This time last year, the Marshall girls basketball team captured lightning in a bottle.
Buoyed by a youth brigade — led by first-year head coach Alex Koeller and his trio of high-performing freshman starters who provided 40 of the team’s 68 points per game — the Cardinals marched all the way to the WIAA Division 3 state championship.
This year, the two senior leaders from last year’s team (Samira Arvin and Reonna Huettner) are gone. But Koeller and his freshmen — now sophomores — are back, hoping to make another big splash in the state tournament pool.
The Cardinals (22-2), seeded second in their half of the Elkhorn sectional and ranked second in the state by The Associated Press, take on top-seeded Somers Shoreland Lutheran (21-2) in a 7 p.m. Thursday sectional semifinal at West Allis Central.
So, how did this dynamic youthful squad come to be?
For the sophomore trio of Anna Lutz (averaging 17.5 points and seven rebounds per game), Mia Morel (17.1 ppg) and Laura Nickel (11.8 ppg), their cohesiveness and chemistry galvanized long before they started high school. They honed the basics playing together in the Marshall Basketball Association youth program.
“They entered the MBA (when) they were very little, like from second or third grade, (and played) all the way through grade school,” Koeller said. “That’s how long they’ve been playing together. So they know each other on and off the court quite well.”
That chemistry was reshaped and reinforced last year, under the leadership of Koeller and the rigors of a varsity season in the Capitol South Conference and a state tournament run.
“The seniors stepped up as leaders, showing (the freshmen) how much it takes to be a varsity basketball player," Koeller said. "And (the seniors allowed) the talent of those freshmen to be showcased. The unselfishness that those upperclassmen had last year really allowed that team to mesh and build.”
You have free articles remaining.
As sophomores this year, Lutz, Morel and Nickel already have settled in as leaders.
“Some lead by example, being more vocal and by bringing others together and making it a positive experience. All three of them bring something different to the table that creates a great leader,” said Koeller, who declined to allow the sophomore players to be interviewed for this story.
“It’s always a team-first thing here. I always write on the board for pre-game stuff that it’s ‘one team, one goal.’ At the end of the day, we’re a team and we’re focusing on one thing, and that’s going 1-0 for the day. When they get that mentality, we’re a really tough, dynamic team.”
But much like every team, adversity can pounce at any time, testing the true character of a team. That was no more evident than the team’s two losses this year, back-to-back losses that came out of town during the holiday break.
“This year, our most defining moment came playing in the Sentry Classic (in Stevens Point),” Koeller said. “We played a tough Stevens Point team and then (La Crosse) Aquinas, the defending Division 4 state champs.
“Losing both of those games was a hard reality check for our girls, and it showed them that you can’t just show up to a game and expect to win. Everybody has to be contributing, and not one person can do everything.”
The Cardinals have gone 14-0 since those losses, with an average victory margin of 26.9 points and a 13-point win over two-time Division 2 state qualifier Monroe on the list. The resolve yielded from the tournament lent itself to future victories, Koeller said.
“Against Stevens Point, we had the game with eight minutes left before Point made a great comeback and won it,” the coach said. “A month later, we’re facing Monroe with almost the exact same circumstances. This time, we were able to finish strong to pick up the victory. So if that doesn’t tell you its impact as a defining moment, I don’t know what does.”
Koeller said the team’s resilience is in part a product of their day-in, day-out work ethic.
“This group of girls, I’ve never seen so much competitiveness," Koeller said. "Just knowing that drive is there, it gives everyone a jolt of energy as we take things one game at a time."