Heiligenthal nearly led Toppers to promised land

Ben Heiligenthal (from left), Aaron Rueber, Cole Pankau and Frank Koehnke celebrate as the clock hits zeroes back in March at the Kohl Center in Madison. The Toppers won, 37-35, to advance to a WIAA Division 5 state championship game. (Rick Benavides/SLN)


By Mike Ramczyk


Ben Heiligenthal’s basketball dominance nearly brought the Catholic Central boys program another gold ball.

The 2016 CCHS graduate’s 30 points and 10 rebounds per game, coupled with key roles from the likes of Aaron Rueber, Frank Koehnke, Cole Pankau and Brandon Vandehei helped the Hilltoppers win their first state tournament game since 2006 and reach their third state tourney in 15 years.

Late free throws helped the Toppers pull off a 37-35 win in the state semifinal, but McConnell Central was too much in a 63-41 victory in the state championship game.

The Toppers captivated the area, and here’s an excerpt from the original story, which ran in the Standard Press March 24:

Burlington Catholic Central just couldn’t topple the larger Macks in the WIAA Division 5 state boys basketball championship Saturday at the Kohl Center.

The Hilltoppers, who won 37-35 in the semifinal match against Barneveld Friday, faced three McDonell Central players 6-foot-5 or taller, which helped lead to a 63-41 loss.

McDonell Central snagged 16 of their 31 rebounds in the first half, where they carried a 28-18 edge into halftime, and accrued seven total blocked shots, compared to the Hilltoppers’ two.

“They are tough, they are long, they are athletic and they play hard,” Catholic Central coach Kyle Scott said.

“They took us out of what we wanted to do, so our hats are off to them.”

Catholic Central stayed within striking distance the first eight minutes, tying it twice, before the Macks used their perimeter game, led by 6-1 senior Ben Retzlaff, who produced 12 of his game-high 20 points from the arc.

Scott acknowledged the Hilltoppers had difficulty maintaining intensity the rest of the title game, but the inside-out approach proved ineffective.

“We played very good man-to-man defense, but you can only play against 6-6, 6-7 for so long,” he said. “And I felt like they were getting inside us a little bit, so (Retzlaff) buried us from the outside.”

Catholic Central tried countering Retzlaff’s perimeter buckets with 3-pointers from 6-0 senior Brandon VandeHei, who scored seven points, 5-9 junior Aaron Rueber (six points) and 6-2 sophomore Frank Koehnke (three points).

Hilltoppers’ 6-4 senior Ben Heiligenthal, who led the team with 14 points and eight boards, produced the first of two game-tying baskets, knocking in a jumper in traffic to knot it at 4-4.

Senior Andrew Kempken, one of the Toppers’ tallest players at 6-3 along with Heiligenthal, added the other bucket with a layup, which tied things at 6-6.

But the rest of the game mostly belonged to the Macks. Though Catholic Central cut a double-digit deficit to 10, 28-18, at the half, the Macks quickly opened the flood gates to open the final 18 minutes.

The moment was special despite the loss, Scott said, noting all seniors played an integral role in the state title run this year, its third state bid in 15 years.

“The biggest thing I’ll remember is our three seniors,” Scott said. “They are just tremendous kids.”

Heiligenthal said Catholic Central’s state title appearance surprised everyone, noting observers did not expect much from the Hilltoppers at the start of the season.

“We had a great season, overall, no one outside of us thought we could do it,” he said.