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Pekin, Illinois small forward Justin Taphorn to walk on with Badgers men's basketball
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Pekin, Illinois small forward Justin Taphorn to walk on with Badgers men's basketball

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Badgers men's basketball players and coach Greg Gard, State Journal photo

Badgers men's basketball players and coach Greg Gard during the 2019-20 season.

PEKIN, Ill.  It's on to Wisconsin for Pekin boys basketball star Justin Taphorn.

The 6-foot-4 small forward will be joining the Big Ten Conference co-champion Badgers as a walk-on.

Taphorn attracted interest from Division II and Division III college coaches during this past season, but he had higher aspirations.

So he took over his recruiting process after the season, contacting Division I coaches in search of a walk-on spot. His introduction to the coaches included a resume and video of game highlights.

He caught the eye of Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who eventually offered him the walk-on spot, which could lead to a scholarship.

Taphorn also seriously considered a preferred walk-on offer from Bradley.

"Wisconsin can give me the basketball experience I want," Taphorn said. "Great atmosphere, great tradition, and I've always had a lot of respect for their team."

Wisconsin is a perfect fit academically for Taphorn, who will graduate from Pekin on July 24 with a 3.755 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale.

"I want to major in kinesiology, and Wisconsin has one of the top kinesiology programs in the country," said Taphorn, who plans to be a physical therapist or athletic trainer.

Taphorn's interest in the field dates back to when he was an eighth-grade basketball player at Edison Junior High School.

He needed physical therapy to recover from Plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes.

Pekin boys basketball coach Jeff Walraven said he had a 5-to 8-minute phone conversation with Gard before Gard extended the walk-on offer to Taphorn.

"Coach Gard wanted to know if Justin would understand what was expected of him as a walk-on, and be a good teammate," Walraven said. "I told him that Justin would definitely understand his roles and be a good teammate."

Taphorn earned four varsity letters at Pekin and served as a team captain when he was a senior.

He had a solid senior season for the Dragons under challenging circumstances.

Because he was the tallest player on the roster, he had to fight it out with the opposing team's big guys night after night.

Opposing big guys had to deal with him, too. Taphorn added toughness to his arsenal, which already included a deadly 3-point shot.

"After losing (6-foot-7) Patrick Torrey to graduation after Justin's junior year, we asked Justin to do more than he had done the previous season," Walraven said.

Taphorn embraced the challenge.

"I wanted to end my high school career with a good senior season, so I put in the work and I'm glad I did," he said. "The only time Coach Gard has been me play is on my highlight video."

Taphorn averaged 10.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game as a senior. He shot 37 percent from the field and 69 percent from the free throw line.

In 72 career games for Pekin, he averaged 6.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He shot 41 percent from the field and 69 percent at the free throw line.

Pekin won 46 games during Taphorn's career including 29 Mid-Illini Conference games and won a Class 3A regional championship when he was a junior.

Also during Taphorn's junior year, he made it to the state finals in the Class 3A IHSA 3-Point Shootout.

He was a second team All-Mid-Illini selection as a senior, helping the Dragons finish second in the conference.

Taphorn also was a three-year letter-winner in boys golf for Pekin. He competed twice in the state tournament, and played a key role last fall as the Dragons won the Mid-Illini championship and Dragon Invitational.

There were plenty of thanks to go around when Taphorn was asked who he wanted to thank for guiding him on his journey to Division I basketball and Wisconsin.

"My dad (Pat), the other Pekin coaches, and my teammates at Pekin who pushed me and were always there for me for four years," he said.

Justin's siblings also are Division I athletes.

His brother Nathan played basketball at Northwestern for four years (2013-17) and his twin sister Jenna will play volleyball at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.

Justin recalls attending a Northwestern-Wisconsin basketball game at the Kohl Center, sitting behind the Northwestern bench, while Nathan played for Northwestern.

"The place was packed and the atmosphere was insane," he said.

Pat Taphorn played basketball at Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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