with her length and can get to the rim with both hands.
“She’s really special,” Kontny said.
Raye and Peterson are strong going to the basket and have good range and touch from outside. Superior continues to work on its free throws, but practice time has been scarce as it’s been three games a week with the condensed schedule.
Kontny and Co. really enjoyed a week of prep time before their Menomonie game. It was an opportunity to catch their proverbial breath while fine-tuning the little things.
Kontny knows practice and repetition and experience are all these players need, because the talent is certainly there. Perhaps he said it best by keeping it simple.
“We have a nice team,” Kontny said. “We’re young. The future is bright. We’re dangerous any night.”
Northwestern and St. Croix Falls gathered for a girls basketball game Dec. 15 in Maple with the state-ranked Saints holding the late lead. That is when Tigers guard Tieryn Plasch drove the lane and dished inside to teammate Allison Luoma for the game-winning basket at the buzzer.
While there was hardly anybody there, with COVID restrictions in place, the way the Tigers erupted, it was as if they had just won the Super Bowl. The win was a little redemption after the Saints had ended the Tigers' season the previous year.
In what has been a tough year for sports — playing during a pandemic certainly isn’t without criticisms — that moment, replayed countless times on social media, was certainly a highlight.
“It was a pretty rewarding win. The girls believed they could beat them, and they went out and did it,” Northwestern coach Paul Eberhardt said.
The emotion was real; this was no scrimmage; it meant something.
“I think it’s been that way all year,” Eberhardt said. “Even though there’s been no fans, or less fans, that doesn’t mean the girls have been laying it on the line any less.”
The second-seeded Tigers (13-4) host third-seeded Cameron (5-8) in their Division 3 playoff opener at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, in Maple.
As the Wisconsin girls basketball season draws to a close, Eberhardt was perhaps a bit more reflective than normal.
He said that other than a two-week shutdown, the Tigers have been pretty lucky, getting more than their share of games in.
“It’s been interesting, the not knowing,” he said. “You literally learn to embrace every day because you don’t know what the next one will bring.
“You get a chance to play, and with everything else going on, you have to look at that as a positive, that at least I got an opportunity to coach these kids and work with them every day. There are a lot of things going on out there that we can’t control, but that’s one of those things we get to do.”
Northwestern has seven seniors, including Luoma (14.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Kendall Sletten (6.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Gracie Altman (3.8 ppg), but like Superior, there is a lot to like about the future. That includes sophomores in Plasch (20.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.2 apg, 4.1 spg), Brynn Erickson (8.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Gabby Risley (6.5 ppg).
But no matter what happens in the future, this group will share the bond of playing during a pandemic.
“This is something they’ll probably remember forever, and I think it’s pretty cool and rewarding to be part of it,” Eberhardt said. “This year is special. With the circumstances with COVID and all the other baggage going on in the world, any time you get to celebrate those victories with each other, I think it brings you closer together and makes for a very meaningful experience.”
Eagles look to soar
Second-seeded Solon Springs (8-10) will host third-seeded Winter (8-8) at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, in their Division 5 opener.
With cancellations throughout the season, the Eagles weren’t able to play Indianhead Conference games against Washburn, Ironwood or Mellen. Hurley ended up as conference champions at 6-0.
Sophomore Kyra Latvala leads the Eagles in scoring at 15.6 ppg and has an all-around game, averaging 2.5 apg, 4.2 rpg and 2.1 spg. She is aggressive in getting to the free-throw line, where she has made 70 of her 107 free-throw attempts.
Claire Holmstrom (11.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has had an impact in nine games, while Bailey Monson played 13 games and averaged 9.5 ppg, 1.8 apg, 4.5 rpg and 2.8 spg.
Jori Gehl (7.5 rpg) and Gretchen Hammond (6.9 rpg) helped Holmstrom gather rebounds inside while Maddelyn Swanson added 1.9 apg and played stellar defense.
Muree Ahlberg, the team’s lone senior, found ways to help the team, whether on offense or defense. She provided leadership for a young team, while sophomore Izzy Molina added 3-point shooting and solid defense.
“These girls always did what they were asked to do to help the team out,” coach Adam Bielmeier said. “It was a fun regular season and now we’re looking forward to seeing what we can do in the playoffs.”
The winner of the game Friday plays the winner of the game between top-seeded Northwood and fourth-seeded Lac Courte Oreilles Saturday, Feb. 13, for the regional championship.
“It has been a crazy year, to say the least,” Bielmeier said. “The girls did an awesome job of never complaining and pushing through all the adversity this season offered. It has been a long time since our girls have played in a regional final, and that opportunity would be great. These girls have worked hard and would deserve that chance. Now we need to go out and take care of business.”