Sheboygan North's Madison Wolf (52) tries to get the ball from Notre Dame's Allison LeClaire (23) Thursday February 14, 2013 at North. (Gary C. Klein/Sheboygan Press Media)
Green Bay Notre Dame Tritons
Coach: Sara Rohde
(41-12, second year).
Allie LeClaire, 16.0 ppg
Eliza Campbell, 6.3 rpg
LeClaire, 3.8 apg
As Christmas break neared, Sara Rohde could see the Green Bay Notre Dame girls basketball team needed a lift.
Coming into the season, the Tritons returned the core of their state-qualifying lineup from a year ago, but still were missing something following a 43-35 loss to Oconto Falls on Dec. 21 that plummeted them to a 4-3 start.
So Rohde and her staff got together and decided to try something different.
They were going to start pressing the ball.
It was a tactic the Tritons hadn’t employed at all during Rohde’s first season as head coach, but something she and her team excelled at during her own playing days at Rapid River High School in Masonville, Mich.
If it was good enough to guide Rohde’s high-school team to back-to-back state finals appearances then it was good enough to give Notre Dame a jolt now.
“I thought we were athletic enough and when I played high school basketball my team pressed all the time. All we did was press,” Rohde said. “I liked pressing as a player. At the college level it’s something you don’t see as much because you can’t do as much, but in high school I think it’s a good thing and I don’t think girls handle pressure that well to be quite honest, so we decided to do it.”
The idea worked. After installing the press, Notre Dame lost only three games over its next 19 contests en route to finishing second in the Fox River Classic Conference and qualifying for its second consecutive WIAA Division 2 state appearance, a first in the program’s history.
Now, the Tritons (20-6) are gunning for their first berth in the state title game since 2005 when they take on Milton (19-7) in Friday’s D2 semifinals. Like Notre Dame, the Red Hawks started the season 4-3 before finding their rhythm after a pair of late-season losses to Badger South Conference champion Monona Grove.
Behind Allie LeClaire and Brianna Byrne, the Tritons qualified for state in Rohde’s first season last year before running into eventual D2 state champion New London in the semifinals, where they fell 52-34.
The Bulldogs are two-time defending state champions and return with their 68-game winning streak intact, but the Tritons returned this season with the loss to New London fresh on their minds.
LeClaire and Byrne played accordingly as they combined for 30 points per game this season.
“That still hurts,” said LeClaire, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay recruit who scored a career-high 32 points in Saturday’s 71-50 sectional final win over Beaver Dam. “We know that they’re there again. We obviously want to win in the semifinals and hopefully see them in the finals again, so we can get revenge, but that really motivated us because we knew we could get to state even though we weren’t that experienced last year.”
Along with their increased commitment to pressure defense, the Tritons led the FRCC with 59.6 points per game. LeClaire was honored as conference player of the year behind a team-leading 16.0 points per game.
The press has added another dimension to Notre Dame’s scheme and is something the Tritons hope could propel them toward their first state title since 2001 when another UWGB recruit, Natalie Berglin, helped the Tritons strike gold.
If they do, it’ll come with an assist from another Phoenix alumna in Rohde, a 1,000-point scorer at UWGB whose brand of basketball has Notre Dame in position for a state title after being under the radar for a majority of this season.
“As a coach, you always want your team peaking at the right time and Notre Dame definitely fits that build both last season and this season,” said De Pere coach Kelly McNiff, whose Redbirds edged Notre Dame for the FRCC title this past season. “I think Sara has done a great job of getting her players to figure out their roles. They had a little struggle figuring that out at the beginning of the season, but her team has grown together at the right time and they’re firing on all cylinders.”
— whodkiew@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.