Isaiah Hoyt confesses that he never saw this coming.
As a freshman last season, he was the one new player who saw substantial minutes on a senior-dominated Prairie School boys basketball team. It was a star-studded group that was state-ranked and a top contender for a WIAA Division 4 championship.
That dream vanished last March 10 when the Hawks lost to eventual state champion Manitowoc Roncalli in a sectional title game.
With that unfulfilled dream went a seven-man rotation that included JC Butler, the leading scorer among boys in Racine County history, and Troy Mikaelian, who ranks second on Prairie’s all-time scoring list.
So when the 6-foot Hoyt returned for this season, he was expecting to see some serious growing pains. What he didn’t see was the Hawks winning six of their first nine games.
Their most recent victory came Dec. 29, when the Hawks knocked off Kenosha Bradford, a Division 1 program with an enrollment of 1,882. That’s 1,610 more than Prairie.
“A little bit,” Hoyt said when asked if he has been surprised by this success so far. “We are like a really young team and we had a real experienced team last year. So I was really worried about that.
“I don’t know ... we just grew on each other. We learned how to play with each other.”
While it should be noted that Prairie will be playing powers St. Catherine’s, Greendale Martin Luther and Whitefish Bay Dominican this month in the rugged Metro Classic Conference and some hard lessons could be in store, this team has already exceeded all expectations. And against some odds.
There’s little height. There’s precious little experience. But coach Jason Atanasoff has mixed and matched a roster comprised of four seniors, three juniors and six sophomores. Four of those sophomores — Hoyt, 6-3 forward Antuan Nesbitt, 5-9 guard Jacob Fallico and 6-3 forward Kody Krekling — have been starting recently.
What’s going on here?
“In my mind, we are a little bit ahead of schedule,” Atanasoff said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to really expect trying to mix this group of seniors with these sophomores — and we also have a couple of juniors.
“But we’re sitting here at 6-3 and our losses have been to Case, fourth-ranked Dominican and Indian Trail, who has beaten Park, Case and state-ranked Westosha Central. And to beat the teams we have, I would say we’re certainly ahead of schedule.”
Prairie’s only lopsided loss so far was 69-45 to Dominican Dec. 7. The Hawks’ other losses were 78-73 to Case Nov. 27 and 69-61 to Kenosha Indian Trail Dec. 28.
Otherwise, the Hawks have been getting the job done.
They’ve achieved this success with an uptempo style that compensates for their lack of height (their tallest players are Krekling and Nesbitt). Atanasoff has given most of his players the green light to attempt 3-point shots and the Hawks have connected on 78 out of 247 from beyond the arc.
“I was impressed by how well they shoot it, especially since most of the kids haven’t played significant varsity minutes,” said Catholic Central coach Kyle Scott, whose team lost to Prairie 69-63 Dec. 11. “Jason has done a really good job getting these kids acclimated to varsity basketball in a short amount of time.”
A cornerstone has been Nesbitt, who wasn’t even with the team the second half of last season. Because of what he said was a personal matter, Nesbitt transferred to Milwaukee Washington for the second semester of his freshman year before returning to Prairie last fall.
What an addition he has been. Nesbitt leads the Hawks in scoring average (16.1), rebounding (7.9), assists (4.8), blocks (1.4) and field-goal percentage (61.4) and is second in steals (1.2).
“He’s been huge,” Atanasoff said. “I don’t think I can put into words what getting him back has meant — not just on the court, but off the court. He’s a great student and he’s an extremely unselfish teammate.
“Not only the coaches, but all his teammates were just thrilled to have him back.”
Said Nesbitt: “I knew I had the ability to do it, but the mental side wasn’t there last year.”
Hoyt has been another key component, averaging 12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.8 steals.
“He’s got something you can’t teach and he’s just a freak athletically,” Atanasoff said. “He has the ability to go end line to end line with a basketball in his hands and that’s truly special.
“Oftentimes, he gets a teammate a wide-open shot above himself and, defensively, he just changes the game for us. His ball pressure, his ability to anticipate and get up into the passing lanes — he leads the team in steals — he’s just really our tone-setter on both ends of the floor.”
There’s been much more than the big two of Nesbitt and Hoyt.
Fallico (9.5 points), “is a shooter,” Atanasoff said. Krekling (5.1 points, 5.0 rebounds) does a lot of the dirty work. Polzin (9.2 points) is a 3-point specialist with confidence and relative height. Stafford (8.2 points), is “a great leader who was voted unanimously by his teammates to be a tri-captain,” Atanasoff said.
Konnor Kamm (3.6 points) has been asked to play in the post despite being just 6-0 and is described by Atanasoff as, “an unsung hero.” Christian Cape (4.9 points) brings energy off the bench. Liam Shannon (2.4 points) fits into the team chemistry.
While the Hawks aren’t expected to be a favorite to win the Division 4 championship this season, they’re also not putting restrictions on their potential.
“I think we’re capable of going like real far is we stay together and play as a team,” Nesbitt said. “That’s all we have to do.”