Falcons open state tourney Friday afternoon vs. No. 1 Kaukauna

Central players are treated like Kings by the Westosha Central Cheer squad, which formed a victory tunnel to the locker room. (Earlene Frederick/SLN)

 

Wow. Just wow.

There really isn’t a better way to describe what went down Saturday afternoon in Oregon.

“It’s every coach’s dream come true, really,” said head coach James Hyllberg, the third-year coach that’s now advanced to two consecutive sectional finals.

Hyllberg has reinvigorated a once-moribund program that used to struggle for five wins. After his squad scored a measly 14 points in the first half of Thursday’s sectional semfinal against Elkhorn, there was no way the Falcons would come out slow for a second straight year on one of the state’s biggest stages.

“The key is we got off to a quick start,” he added. “This felt like a second half to start the game. It gave our guys confidence. Once you have a confident team, it’s just who plays better for one game?”

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. They played their hearts out and left everything on the floor. That’s all a coach can ask.”

Second-seeded Westosha Central, a team that wasn’t ranked and stumbled past Southern Lakes foe Elkhorn Thursday, surely wasn’t going to upset 22-1 Monona Grove, the No. 2 team in the state, and especially not 20 minutes away from the Grove’s home gym.

To steal a corny line from the great Chris Berman, that’s why they play the game.

Westosha fired out to a 19-5 lead, bombarding the taller, slower Eagles with fast breaks on top of fast breaks, and capped off a dynamite sectional final with a second-half evisceration in a 76-55 rout.

The Falcons (22-4) led by as many as 30 points less than halfway through the through half.

The reward?

A historic trip to the school’s first-ever WIAA state tournament, which will open Friday at 1:35 p.m. against perhaps the state’s best player in West Virginia recruit Jordan McCabe and Division 2’s No. 1 squad, the Kaukauna Galloping Ghosts (22-3).

Senior point guard Nic Frederick, who totaled 12 points and worked the high-screen pick-and-roll game to perfection, summed up the win moments after the game.

“Crazy,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”

While many doubted the 12th-ranked Falcons against the No. 1 seeded Silver Eagles, junior Adam Simmons knew state was possible from the beginning.

“It feels like a dream,” said Simmons, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half, including eight points in a 15-0 run to put the game away. “We’ve been working so hard for this all year, and it finally came to fruition. It’s just a surreal feeling.”

“Coach told us to play like a fearless animal and just go out there and finish it off. I thought it was possible because of how far we got last year. I knew we had guys that could fill roles that we lost.”

 

Total domination

Westosha’s starters scored 75 of the team’s 77 points, led by Jaeden Zackery’s 20 along with 17 from senior Cooper Brinkman. Simmons finished with 15, while Frederick scored 12 and Dylan Anderson added 10.

The Falcons went on a 15-0 run to open the second half, and by the 12-minute mark, consecutive buckets from Simmons, an acrobatic, fast-break layup, and a steal and hoop by Frederick put the Falcons up by 20.

Just five minutes later, the rout continued, as more inside buckets from Brinkman and transition wizardry from Zackery, Frederick and Simmons pushed it to 69-39 with just under six minutes.

While Zackery’s 16 first-half points made an early statement, it was Central’s impossibly perfect fast-break execution to open the second half that silenced a rowdy Grove crowd and left spectators stunned.

Brinkman said the Falcons are a transition team, and Frederick said the guys want to push the pace.

Could seniors Joey Gilliland, Frederick and Brinkman even believe the ease with which they won Saturday’s game?

“Defense,” said Brinkman, who drives 30 minutes from Racine to school each day. “Defensive intensity and playing aggressive. We were able to get them to throw a lot of cross-court passes and get a lot of steals. We got easy layups in transition.”

Gilliland said he and Brinkman have been playing together since freshman year, and Frederick has been on varsity four years.

Gilliland and Frederick both live in Salem.

It’s clear when you watch these guys play the chemistry is deep, as each player knows his teammate’s next move. Part of that started in the Westosha Central youth hoops program, which begins in the fourth grade.

“We have amazing chemisty, it’s literally like a family,” Frederick said. “There’s no other way to explain it. We all love each other.”

For Gilliland, who made two big second-half 3-pointers in the sectional semifinal victory, it’s time to keep winning.

“We love defense more than offense,” he said.

“A lot of teams are slow, we like to go,” Brinkman said. “Any given night, anyone can go out and dominate the game.”

While Brinkman downplayed state with a “wait and see” approach, Frederick has one goal.

“Win it all,” Frederick said.

 

It’s a celebration

In the world of high school sports, nothing compares to state, and the faithful, loud, encouraging Westosha Central student section let their guys know it after Saturday’s game. Decked in dark maroon and gray and forming a contingent of maybe 100 strong at Oregon High School, Falcon Fam rushed the court as time expired and mobbed their classmates as the Westosha Cheer squad formed a victory tunnel to the locker room.

The triumphant Central pep band played the soundtrack of success, a climax of one of the best three-year runs by any team in any sport in recent area history.

Zackery and Anderson gleefully skipped back to the bench after the Falcons won, and teammates greeted them with victorious chest bumps, hugs and even tears.

“Going to state, going to state, going to state,” chanted the packed Falcon faithful, which meant zero seating in the regular bleachers and standing-room only in the balcony bleachers.

This was a historic moment. The kind that makes Wilmot kids cheer for Westosha kids. Conference rivals unite and root for their enemies, even if they beat them by 30 last month.

So historic in fact that it’s the first time since 2003 that a Kenosha County boys basketball team has made it to state and the first time a Southern Lakes Conference squad advances to Madison since Lake Geneva Badger in 2008. Remember Jimmy Merritt, Kevin Wieters, Braden Tice and coach Forrest Larson’s dribble-drive execution and 3-point shooters?

Eight Falcons have played basketball together since they were 10 years old, and it showed Saturday afternoon.

With each Grove pass, the Central defense showed an effortless synchronization, rotating its feet in unison and recovering to different spots in the 2-3 zone. The Falcons added traps on the perimeter at times, and active hands in passing lanes helped force 13 first-half turnovers.

Westosha forced uncertainty from the Grove offense, which turned the ball over on four straight possessions to close the first half. Up 30-22, Zackery chased down what looked like a sure two points for an emphatic block. Later, Frederick snatched a steal, kicking it to Zackery, who found Simmons down-court for a layup, which counted after a goal-tending call.

The sequence turned out to be a microcosm of the day, as the Silver Eagles desperately looked for any kind of opening in the half court, only to have the Falcons deny any daylight and quickly convert on the other end.

“It’s really just a crazy feeling,” Zackery said a few hours after the win via Twitter. “It’s unbelievable how ever since grade school playing feeder ball, we always thought about going to state and just having a moment like this. We didn’t want that feeling like last year, so we just came out and didn’t let anything stop us.”

Zackery’s determination showed on the court, as he and Frederick weaved their way in and out of the Grove defense with quick-twitch moves, behind-the-back dribbles and a constant vision to find an open teammate. Sprinkle in Simmons, who was held to zero points in the sectional semfinal due in part to knee soreness, and the Falcons were unstoppable in transition.

“The best part about us three and our game is that we know how to push the ball and always know where each other is at all times,” Zackery added.

“I knew if we played how we knew how to it would be a good game, but then we just came out and played the best game we might’ve played all season. We came out like we had something to prove.”

Constant Grove mistakes, coupled with the containment down low of 6-foot-7 center Jack Schroeckenthaler, the Badger South conference player of the year who had been averaging more than 20 points per game, allowed Frederick to immediately ignite the break, where he, Zackery and Simmons dominated with unselfish passing and next-level finishing at the rim.

Schroeckenthaler finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, but he had to sit with three fouls early in the second half, when the Falcons slammed shut any hopes of a Grove comeback.

“Our zone was just very aggressive and we knew in order to stop him we had to have extra help down low and just play aggressive and physical,” Zackery added.

 

 

Can they win state?

While the Falcons took a major step Saturday, they know the job isn’t finished. Hyllberg asked his guys, “Why not?,” in the locker room after the victory, referencing the possibility of winning state.

“It’s every team’s goal, but we try to keep it simple,” he said. “We just focus on that opponent for that week. As the games progress, it’ll take care of itself.”

While coach-speak may prevent players from getting too ahead of themselves, what matters is if the guys believe they can win.

As evidenced Saturday, these Falcons display an unwavering confidence, no matter the situation, and this momentum can carry over into state.

Going up against a supreme squad like Kaukauna, it will take everyone on the same page along with more elite execution on both ends of the floor.

Zackery, who was recently named to the All-Southern Lakes first team, knows Westosha can get it done.

“Yes I believe we have a chance to win state,” he said. “We are just very physical and a team that’s determined, and we come out to play with determination every game.”

The victory caused quite the local stir on social media, with area coaches and players shouting out the Falcons.

Zackery’s uncle, the brother to his father, who runs the Central summer and youth leagues, summed up the dedication required to win varsity basketball games.

“Hats off to my nephew and my brother on the team win last night. Same kids that played ALL SUMMER in summer league. The key to a “team” is being patient in the development of the chemistry and trusting the kids who’ve played together.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

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