The second season of high school basketball starts this week, culminating in the state basketball tournaments two and three weeks from now in, respectively, Madison (boys) and Green Bay (girls).
The state high school boys basketball tournament is the first athletic event I remember watching on TV that wasn’t a Packers game. If you grew up in Madison, state was a big deal — being able to watch it on TV first (with those despised soap operas preempted), then being able to go to the games on the UW campus, and even, if you’re fortunate for reasons that have almost nothing to do with you, going to state because your high school is going to state.
My fondest single memory of high school is the latter. In March 1982, Madison La Follette had two players who would play college basketball, and another who played in the NFL. I was none of those players; my contribution to Lancer sports was as a trumpet player in the La Follette band. La Follette won four playoff games to go to state, and then beat, in order, Milwaukee North, Lake Geneva Badger and (undefeated until they ran into us) Stevens Point to win the school’s second state title.
Everything went as well as it possibly could have gone, from our school’s perspective. The sectional semifinal featured two of the three Big Eight Conference champions, La Follette and archrival Madison West, with two hall of fame coaches, and La Follette’s two future college basketball stars against West’s three 6-foot-7 starters. (La Follette’s tallest starter was 6–4.) In a game whose intensity was nearly enough to cause the La Follette gym to explode, La Follette overcame a 59–51 deficit in the last 90 seconds (in the era before the three-point shot) to win 64–63 on two free throws by a neighbor of mine with 11 seconds left.
One sectional final win later, on to state we went. A four-point win over North and a five-point win over Badger set up the game for which for once no hype was necessary, La Follette and Stevens Point. Happily, those state games were in the afternoon in the days when half the Class A bracket had afternoon games. That pushed a difficult trigonometry assignment of mine, originally due the first day of state, to three days after the state title game, since of course we in the band had to get out of school to play at state.
The La Follette–Stevens Point game was probably one of the best played state title games in state history. The game had one missed free throw, by the losing side. La Follette led throughout the second and third quarters, only to see Stevens Point take the lead early in the fourth quarter and set up what felt like a half-hour-long heart attack to the finish. The neighbor (who was not one of the aforementioned major college athletes) scored the winning points once again, and a classmate of mine sealed the win with two free throws with four seconds left.
One of the great things about the high school basketball postseason is its single-elimination nature. In 1989 Benton had an undefeated girls basketball regular season. Their postseason lasted one game, when the Zephyrs lost to archrival Bloomington. I covered a girls basketball team that played an ordinary-at-best 9–11 regular season, only to catch fire in the postseason and, in order, defeat a team above it in the conference standings for the third time in overtime that season, beat the conference champion, and beat the team that ended its postseason one season earlier for the most improbable state trip I had covered to that point.
That sort of thing doesn’t usually happen now because the regionals or half the sectionals are seeded. But the later you go in the postseason, the less records mean. The first Grant County basketball team I covered was Lancaster, only because it was playing the team I was actually covering, Monona Grove in the 1988 playoffs at Williams Fieldhouse. Lancaster was undefeated, until the Flying Arrows crashed into Monona Grove, the smallest school in its conference. That fact hurt their conference record, but helped when the Silver Eagles played teams more its size in the postseason. In part because MG was indeed better than its record, and in part because the Arrows had a group of walking-wounded players by then, MG won going away.
One season later, I got to cover Iowa–Grant on the radio during its trip to the 1989 state tournament. In what I believe I called the latest Game of the Century, undefeated Iowa–Grant beat undefeated Bloomington in the regional final on the Panthers’ way to Madison, where they lost to Glenwood City 81–79 in one of the greatest state tournament games I’ve ever seen. (The irony nearly a quarter-century later is that the wife of the Panthers’ center is my daughter’s second-grade teacher.)
All of the state boys basketball champions in 1981 came from Grant County — Cuba City in Class B, and Iowa–Grant in Class C. Think something’s missing? It is: The 1981 Class A state champion, vacated due to use of an ineligible player.
I was fortunate enough to be the editor of the Tri-County Press in Cuba City when the Cuban girls won state in 1993, their third state title in four years and the fifth of their nine state titles, the last seven under coach Jeff Pustina. I got to call the Potosi girls’ sectional final win in 1999, the first of their two state runner-up finishes. I don’t recall Platteville’s 1984 girls state title (though I’m sure I watched the championship game), but it is quite a feat to not win your conference but win state.
This year, Potosi’s boys are a third seed, and Potosi’s and Platteville’s girls are second seeds. Higher-ranked teams loom ahead in each case, but upsets are even more fun than a team that gets to state because it’s supposed to get to state.