The Verona Area High School boys’ basketball team is in the WIAA state tournament for the first time since they joined the loaded Big Eight Conference.
Verona went to the state tourney in 2006 and 2007, when they were part of the Badger South. After two years in the Big Eight, the team is back at the Kohl Center and coach Alan Buss attributes part of his team’s late season run to the stiff competition the Big Eight offers.
“Everybody believes their conference is very good, and rightfully so,” Buss said during a state media teleconference. “But I think in the Big Eight you get such a balance of great teams and great athletes that it really tests you and prepares you. And I think we saw that over the weekend. The two teams we played, Burlington and Kenosha Bradford, are very good. … I think playing in the Big Eight, 18 games, really prepared us for what we saw this weekend.”
The Wildcats (18-7 overall, 12-6 conference) finished tied for third in the Big Eight with Middleton. Madison Memorial and Madison East finished first and second respectively. Memorial is also in the state tournament.
Verona received a first round bye and beat Westosha Central, 54-42, to begin their tournament. Verona handled Burlington, 55-43, and topped Bradford, 56-49.
Buss credited solid free-throw shooting and quality all-around play from his group of players, which are led by a solid group of seniors. The coach said his squad got to the stripe 87 times during the playoffs compared to their opponents’ 39 trips.
“Our free-throw shooting has been outstanding and the number of times we’ve gotten to the line,” Buss said. “We shot 74 percent from the free-throw line during this tournament.
“We have four guys averaging double figures the last three games, so our balance has just been outstanding,” the coach added. “I think we played our best basketball these last three games in the tournament.”
The Wildcats will have to continue to play good basketball when they meet Arrowhead (22-3 overall, 12-2 Classic Eight) and 7-footer Ben Mills.
“I’ve seen [Mills] on tape. I haven’t seen him in person,” Buss said. “I think with us, it’s a matter of being physical with him and making sure we get a lot of help.”
The Verona coach said the team will rely on 6’7” forward Scott Christensen to defend Mills and the other four players on the court will need to help out also.
The Wildcats won’t be without experienced players to assist Christensen, as the starting lineup has been altered throughout the year. Buss said his team is realistically nine players deep.
“We had some things happen later in the year and Klayton [Brandt] went from being our back-up point guard to our starting guard and Kaden Nauman, who was our starting point guard became our two-guard because Matt Ropel tore his MCL and he’s out,” the coach explained. “We’ve had to make some changes down the stretch but it hasn’t seem to have affected our chemistry too much.”
Along with guards Brandt and Nauman, Sam Karls handles the wing while Adam Wadzinski and Christensen work down low as forwards. Every member of the starting five is seniors.
Senior Taylor Peterson backs up the forwards and junior Nate Ray subs at guard. Junior Danny Burns is a viable option at wing when Karls needs a breather, according to Buss.
The Wildcats’ coach said Karls accepted the role as leader with this year’s team, but the players have been determined all season after being “spectators” during the school’s last appearances at the state tournament.
“When we need a big player [Karls is] typically in the middle of it … I think he’s really relished that role and done a great job with that,” Buss said.
“They came into the season determined to give themselves the best chance to do [go to state],” he said. “It’s been a pretty special group of kids in terms of their resiliency and ability to bounce back from some tough losses. We’re a predominantly senior team, they take up a lot of the minutes, and they’ve really shown a lot of resiliency.”
The WIAA Division 1 State basketball tournament quarterfinals are today. Verona and Arrowhead are scheduled to tip-off approximately 25 minutes after the completion of the Milwaukee Hamilton and Marquette game, scheduled for 6:35 p.m.