When asked to compare his team’s trips to the WIAA state tournament in 2012 and 2013, there is one major difference for Onalaska senior Matt Thomas. “I'm kind of playing with all the kids I played with growing up. This year it's kind of like this core group that I've played with my whole life so it's pretty special for me.”
“We've been playing together for a really long time and built up some good chemistry between us,” adds fellow senior Clint Rihn.
Success is nothing new to this group of kids. As 8th graders they captured the state championship, which coincided was the first season Craig Kowal became head coach at Onalaska. “They're used to winning. They seem to always find a way.”
Thomas and Rihn are the only starters to return from last year’s WIAA Division 2 State Championship team. Seniors Dustin Gordon and Connor Helgeson joined the starting five this season, as the Hilltoppers are a 20-win team for the fourth straight year.
“A lot of games we're undersized but they kind of just find a way to win, that's been there MO throughout their career,” adds Kowal.
This group has also found a way to close out games, as they head to state winners of 19-straight. The Hilltoppers in their sectional semifinal against Rice Lake and sectional final versus Hortonville took a 3-point lead into the 4th quarter in both matchups. They ended up winning those games by 10 and 8 points.
“Coaches do a great job getting us prepared, getting us in game situations in practice say 10-seconds left or 20-seconds left, we run plays that are set for that,” says Helgeson.
Thomas adds this team has played in its share of big games. “Coach puts us in showcases. We play against good competition all year long. We played Aquinas at the La Crosse Center in front of so many people so we are used to big game settings like that.”
Kowal agrees a tough regular season schedule can only help when the postseason arrives.
“The conference schedule was brutal and the kids are used to winning. Add these factors together and typically you're able to close out games pretty well. We've done that and hopefully we can close two more out.”