While the perpetually positive and optimistic Dena Brechtl would respectfully disagree, few could have realistically seen this happening.
Brechtl’s Waterford High School girls basketball team was seemingly going nowhere Feb. 12 after the Wolverines slipped to 5-15 with a 74-49 nonconference loss at Milton. Waterford had lost five of its previous six at that point and there was no hint of what was to come.
Two weeks later, Waterford is on a five-game winning streak, which includes stunning upsets in the postseason over Burlington and Southern Lakes Conference champion Union Grove. The Wolverines, who feature just one senior in starting guard Maddie Anderson, had been swept by both teams during the regular season.
Waterford will try to continue its miracle run Thursday in a 7 p.m. WIAA Division 2 sectional semifinal against Jefferson (23-1), which finished the regular season ranked 10th in Division 2 in the Associated Press state poll.
Can the Wolverines pull off another miracle and move within one victory of their first state tournament appearance since 2006, when they were the Division 1 runners-up?
“Yes and I’m not just saying that to make it look good for my team,” Brechtl said. “We had the pieces of the puzzle. They just got put together.”
The question is when did that happen? Brechtl singles out a 54-51 loss to Union Grove Feb. 6, when the Wolverines took a confidence-building 26-20 halftime lead. Anderson mentioned a 61-32 blowout of Westosha Central Feb. 15, when Waterford started its five-game winning streak.
Leading scorer Katie Rohner’s take on the turnaround is that both of those games were critical in the Wolverines reversing their fortunes.
“Union Grove is when we truly showed what we can do,” Rohner said. “We played hard all around. And then Westosha was more of when it was set in stone, like, ‘This is going to be the rest of our season. This is how we’re going to play.’ That’s where we put together the last pieces of the puzzle.”
Those pieces are impressive on paper. It starts with Rohner, a sophomore guard who averages 18.3 points – nearly 10 more than anyone else on the team – along with 8.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.8 steals.
Rohner has taken it to another level in the postseason, with 25 points, 11 steals and 10 rebounds against Delavan-Darien, 27 points and nine rebounds against Burlington, and 26 points and 12 rebounds against Union Grove.
“She’s a a great player and she’s really confident,” Anderson said. “She’s really put a lot of things together for us lately. She takes a lot of our shots, but they’re great shots and she’s been putting them in.”
Kathleen Fitzgerald, a 6-0 junior, is the inside presence. She is second in scoring with an average of 8.6 points per game, but her greatest value is as a rebounder (7.1) and shot blocker (3.6). In three postseason games, she has blocked 16 shots.
“On defense, she’s always behind, always ready to step up,” Rohner said. “She’s a good offensive and defensive rebounder and strong with the ball when we need her. And she comes in clutch with those blocks.”
If Waterford has an unsung hero, it might be Emma Karpinski, a 5-4 junior guard who averages only 2.6 points per game. Karpinski is the Wolverines’ defensive specialist and she has been a force during the postseason.
In Waterford’s 46-42 regional semifinal over Burlington Feb. 23, Karpinski held Demons’ leading scorer Jessa Burling to 12 points – nearly five fewer than her average. She was even better the following night when she held Union Grove leading scorer Brooklyn Bull to 11 points, seven fewer than her average, on 2-for-16 shooting.
“She’s just so defensive-minded,” Anderson said. “She loves playing defense. She’ll chase anybody around all game, every game.”
With fellow starters Anderson (6.3 points) and Annie Benavides (3.1) among the others making it happen for Waterford, could Brechtl see an upset over Jefferson, led by senior guard Parker Fetherston, who averages 17.4 points per game?
“I think it’s realistic,” Brechtl said. “I think our team is definitely the type of team that will go out there and play with their shoulders high and focus on our execution and game plan.”