Hard work and sacrifice; history-making Hodags ready for playoffs
By Eileen Persike
For all the superlatives used in sports, there was an occasion Friday at Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium where all the usual adjectives were inadequate. The 2018-19 Rhinelander girls basketball team accomplished what no other Rhinelander girls basketball team could, by becoming Great Northern Conference champions – and doing so undefeated.
For sixth-year head coach Ryan Clark, the historic championship is a tribute to the players who work hard and sacrifice, and play with joy and authenticity.
“It’s special because of the people you are able to share it with,” Clark said.”My favorite moment was watching each player cut down the net. Seeing the joy on their faces, knowing how hard they worked and to see them enjoy the moment.”
When he was hired for the 2013-14 season, Clark was the third head coach in three years. The goal of the coaching staff, he said, has been to create a championship culture and program. The fact that no Rhinelander team had won a conference championship, he added, created an excitement each season. For senior Payton Van Zile, winning conference had been her goal for four years.
“In last year’s season we had come so close, and I knew this year had to be it,” Van Zile said. “I’m just so glad we reached our goal and made history, but I know we’re not done yet.”
The team “just clicked,” Van Zile added, through a combination of hard work, passion, talent and leadership.
“I believe this team accomplished it because they embodied this quote by Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors that we refer to often and include in our preseason power point, ‘You’re not chasing conference championships or scholarships. You’re chasing that feeling, which is fleeting. Therefore, play with joy,’” Clark said.
For the seniors on the team, the opportunity to take home a piece of the net put an exclamation point on their high school careers.
“I always knew this would happen,” Brooke Mork said. “We have practiced and worked hard. A few of us took advantage of every opportunity to play basketball, being any tournament we could get in, to 3-on-3, AAU and playing with a many great athletes as we could.”
Erika Jorgenson said bringing home the first GNC title means “more than words will ever be able to tell,” and credits the team chemistry, in part, for their success. It’s something she will remember beyond high school.
“It’s not so much of a memory, but a feeling,” Jorgenson said.”The feeling of accomplishing what we have worked so hard for and having it all pay off.”
The dominant statistics the Hodags accrued speak to that hard work: a record of 17-5, 12-0 in the conference; first in scoring offense (69 points per game), scoring defense (41 points per game), rebounds and assists; second in steals and free-throw percentage; margin of victory was 28 points; average score at half time was 41-18.
“They play in the moment and embrace it,” Clark said. “They are fun to watch; their high energy, up-tempo style of play matches their personalities.”
Mork has been playing basketball since she was four years old, and playing ball with some of girls on the team eight years. What she will remember most is “Going undefeated and winning against Stevens Point and Marshfield on the road.”
Defeating Lakeland for the first time was Van Zile’s greatest memory from the season so far, and she said she gained more than the ability to take a great three-point shot during her time on the team.
“I have learned how to sacrifice things for what I love,” Van Zile said. “I’ve also learned how to step up and be a leader on and off the court. I know my teammates look up to me. I need to be their example of hard work and with determination. I also will be there for them off the court with advice and friendship. This team has taught me so many things.”
Everything that was accomplished this year was a team effort, Clark said, as he gave a shout out to the coaching staff, Rhinelander Basketball Association, youth coaches, parents, former players, current players, the school district, the community and local media.
The lady Hodags take to the court for their first playoff game Friday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. They will play the winner of Tuesday’s game, either Mosinee or Wausau East. If the Hodags win, they play Saturday at 7 p.m. at a location to be determined.