Monona Grove’s Dan Zweifel relished every minute of his boys basketball team’s return to play against River Falls on Saturday in La Crosse and his ability to coach in a game for the first time since last March.
The game didn’t produce a victory. But that was a secondary point to Zweifel after Monona Grove started competition outside Dane County following approval by its school board amid the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding health and gathering guidelines from Public Health Madison & Dane County.
“We are very happy to get an opportunity to play,” Zweifel said. “It was great to see our kids on the court and a chance to compete against another team. I could see the smiles right through their masks last Saturday night.”
The game followed news late last week that the WIAA had revised postseason plans and assignments for boys and girls basketball and also for wrestling.
The basketball revisions were in response to statewide programs that opted-out of the WIAA tournament series, according to WIAA communications director Todd Clark. That included Madison East, Madison La Follette, Madison Memorial and Madison West.
In wrestling, there won’t be team sectionals. Each sectional will be scored as if it were an invitational, with the winner advancing to team state Feb. 20 at three sites (Kaukauna, Adams-Friendship and Wausau West). Also, the top two finishers at each weight class from each of the four sectionals will advance to three individual state tournaments (by division) Feb. 13.
In basketball, the assignment revisions mean there will be five equal divisions of 87 teams in girls basketball and almost equal divisions in boys basketball (three with 89 and two with 90).
That dramatically changed the division composition, moving up teams into a higher classification.
“Our kids are looking at it like it’s just another chance to play,” said DeForest boys basketball coach Craig Weisbrod, whose team went from Division 2 to Division 1. “The group of teams that are in our regional, it’s all Big Eight and Badger. We are all in the same mix.”
Monona Grove also moved up — from Division 2 to Division 1. Zweifel said Monona Grove welcomed the opportunity to play in Division 1.
“We are excited to get a chance to play in the WIAA tournament,” Zweifel said. “In our regional, we have common Badger Conference foes, Milton and Fort Atkinson, also with Big Eight (Conference) schools in (Janesville) Parker, (Janesville) Craig and Beloit (Memorial, which hasn’t begun competitions). I feel that all of us match up well and it should bode well for a very exciting regional.”
With limiting potential COVID-19 spread in mind, regional proximity and smaller groupings became a priority in the assignments. The combination of state-ranked teams moving up a division and the regional pairings have led to some regionals and sectionals stacked with top-tier teams.
Area girls basketball teams moving up included state-ranked Beaver Dam (from Division 2 to Division 1) and Marshall (from Division 4 to Division 3).
Beaver Dam girls basketball coach Tim Chase anticipated the Golden Beavers (16-1) would move up. They were top-ranked in Division 2 in The Associated Press poll last week and facing a potential Division 2 postseason showdown with Green Bay Notre Dame (No. 1 in Division 2 this week). Now, Beaver Dam is fourth-ranked in Division 1 and in a loaded sectional with top-ranked Kimberly, No. 2 Germantown and No. 5 Appleton East.
Beaver Dam has persevered despite being short-handed. The Golden Beavers lost University of Wisconsin commit Maty Wilke to a season-ending knee injury in December and Chase said senior Natalie Jens (ankle) and freshman Gabby Wilke (knee) are sidelined with injuries.
“The big picture for the moment is we are playing basketball and will enjoy every opportunity that we have together,” he said.
Monona Grove girls basketball coach Tyler Kuehl, whose team defeated host Milton 71-43 in its opener Tuesday, had mixed feelings about moving to Division 1 for postseason but primarily is happy the Silver Eagles are playing.
“I’ve enjoyed being back in the gym with the kids and I’m also relieved because I think we offer a safer avenue for sports than kids were pursuing otherwise,” Kuehl said. “I was a little disappointed to lose some of the rivalry aspects of our old regional. It’s an added bit of fun and competitiveness when you are in these same groupings for years, but it’s also exciting to compete against some schools that would normally be in Division 1.
“Overall, I’m just excited to get to have a season with my team. The best part of all of this is connections with other coaches on my staff and with the kids. I really missed it.”
Another byproduct of the revisions: Postseason matchups between Dane County teams will need venues outside the county due to the Public Health Madison & Dane County orders.
“I do wonder how the (boys) regional with Waunakee, DeForest, Middleton, Verona, Sun Prairie and Oregon will take place as none of those schools can host,” Zweifel said. “I thought the WIAA would have put three non-Dane County schools alongside Dane County schools to provide a gym to play in.”
Weisbrod said DeForest athletic director Rick Henert was researching potential neutral sites for postseason.
Asked about the WIAA revisions, Waunakee boys basketball coach Dana MacKenzie said: “I didn’t take a big look at it, but they are playing basketball and they have a chance to play at the end for something meaningful. So, however, they realign it, is how they realign it, and we’ll be there.”
That, of course, is the end goal in this shortened, unique season.
“Wins and losses this year are kind of secondary,” MacKenzie said. “You just prepare for the end and, hopefully, get some success along the way.”