Germantown girls basketball coach Matt Stuve put the decision in his best player’s hands, just as he has for the last three years and as usual, program all-time leading scorer Natalie McNeal made the right call.
It was Feb. 21, the last regular season game of the game of the year and the fourth-ranked in state Warhawks were trying to clinch their second straight Greater Metro Conference title against a dangerous Sussex Hamilton team.
But it was also senior night for McNeal and five others, all of whom had been playing together since about fourth grade.
So the hard choice was, do Stuve and McNeal play it safe, put in the regular starting line-up and try to finish off Hamilton early so the championship is clinched, or do they go sentimental and take a risk, rewarding senior reserves and great program kids like Amber Ische, Sofia Fernandez, Miranda Dorsey and Crimsun Meek with extensive playing time and rare starting opportunities as is the tradition of senior night?
“We were playing for the outright conference title but I still wanted to give the seniors a chance,” said Stuve. “Natalie (McNeal) speaks on behalf of the team and she said that kids like Sofia deserved the chance to be a starter.”
Yes, it wasn’t a particularly hard decision for McNeal, who in her senior night introduction was described by the PA announcer as having her “finger on the pulse of the team.”
“The six of us have played since fourth grade and they’re all such great teammates,” said McNeal after the title-clinching 74-62 victory. People like Sofia (Fernandez) and Miranda. “They all offer so much. They’ve shown the dedication and put in the hard work too.
It was important for them to have that opportunity (to start and play) on senior night.”
Especially considering that on the lovely mini-bios that were handed out to the crowd before the game, that McNeal and Dorsey listed each other as the “Person that they can’t live without.”
So tradition was to be honored, but the thought of blowing an outright league title for the team was horrifying to the reserves, so much so that one spoke to Stuve about it the night before.
“Sofia came up to me and said that everyone knew what a significant game it was and to please feel free to take her out as soon as possible,” said Stuve with a laugh.
Fernandez, Dorsey and Ische did start alongside regular starters and seniors McNeal and all-time school 3-point shooting leader Kate Richmond and the calculated risk paid off. McNeal got the first basket of the game and Dorsey, much to the large crowd and team’s approval, got the second.
“Miranda is the best teammate out there,” said Stuve. “She is always jumping up and down going nuts when somebody does a good thing.”
The alternative line-up didn’t let anybody down, giving the Warhawks a lead they would not relinquish, making McNeal’s decision both functional as well as emotionally truthful.
And in doing so, McNeal was also continuing a tradition of not only basketball excellence, as the Warhawks finished the regular season at 15-1 in league play and 20-2 overall, with their sixth conference title in seven years and fifth 20-win season in the last six years.
The tradition of that excellence started years ago with former all-time leading scorer Taylor Higginbotham, who recently finished a stellar college career at Western Illinois winding up as that school’s all-time leading scorer.
Higginbotham passed on her knowledge and level of expectation to all state small forward Kenzie Schmitz, who finished a stellar career in 2017 when McNeal was just a freshman.
“That year, Kenzie and the other seniors taught us so much including the value of hard work,” said McNeal. “Kenzie always showed me how much (the program) meant to her.”
It was at the end of that season that the Warhawks came closest to earning a coveted first WIAA state tournament berth, falling in the sectional final to eventual state runner-up DePere.
That close call has been a chip on the shoulder for McNeal and the other Germantown seniors and now here they are with another great opportunity to get to state as they are the top seeds in the WIAA Fond du Lac sectional.
Like Schmitz tutored McNeal three seasons ago, the group is bringing along another talented freshman who might just get them to that promised land of the Resch Center in Green Bay in the second weekend in March.
Kamorea “KK” Arnold, is a 5-7 guard with many NCAA D1 offers already. She led the Warhawks to the victory over Hamilton coming off the bench to score a team high 24 points. She is the lightning to McNeal’s thunder (who finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds in the win) and she has helped make the Warhawks’ quick-silver attack and sticky, turnover producing press all the more dangerous.
“KK is such an easy kid to work with,” said Stuve. “She loves being here (in the gym). This is her place of sanctuary.”
Arnold said she has appreciated the work of the upperclassmen in bringing her along.
“It means a lot to me being with such great seniors,” said Arnold. “They’re always picking me up and they’re always by side when I need them. They’ve given me even more motivation to finish the season as good as we possibly can.
“I want to give these seniors as much happiness as possible.”
And that would include that state tournament berth and potentially a coveted state title.
It would be a glorious thing for the six seniors, who have turned in a remarkable 113-25 collective four-year record. They were taking selfies with one another and pictures with family after the game. Everyone was hoping to make this moment linger before settling into the hard work of trying to get to state.
“I was kind of nervous tonight,” said Richmond. “After all, this is the last night of my last regular season game, but I’m doing it with my best friends.”
Then, as she looked around at the post-game celebrations with the commemorative large cardboard photos of all the seniors and the balloons and the cake (always cake), Richmond smiled and said:
“This has been the best season ever.”
Stuve then looked over at McNeal, who was smiling, laughing and exchanging hugs with anyone who wanted a moment with her. And he thought about the connection from Higginbotham to Schmitz to McNeal and now to Arnold and what it meant for the program.
“It’s a nice lineage to have isn’t it,” he said. “Something like that makes me look a lot smarter (laughs). We don’t take the success of the kids for granted. We’re well aware of how well the youth program has done (the junior varsity finished at 21-1 this season).”
And then he thought again of McNeal, who showed her worth in big games during that epic 2016-17 season she played with Schmitz. She has north of 1,500 career points and will likely get to play two more games at her hoops home of the Germantown Fieldhouse when WIAA regional action commences Friday, Feb. 28. She will head to St. Louis on a D1 NCAA scholarship but before then she and her senior friends and the rest of the team have unfinished business to attend to.
“Tonight was a little funny,” McNeal said. “Even though it was senior night, it was hard to be emotional because we were playing for a conference championship. I mean it is sad, we’re going into our last post-season, but we’re very excited by all this.
“We’re ready to take the next step.”
As noted, when McNeal says things like that, she is saying something the team already believes.
“We’re ready for this, ready to get down to business,” added Richmond.
“These kids have fun everyday,” said Stuve. “They still want to accomplish great things. They’re not ready to end the season for another three weeks (which would take them to state).”
And then he thought of even bigger things.
“It’s a great bucket list thing (state),” Stuve said. “I’m not looking forward to ending this (with this group of seniors), but I couldn’t be any happier than if Natalie and the rest of them got to hoist that gold ball (for a state title).”
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