The hottest Racine County boys basketball program going into the postseason this week isn’t what you might expect.
It isn’t traditional power St. Catherine’s. It isn’t senior-laden Prairie or explosive Park.
Instead, it’s Union Grove, a program which has never advanced to the WIAA State Tournament in Madison. The Broncos (18-4) have won 11 straight since a 56-42 loss to Elkhorn Jan. 9 and earned the outright Southern Lakes Conference championship, their first since 2014.
“We didn’t feel real good losing to Elkhorn,” said senior guard Jack Pettit, the son of longtime Union Grove coach Dave Pettit. “That week of practice wasn’t the easiest, so that was the turning point. We just figured we have to play hard all the time.”
Jack Pettit has been the most high-profile Bronco with his average of 17.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game. But the senior guard will be the first to contend it has hardly been all about him.
Among the players who have stepped up during their run, Pettit said, are junior forwards Luke Nelson and Luke Hansel and sophomore forward Sam Rampulla.
“The Lukes have been playing very good and then Sam Rampulla came up big when we needed him the most,” Jack Pettit said. “He made his layups, played good defense, got rebounds ... he’s just been playing really good.”
The time has come for the Broncos to take it a step further.
Rebels’ defense emerges
Going into a Jan. 5 Southeast Conference game against Oak Creek, Horlick was 3-5 and was allowing an average of 90.8 points a game. Starting with their 74-47 victory over Oak Creek that day, the Rebels are 10-4 and are allowing an average of 67.9 points per game.
What happened? It all started with a productive conversation at halftime against Oak Creek, when Horlick trailed 26-24. The Rebels went on to outscore Oak Creek 50-21 in the second half and they have been a different team since then.
“We were just playing their style of basketball,” Horlick coach Jason Treutelaar said. “We talked at halftime about how we just need to fly after these guys and recognize when people were open and rotate. We just challenged our guys to go out there and use our quickness and athleticism and we dominated the second half.
“When we walked off the floor, we had figured out our identity.”
Logan Tyler, Martavian Bell and Stephon Chapman have been a big part of that defense with their roles off the bench.
“They hadn’t logged many varsity minutes prior to this season, so we had to get their feet wet,” Treutelaar said. “Once we did and started utilizing our full-court man defense, I think everybody bought in and it was just something that snowballed.”
Angels’ unsung heroes
While St. Catherine’s heads into the postseason with two straight losses, this is a team that could be a force. Four of the Angels’ six losses have been by three points and this team features an eight-man rotation with no seniors but plenty of experience.
Two of their most valuable players have been 6-foot-5 forward Elijah Lambert and 5-8 point guard Isaiah Dodd, both sophomores. And Lambert wasn’t even starting early this season.
“He beat out guys and he earned it the hard way,” St. Catherine’s coach Nick Bennett said.
Lambert’s coming-out party was in an 85-68 victory over Horlick Dec. 21. He went 11 for 15 from the floor, 6 for 7 from the free-throw line and finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. And in a 65-56 victory over Racine Lutheran Feb. 2, Lambert had 23 points and 14 rebounds.
For the season, Lambert has averaged 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds.
Dodd, a starter since Bennett succeeded Bob Letsch as coach prior to the 2016-17 season, averages 9.3 points, 4.0 assists and 2.9 rebounds.
“Two of his best games have been in losses,” Bennett said. “ I know that sounds crazy, but he keeps at it. When we lost to Martin Luther (57-54 Dec. 16), we were down early and I thought, ‘This might be a game we lose by 30.’ But he kept us in it.”
Combined with fellow starters Quinn Cafferty, Azarien Stephens and Tyrese Hunter and a strong supporting cast, Lambert and Dodd could take the Angels places.
“Those two guys, every night, I tell them they have to cover the two best players on the other team,” Bennett said. “I tell them they have to be smarter and tougher than anyone else and I tell them they have to be more unselfish than anyone else. And they do a great job of that.”
On the brink of a milestone
When Prairie opens its postseason Friday against the winner of a WIAA Division 4 regional quarterfinal between Palmyra-Eagle and Milwaukee Lifelong Learning, senior forward JC Butler will achieve a major milestone with his first point.
The son of former NBA All-Star Caron Butler will unofficially become the first Racine County player to score 2,000 points. With 600 points so far this season, Butler passed Horlick’s Shane Krause (1,416), Racine Lutheran’s Javan Goodman (1,488), Case’s Taron Barker (1,524), Racine Lutheran’s Kevin Christensen (1,627) and Horlick’s Joel Burns (1,783) for first on the all-time county list, which was compiled by the late Mike Davies.
The only county basketball player to reach 2,000 points career points is Sonja Henning, who had 2,219 for the Horlick girls from 1983-87.
A rare gift
Nobal Days, a 6-9 junior center, has yet to develop into an offensive force for Park, although it could be argued that he doesn’t need to be with the presence of guard Larry Canady. It could also be contended that Days is still a game-changer with his average of 12.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 3.5 blocks and 2.7 steals per game.
Just how much of a presence is Days considered to be by Horlick coach Jason Treutelaar?
“He is, by far, the best passer I’ve seen from anybody near his size,” Treutelaar said. “He can single-handedly dissect a defense, especially a zone with his passing ability from anywhere on the floor.
“You simply cannot trap him. You have to just match up on people because, if you try to (trap him), he’s just going to throw it over the top of you. And he finds the open person and puts him in good positions to score.”
A rising freshman
When Treutelaar was asked to name a county player he saw this season that has impressed him more than anyone else, he didn’t have to give it much thought.
“Probably JaKobe Thompson from Case just because he’s a freshman,” Treutelaar said. “He really stepped into a key role of playing the point at the varsity level.
“There’s a number of kids we’ve seen this year — Tyrese Hunter of St. Cat’s is definitely one of them — but if you’re going to ask me for one guy who made an impression, it’s JaKobe. He’s not the best ballplayer we’ve played out of the county, but I think he’s the one who surprised me the most.”
Thompson averages 19.8 points per game. He scored a career-high 36 points in Case’s 95-80 loss to Horlick Feb. 2.