CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
On the night of Thursday, March 12, Racine St. Catherine’s boys basketball coach Nick Bennett was lying in bed watching game film of the team that was supposed to be the Angels’ opponent in a sectional final on March 14, Kettle Moraine Lutheran.
Just a few hours earlier, St. Catherine’s had improved to 25-0 with a 67-53 sectional semifinal victory of St. John’s Military Academy.
Meanwhile, across the state in Green Bay, DSHA girls basketball coach Brian Hendricks and his staff were winding down for the night at the team hotel, anticipating a state semifinal game at the Resch Center against Bay Port the next evening.
Those games never happened and those two teams never got closure on what were shaping up to be special seasons. The WIAA canceled the rest of the basketball season in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and both teams got the news around the same time.
“It wasn’t a shocker because we knew it was probably a strong possibility,” Bennett said. “At the same time, you’re thinking maybe they will think up something creatively. There’s a bigger picture idea here than basketball.”
As text messages started flying around, Hendricks gathered his players and coaches for a late-night meeting in a conference room in their hotel room.
“At least we were all together when the official word happened,” Hendricks said.
DSHA: State of Grief
Hendricks, whose team compiled a 23-3 record and had started clicking throughout the postseason, noted his players had a “ripple effect of emotions.”
“It was a lot of sadness,” Hendricks said. “Sadness. Disappointment. Irritation. Anger. All of those emotions in one, I would say. The best way I’ve heard it described is like a gut punch. It kind of took it out of everybody. A lot of these girls have known each other since sixth or seventh grade. It was the last chance to play with the six seniors we have on the team.”
The Dashers were going to get a chance to avenge a New Year’s Eve loss to Bay Port and Hendricks said his team was prepared for the challenge.
“The girls were beyond ready,” Hendricks said. “All of the girls took it to this new level. I think the realization of almost losing to Watertown in the regional final, they had this aura of ‘We’re not losing.’”
In that memorable regional championship game, senior guard Alyah Garcia hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the second overtime to keep the Dashers’ season alive.
Garcia was one of two players on this year’s DSHA team that broke school records set by Dashers legend Arike Ogunbowale. Garcia set new marks for single-season 3-pointers (62) and career 3-pointers (154).
Jackie Jarosz topped Ogunbowale’s school record for assists, finishing with 124.
“Jackie was unbelievable all year, the way she saw the floor,” Hendricks said. “I’ve never coached anybody who saw the floor the way she did this year. It was something to just sit back and watch at times, how she found open players no one else would have seen.”
The Dashers were also the highest-scoring team in school history, a mark that was facilitated by a pressing defense that forced 29 turnovers per game.
Jarosz and Garcia were two of the six seniors on the team, joined by Riley Honkamp, Anna Misky, Bella Huschitt and Jadin O’Brien.
“It’s always hard to replace six seniors; it’s unique that they all played significant minutes,” Hendricks said. “The younger girls saw the drive the seniors had; the hope is they can capture that and carry that into the next season.”
St. Cat’s: Unbeaten and Unfinished
The Angels will go down as the fourth unbeaten team in school history but were looking to add to their five previous WIAA state titles.
“We have some very talented individuals, but our biggest thing is they did play as a team,” Bennett said. “They were a very cohesive unit. We have a lot of guys that sacrificed a piece of their ability to score or have the ball in their hands. They really did commit to team basketball. We had a lot of guys sacrifice things that go into the box score to help us do what we needed to win and hopefully play for championships.”
Going into the sectional semifinal, Bennett said he could sense that game might be the end of the road.
“Honestly, I kind of went into (the sectional semifinal) knowing there’s a strong possibility that was going to be it,” he said. “You always have to hold out hope that maybe things can change, maybe they could work out something. I know what this is about; this is a public health concern. There’s greater things out there than sports. We are putting this in perspective.”
The next morning, the Angels had a team meeting. Bennett said he didn’t get any sense the players saw this coming. For four seniors (Elijah Sabala, Caleb Chernouski, Elijah Lambert and Brock Naidl), it was their final game.
“I do sometimes think ignorance is bliss with them,” Bennett said. “I don’t think they thought about it like that. They’re aware of the coronavirus, but they never said anything to me or my staff. I don’t think they ever thought that was their last game. After the game, they were asking questions about the next opponent. In their mind, they were in preparation. That’s probably a good thing.”
Looking ahead, the Angels return a talented group that includes all-stater Tyrese Hunter, who averaged 21.3 points per game and has received scholarship offers from several major colleges, including Marquette, along with Jameer Barker (14.3 points per game) and Kamari McGee (11.2).
Both coaches understand why their seasons were cut short and with a little hindsight, they are able to put it into some perspective.
“There’s always going to be that ‘what-if’ now,” Bennett said. “At the same time, it doesn’t diminish what these guys had already done. That’s what I keep trying to tell them. You guys were 25-0. You guys were still playing as well as I had seen at the end of the season. The fact we didn’t get that chance doesn’t take away anything from what they had already accomplished.”
“The girls worked so hard all year, and our goal was not to just get to Green Bay, but win a state championship, and we thought we had a chance to win it,” Hendricks said. “That said, with everything the way it is in the world, you can understand it. The message I have talked about with the girls is, ‘It’s OK to be angry, to be sad, to be disappointed, in God’s plan. You don’t have to like it. That’s OK. But at the end of the day, you have a choice. Do you want to go with God’s plan or go against it?’ Being who we are as a faith community, it’s God’s plan and we may never understand it. But we have to try to find the good in this situation.”