When anyone thinks of New Berlin Eisenhower, they immediately think of Nicole Bauman, the best player in the state based on the fact that Gatorade and the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association named her the state's top player - "Miss Basketball."
"They are led by one of the best basketball players - boy or girls - that I have seen in the state of Wisconsin in the last 10 years," Whitefish Bay coach Greg Capper said after the Lions blew out his team, 48-23, on Saturday to win the Waukesha South Sectional to qualify for state for the second time in three years.
But I think the key phrase in that statement is "led by" because the Lions are a far cry from a one-person show.
Depth, talent keys for team
As amazing as Bauman is - and she is amazing - the reason for this team's success is depth and talent combined with a passion and drive to succeed that is hard to find on most teams.
Besides Bauman, it is easy to focus on junior forwards Jenny Weiland and Katie Lang, the second- and third-leading scorers on this team, who would be stars if they played on another team.
They both stepped up their game when Bauman hurt her ankle and missed two games in January and will have a chance to shine even more next season.
Two other players who do their jobs are Taylor McArthur, a 5-foot-5-inch senior guard, who does a lot of positive things that go unnoticed in the box score, and Jessa (don't call me Jessica) Hahn, a 6-foot sophomore forward, who hit a big 3-pointer on Saturday and played good defense on Maya Jonas, Bay's outstanding 6-2 sophomore.
But two of my favorite players among the top seven are junior starting guard Erin Ganzke and sophomore guard and sixth-man deluxe Kristen Hesselbach.
Ganzke at 5-6 and Hesselbach at 5-5 are usually found right in the middle of the action - making steals, playing defense or putting up rebound baskets in the land of the giants. Both these girls are fearless and their play in the last two games had a lot to do with the Lions' defensive success.
"She had a mission today, she had to get there (state)," Ike coach Gary Schmidt said. "She missed last season (ACL injury). She's a hard worker and she does have a lot of grit. Look at her size and stature. She doesn't give an inch to anybody.
"She'll go in and knock around with the big people. You love to have a kid like that on your team. She never shows any negative emotion. She goes with the flow and she does what she needs to do."
Hesselbach not just a sub
Listen what Schmidt has to say about Hesselbach, the closest thing to the Energizer Bunny in a basketball jersey that I have seen this year.
"With some teams they put in a sub, they might think they're getting a little break," he said. "Kristen is just as tough as anyone. She is always under their chin; one step ahead of everybody.
"She gets a lot of kudos for her defense, but she's a darn good offensive player too. She's smart; doesn't turn the ball over, makes things happen. You bring in kids who can do the job; you have nothing to worry about. She was just phenomenal tonight."
Bauman, who is a lot more outgoing talking about her teammates than herself, also praised Ganzke and Hesselbach.
"Kristin and Erin picked us right up and that sparked us right there," Bauman said when talking about the Lions' rally on Saturday. "At practice they play hard, always challenging me, challenging the rest of the team. It's just amazing. Kristen knows coming off the bench, she can just work her hardest and you can see what she does."
Complimenting each other
Both players were quick to compliment each other.
"When one person comes in and brings up the energy it brings the whole team up," Hesselbach said. "We start playing as a team and start playing our game.
"Erin always knows where to cut, when to pass the ball. She finds those gaps and holes underneath the basket. It helps spread it out and she becomes a threat inside as well as outside."
Added Ganzke: "We talked about picking up our game because we started out slow. Kristen brings a lot of energy and when we're not playing well, she gets us going."
One of the best plays of the game actually came late in the fourth period. Ganzke was on the far right side of the court and when the defense shifted over, she drilled a perfect pass over the defense to Hesselbach, who banked in the layup.
Walking off the court afterward, I ran into Ganzke and asked for her reaction to the win since she missed last's year because of knee surgery.
"It meant everything to me," she smiled and said, probably summing up the thoughts of all the Eisenhower fans. The Lions were headed back to state for the second time in three years.
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