The Case High School boys basketball team started this season with a new coach, five new starters and four losses in its first five games.
Heading into Wednesday’s rescheduled 7 p.m. game against Park at Case, the Eagles are a respectable 8-10 and tied for fourth place in the Southeast Conference with a 6-5 record. This is even though first-year coach Jacob Berce has committed to the future by starting four sophomores and one freshman.
“The future looks bright at Case,” Horlick coach Jason Treutelaar said. “Their collection of young talent seemingly has come together throughout the season. Jake Berce has shown the patience to allow their younger players to develop and not hit the panic button when they did struggle.
“I give coach Berce credit for working so well with his younger players. You can see that his kids are buying into his system.”
Berce, who became just the fourth varsity boys basketball coach at Case in the program’s 51-year history when he succeeded Steve Jaskulske prior to this season, faced a massive rebuilding job from the start.
Among the players who graduated from last year’s 16-8 team was Koreem Ozier, a second-team Associated Press All-State guard last season who is the program’s all-time leading scorer.
It appeared as if the Eagles faced a massive transition after their slow start, but it all started coming together. And so what if the Eagles don’t start a senior or a junior?
“Everybody on the team is a leader,” said sophomore guard Nick Fugiasco, who averages 7.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. “It all starts with leadership.”
Only freshman sensation JaKobe Thompson is scoring in double figures with an average of 20.0 points per game. Joining him and Fugiasco in the starting lineup are three other sophomores — Sentreal Gilliam (7.1), Jonathan Rankins-James (9.3) and Logan Schmidtmann (6.6).
Those adding production off the bench include senior Owenn Schmidtmann (8.2), Logan’s brother, senior Jaylon Edmonson (4.3) and sophomore Cody Sardin (3.8).
Gilliam, who said he has a 3.97 grade-point average and aspires to become a surgeon, wasn’t even a full-time starter on the freshman team last season. But he has put in the work to become one of Case’s best defenders.
“I stayed in the gym constantly during the offseason,” Gilliam said. “I asked the coach what he needed me to work on and I finished the job.”
Usually getting assigned the best scorer from the other team is Rankins-James, who also made a big jump from his freshman season.
“I wanted to be on varsity and I never stopped being easy on myself,” Rankins-James said.
Owenn and Logan Schmidtmann learned the game from their father, former UW-Parkside great Andy Schmidtmann.
“Some of the games would get pretty hectic,” Owenn said. “We’d end up in fights sometimes.”
Another player with a strong family support system is Thompson, whose father, Barry, was a forward on Case’s 1999 WIAA Division 1 championship team. JaKobe, a rare player who wears glasses on the court — he said he may switch to contact lenses next season — scored 36 points in a 95-80 victory over Horlick Feb. 2.
“JaKobe has shown great poise, not too often seen in a freshman,” Treutelaar said. “JaKobe can score off the dribble and can hit the outside shot.”
Added Berce, “He just has a knack for scoring, but I’m going to look for him to be a complete player, including distributing the basketball and being a great defender.”
As was the case with the Schmidtmann brothers, JaKobe learned a great deal from his father.
“My dad and I really worked a lot together,” Thompson said. “Since I was 9 or 10 years old, I would be in the gym working with older people. That just made me more physical and made me better every day.”
Considering the Eagles are already competitive with such a young lineup, their potential during the next few years appears unlimited.
“I think we could become one of the top teams in the state,” Logan Schmidtmann said. “I think we could win the conference as seniors and compete with anybody in the state.”
Garwood does her part
One of the hottest teams in Racine County is the Burlington girls, who have won seven of their last eight games. Going into the final two games of the regular season, the Demons are in second place in the Southern Lakes Conference with a 10-2 record, just a half game behind defending champion Union Grove (10-1).
While senior forward Jessa Burling has been Burlington’s statistical leader, a player with less modest numbers has been invaluable, according to Burlington coach Mary Parker. She is 5-8 senior guard Jaclyn Garwood, who averages 6.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.9 steals per game.
What makes Garwood so valuable? Although Union Grove star guard Brooklyn Bull was a force in Burlington’s 51-45 victory Jan. 30, Parker credits Garwood for helping make Bull’s night a struggle (she was 7 for 19 from the floor).
In a 46-36 victory over Waterford two days later, Garwood helped break open a 20-20 game with one of her best offensive performances of the season. She went 9 for 14 from the floor and finished with a game-high 20 points.
“She’s had some real big roles in some of our key wins,” Parker said. “She’s had some big defensive assignments and, offensively, she’s been finishing around the basket.
“She’s one of the hardest workers we have. She’s always putting in time and is always extremely coachable.”
A chip off the old block
John Kulas was a key player for St. Catherine’s when it won the 1985 Division 1 state championship in the now defunct Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association. Nearly 33 years later, his daughter, Hannah, is among the best players in the state as a senior for Cudahy.
Hannah, who has received a full athletic scholarship to Grand Valley State, an NCAA Division II program in Allendale, Mich., has been an all-purpose player for the Packers. She averages 17.7 points, 8.9 rebounds,, 3.4 steals and 3.0 assists as one of two returning starters from a team that was the WIAA Division 2 runner-up last season.
One of her best games came against her father’s alma mater. Cudahy played a nonconference game at St. Catherine’s Jan. 3 and Kulas had 22 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in the Packers’ 53-24 victory.
“Hannah’s role this year has increased to team leader, she’s played point guard, at other times she’s had to defend the post, she’s had to be the scorer, the assist person ... she’s an extremely versatile player,” second-year Cudahy coach Bob Maronde said. “Probably the best part of Hannah is she’s an outstanding leader.”
Kulas is the second-leading scorer in the history of Cudahy’s program. She trails Taylor Gradinjan, who is a senior for Florida Gulf Coast.