LA CROSSE — During the pregame meeting before the La Crosse High School girls’ basketball team’s game against Victoria on Jan. 29, Nicholl Weigel made sure to make the evening’s message clear.
As the Leopards began to review the night’s gameplan, the first thing the first-year head coach wrote on her whiteboard is the same thing she has preached all season long.
“One game at a time.”
The 2014-15 season ended with the Leopards falling to Hoxie in the first round of the Class 1A Division I state tournament, La Crosse’s first appearance since the 1980s. Just three days prior to La Crosse downing Victoria at home this year, Hoxie saw its streak of 107 straight wins come to an end. The result brought a faint glimmer of hope to the 1A Division I field, including the Leopards.
“We were at Victoria scouting and we were following the game on Twitter,” junior guard Erica Gilbert said. “They lost and we were all cheering in the stands. … I truly believe we can put up something against them.”
At 14-1 with their lone loss coming to Dighton, one the top teams in Class 1A Division II, La Crosse has climbed to the No. 4 ranking from the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association. The goal might very well be to dethrone four-time defending champion Hoxie for the school’s first girls basketball championship, but Weigel does not let her group think about the road ahead quite yet.
“Right now our motto is one game at a time,” Weigel said. “We can look ahead at sub-state, we can look at state, but we’re never gonna get there if we can’t beat the team we’re playing tonight.”
When the team convened for the start of practice in November, it was not believed the Leopards could be anywhere near the position they are in 15 games through this campaign. The team graduated three starters and brought in Weigel when Laron Nordstedt made his way to Douglass to coach boys basketball. Morgan West and Olivia Baus returned as the team’s post players, only for Weigel to ask West to move her athletic 5-foot-10 frame to guard.
The results are obviously paying off.
Through 14 games, West averaged just under 13 points, four rebounds, four steals and two assists per game, making her the team’s leading scorer and steals getter.
“The toughest part is knowing in close games the different role,” West said. “There’s a lot more riding on a guard to not turn it over than in the post. That’s been my biggest thing, but I really enjoy being a guard more than a post.”
Add in 5-8 Gilbert, who has brought in a security blanket at the two guard with averages of nine points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists per game, and La Crosse suddenly has the ability to outsize nearly any competition while not losing a bit of athleticism or talent.
“I think our biggest thing is our height,” West said. “Me and Erica are pretty tall for guards, so a lot of time driving works for us. Baus is just so strong and tall; it’s good for us to get her the ball.”
Baus’ junior season has her averaging just under a double-double at nine points and eight rebounds per game. West’s replacement, Mary Lacy, is thriving with more than 11 points and nine boards per game. Senior point guard Tessa Pierce leads the Leopards in field-goal percentage and assists.
“That’s the thing I forget when I’m coaching. This is a brand new team from last year,” Weigel said. “I’m putting Morgan out there as a guard and I have high expectations for her, and every night she proves me right as she just exceeds my expectations. … (Tessa) will watch game film for hours and hours and hours — she’ll beat herself up, but then she’ll come back and work hard and fix her mistakes. Erica has been big for us game in and game out. Her defense creates her offense. … If one girl struggles, we know we have someone else that’s gonna pick them up.”
Add in a new head coach and it seems fair to believe the Leopards could have a down season. But after early kinks were worked out, it has been smooth sailing.
“We are really close with Nicholl, actually,” Gilbert said. “We didn’t think it would go too well, we were nervous at first, but she’s basically like a teammate. She’s small kinda like us, she works with us really well and we love her. It’s fun playing for her.”
As West notes, the Leopards have approached each game just as Weigel made her team do in the preseason.
“The first week of practice we went into coach’s office and wrote down goals for every single game,” West said. “She gives us a piece of paper back of if we met it or not. That’s what we try to stick to and we try to follow that. We didn’t believe it was gonna be a rebuilding year, but I think we’re proving some people wrong.”
Weigel quickly recognized the talent, speed and height comprising the La Crosse roster. Among the first changes came the installation of a man-to-man defense now allowing just 37 points per contest. With an added emphasis in creating easy baskets in transition
“My expectations were we’re athletic, we’ve got some big girls and we’re fast,” Weigel said. “We needed to play hard. We needed to play fast. We needed to play a different tempo than what they were used to, and that was pushing the ball, getting more active on defense, putting more pressure on the ball.”
With the team bonding more than ever, just four regular season games stand between La Crosse and the start of a postseason run. Possibly the telling contest for the Leopards takes place Friday in a home game against Central Plains, the back-to-back champions in Class 2A.
But this team is proving it is not rebuilding. All it is doing is winning.
“They’re for real,” Weigel said. “They might’ve beat up on some smaller teams, but they’ve showed us that we’re not gonna go away. We are as legitimate as we know we are.
“The rest of the people might think it’s a rebuilding year, but they don’t look at it as that. They use that as motivation.”