The moment these guys have been working toward literally for years has arrived.
A talented group of players on the senior-dominated Prairie School boys basketball team, some of whom have played together since grade school, are at the doorstep of their ultimate goal: The WIAA Division 4 state championship.
And it sure isn’t going to be easy.
The second-seeded Hawks play No. 1 Milwaukee Destiny in what promises to be a classic sectional semifinal showdown at 7 p.m. Thursday at Waukesha West High School. This is the same Destiny that won the Division 4 state championship last season and eliminated Prairie from the postseason each of the last two years.
Even though Destiny isn’t as deep as it was last season, in the opinion of Prairie coach Jason Atanasoff, make no mistake about it: The Eagles are seeded No. 1 for a reason. And it won’t necessarily get any easier if Prairie makes it through Thursday night.
Atanasoff anticipated this, which is why he loaded the Hawks’ schedule with the most formidable competition he could find. Three of the Hawks’ four losses came against teams with a combined 68-4 record this season.
“I would have rather lost a couple games against top-notch competition from higher divisions and out of state than schedule easier conference games and go 21-1,” Atanasoff said.
So the Hawks are battle-tested after some matchups against elite competition. And they will need every bit of that experience against Destiny, which has gone 76-18 the last four seasons.
The Eagles feature a radically different lineup from last season, which includes Reggie Dean, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Milwaukee Young Coggs Prep who averages 14.0 points per game. And Diovonte Caldwell, a 6-3 senior guard, averages a team-high 18.1.
“Caldwell is a left-handed point guard, athletic and a good shooter,” Atanasoff said. “He’s a tough matchup. And Reggie Dean is a very good player. He’s a really good defender and can jump out of the gym.
“Our game plan will be around a lot of their guys, but certainly those two will be the first two names written on our board.”
Other standouts include 6-6 senior forward Arlester Jones (11.2), 6-3 senior forward Malik Johnson (10.0) and 6-3 junior guard Jaheim Johnson (9.7).
“I think it’s important to say that their top four or five guys are every bit as good as their top four or five last year,” Atanasoff said. “They’re really good. They have some really impressive wins this year — they beat Martin Luther, Homestead, East Troy, which just knocked off St. Catherine’s, and Horlick.
“But I think the biggest difference, which is what we’re preaching to our players, is that last year, they went nine or 10 deep and didn’t lose anything. In the games and films we’ve seen, they haven’t been going as deep. Last year, their seniors were a group like ours (this year) where they had been playing together for years.”
The Hawks certainly can answer with an imposing group. JC Butler, the son of former NBA All-Star Caron Butler, recently became the first male player from Racine County to score 2,000 points in his high school career.
Troy Mikaelian (15.6) and Logan Krekling (7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 steals) join Butler as four-year starters. Other experienced seniors include Buddy Ladwig (9.8), Teddy May (3.5) and Branden Osiecki (1.9) and Henry Hua (1.0).
But when asked who could be an “X-factor,” Thursday night, Atanasoff singled out Isaiah Hoyt, a 5-11 freshman who averages 3.2 points per game.
“We brought up Isaiah after the Christmas break and it was a real tough position for him to be in thrown in the mix with seven seniors. But he’s a tremendous ball handler. He’s kind of a freak athletically. Side to side, baseline to baseline, he’s as good as we have for how quick he is.
“Against a team like Destiny, who likes to full-court pressure you and try to wear you out the entire game, I think having him in there will be critical — not only to help up against that pressure but to take some of the burden off of Logan Krekling and Buddy Ladwig.”
If Prairie gets past Destiny, it won’t get any easier Saturday in the sectional championship. The Hawks would have to defeat either top-seeded Manitowoc Roncalli (19-5) or No. 2 Howards Grove (22-2) to advance to their first WIAA State Tournament.