I announced a basketball game in Oregon Thursday night. It was the first time I have covered basketball at Oregon (where we once purchased a station wagon, but that’s not important right now) in 31 years.
The two games I covered in consecutive seasons were classics, and show how things have changed in high school basketball. Game number one in 1986 featured Big Eight Conference boys basketball champion Madison La Follette, one season removed from state, and Badger Conference champion Oregon, featuring future UW football player Dan Kissling. La Follette had two losses, one more than Oregon.
That was, by the way, a Class A regional semifinal — the first game of the postseason featuring two conference champions, playing at the home of one of them and not a neutral site. One positive change, even if performed imperfectly at times (it turns out that conference coaches often vote for their fellow schools in seeding meetings), is seeding to prevent games like that so early in the postseason. Today that game (assuming both teams got that far and didn’t stumble on the way) would have been a sectional-semifinal game played at a neutral site, like last night’s game.
The 1986 game was a great game as expected, except that the wrong team won — Oregon by two points. It was such a great game that the Panthers had nothing left in the tank the next night and lost at home to Sun Prairie, which had had a losing regular season.
The next day, La Follette’s girls team lost its sectional final in Reedsburg to Portage. That ended the career of one of La Follette’s best girls players to that point, Anne Cooley, though their four junior starters would be back the next year from that conference champion team.
One year later, that girls team, having somewhat underperformed expectations (they ended the regular season 9–11), headed into the regional final at Oregon against Madison East. The irony was that, though East finished higher in the conference, thanks to their foreign-exchange player Anke Buchauer, La Follette had beaten them twice, in overtime, including one week earlier in their regular-season finale.
Of course, if two teams played to overtime twice already, they’re practically guaranteed to play free basketball the third time, right? And so off to overtime meeting number three went. La Follette got a steal with 56 seconds left in the three-minute overtime, ran the clock down, then had a shot blocked out of bounds (of course, by Buchauer) with two seconds left. That gave La Follette coach Terry Shermeister enough time to diagram three plays, including a wing jumper. That turned to be the play that was available, and so the pass went to guard Julie Gundlach, whose 15-foot right-wing jumper sailed through the nets as time expired. Despite Buchauer’s 31 points, La Follette won 47–45 to head to week number two of the postseason.
The Lancers’ next opponent was conference champion Madison Memorial, who had beaten La Follette twice in the regular season. But you know the cliché about beating a team three times in a season. And so La Follette ended Memorial’s season before state, sending the Lancers again to Reedsburg again to face Portage for a state berth.
That was a full day. I had to cover state boys gymnastics at Madison West in the morning, then drive up to Reedsburg on an 80-degree early March Saturday for the girls game, followed by heading back to La Follette for that night’s boys regional final.
In the first half of that game on a La Follette inbounds play, a Portage player slapped the ball as the Lancer was holding it before throwing it inbounds. One of the referees gave her a warning. Three quarters later, with the score tied, she did it again, and this time she was assessed a technical foul. La Follette’s best free throw shooter hit two free throws, La Follette got the ball back, she was fouled and hit two more free throws, giving La Follette a two-possession lead in the season before the three-point shot. Portage scored baskets and fouled, but La Follette hit all of its free throws. Final score 48–46, good for a most unexpected trip to state.
A year later I got to cover Monona Grove’s boys team in a sectional semifinal at UW–Platteville against undefeated Lancaster, trying for its first state trip since 1917. MG in those days was one of the smallest schools in the Badger Conference, but the theory was that maybe MG would take its lumps in the regular season but do better in the postseason facing schools its own size. In fact, MG’s sectional trip was its second in three seasons despite having not won its conference in any of those seasons.
Lancaster was undefeated, but the Flying Arrows weren’t exactly flying; their roster was full of the walking wounded, with one player wearing football thigh pads. Either for that reason or the fact that MG was indeed better than its record, Lancaster entered with no losses and exited with a loss, sending MG to extending its season one more game.
A year after that, having moved to Lancaster, I got to cover the Flying Arrows baseball team. (At the time they played in the vastly-preferable summer season, which feels like real baseball instead of the arctic Wisconsin spring.) Like the aforementioned La Follette girls, they ended their regular season 9–11. They also had to deal with Mother Nature, which messed up their pitching rotation by two days of rainouts that pushed the regional game to the day before the sectional. (In those days pitchers could pitch seven innings every third day. Thanks to the rainouts, the starting pitcher for Thursday’s game therefore could go only two innings the next day.)
Lancaster won the regional game 11–6, getting two innings from a collection of pitchers who would not have been on the mound were it not for the rainout. That moved Lancaster to Onalaska and the semifinal the following afternoon. After a moon-shot two-run home run in the top of the first inning, it appeared Lancaster’s postseason end was six innings away. except that the Hilltoppers didn’t score after that, and Lancaster manufactured three runs to take a 3–2 lead into the top of the sixth inning.
Lancaster’s pitcher, Jason Schildgen, created a mess by loading the bases with one out and going to three balls and one strike on the batter, with the tying run at third base. Said batter then swung and missed at what would have been ball four, and then committed the blunder of unsuccessfully bunting on a 3–2 count, resulting in strike three. Four groundouts later, the Arrows headed to the sectional final against conference champion Platteville, which had unexpectedly won the earlier semifinal by defeating Holmen 4–2 in eight innings. The two teams with the best records in the sectional watched, instead of played, the sectional final. (And yes, Lancaster and Platteville traveled two hours each to play each other.)
Platteville got a 4–0 lead against a freshman pitcher who due to the two days of rainouts was making his first varsity appearance in a game that would send the winner to state. Lancaster started the game-tying rally in the bottom of the fifth inning with a ground ball off the third baseman’s mouth. One inning later, the Arrows got a 5–4 lead, erased in the top of the seventh inning on back-to-back ground-rule doubles.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Arrows loaded the bases with one out. On a ground ball to second, instead of trying for a double play in the infield (perhaps because it was hit too slowly or because the winning run was at third), the second baseman threw home. Big cloud at the plate, the umpire yelled “SAFE!”, and my insurance agent’s game-winning run sent Lancaster to state, to the surprise of everyone except their coach. I’ll never forget the 30 seconds of wild cheering, followed by stunned silence from half the crowd — we’re going to state? That team? — and stunned disappointed silence from the other half.
Lancaster apparently figured that since they had to go all the way to Stevens Point for state, they might as well make the trip worthwhile. And so the Arrows beat Minocqua Lakeland 8–5 Wednesday night, bombed Kewaskum 20–8 the next afternoon (said insurance agent’s son hit a grand slam, his only home run in any level of baseball according to his father), but ran out of magic and lost to Sheboygan North 5–0 in the championship game. Ironically the Arrows needed to win their first state game to guarantee a winning season, and they took home a silver trophy.
It may be that in a competition David was the first underdog, Notice who won between David and Goliath. Gen. George Patton (as portrayed by George C. Scott) might have been right when he said that Americans love a winner, but Americans also love to root for the little guy in sports, whether it’s the 1960 or 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a double-digit seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, or the fictional Hickory Huskers in the movie “Hoosiers.”
Underdogs are generally either teams that underperformed in the regular season and finally got it together when the games really count, or physically inferior teams that nevertheless figure out how to take out the favorite. Consider the 2000 UW men’s basketball team, which beat three higher seeds to get to a Final Four no one saw coming, or Villanova, which executed its offensive game plan to perfection to beat Georgetown in the NCAA title game. In the Badgers’ case it was defense, which explained why the halftime score of their Final Four semifinal was 19–17.
Americans probably love to root for the underdog because people think they’re underdogs compared to big bad employer/other team/more handsome and rich guy, etc. As a country we’re certainly not an underdog anymore, but if Las Vegas existed in the late 1800s Vegas would have predicted a low probability of the revolution against the British succeeding.
La Follette’s first state champion team finished the 1977 regular season 10–8. It had a future college football player, UW’s Ross Anderson, but otherwise no indication the Lancers would win four consecutive playoff games to go to state, then sweep state, setting a record for field goal shooting in the process.
Even better was the 1978 Elkhorn boys team, which went 5–12 in the regular season, and needed to win state to get a winning season … and did.
Technically speaking the 1982 La Follette boys basketball team wasn’t really an underdog, but the Lancers were against an undefeated number-one-ranked team in the state championship. How did that turn out? Read here.