Panthers basketball team is all in

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Falls looking to capture crown for conference

Greg Bates Times Herald Corresspondent

Times Herald Photo by Gerrard Diaz

Oconto Falls High School senior Carly Lemke takes a shot during basketball practice Nov.18 at OFHS.

If the upcoming girls basketball season were a poker game, Oconto Falls would be shoving in all its chips.

With two three-year starters back in McKenna Larsen and Carly Lemke, now is the ideal time for the Panthers to win the Bay Conference and make a deep playoff run.

“The younger girls and even the seniors, they look to Carly and McKenna for leadership,” Oconto Falls coach Mike Kaczmarek Jr. said. “They’re just so competitive, they don’t like to lose. … That leadership and competitiveness that they bring, it’s irreplaceable. And experience, of course.”

The Panthers, who finished 16-8 last season and placed second in the conference with a 12-4 record, will have to replace starters Jenny Spang, Erin Gilligan and role player Anna Rabe. Also, Labecca Jones started last season but decided not to play this year.

Oconto Falls will certainly revolve around its top two players. Larsen averaged 17.3 points per game last season and Lemke chipped in 10.2 points.

“McKenna is obviously irreplaceable,” Kaczmarek said. “You can’t replace an athlete like that. Carly brings a great addition to our team. They complement each other very well, and hopefully our team feeds off their energy.”

Lemke is coming off a solid season in volleyball where she improved her game immensely. She did the same over the summer in basketball.

“She has great range from 15 to 18 feet right now,” Kaczmarek said. “McKenna is McKenna. She’s gotten better.”

Kaczmarek will rely on junior guard Liz Manns and senior guard Liz Watzka to step into the starting rotation. Manns (4.7 points per game) and Watzka (3.8 points) were both valuable players last season off the bench.

“Liz Manns has really stepped up her game,” Kaczmarek said. “Liz started for me freshman year, but she didn’t start for me last year. I’m looking for big things from her this year.”

Kaczmarek is still undecided on his fifth starter. In contention will be junior post players Kayla Virtues and Vanessa Van Den Elzen, sophomore guard Bailey Wolf and sophomore forward Madison Helmle.

Sophomore Alyssa Nelson and seniors Racheal Winter and Aleesha LaCount will also log some playing time this season.

“We could go small or we could go big. I don’t know which way we’re going to go yet,” Kaczmarek said. “But the good thing is we have (a number of more) practices to figure it out.”

Either way, Oconto Falls is pretty small inside besides 6-foot-1 Lemke. The other three starters are all 5-8 or shorter.

“We need somebody to step up and rebound, I don’t care how big they are,” Kaczmarek said. “That is our weakness. We are not a very good rebounding team.”

It wasn’t uncommon last season for teams to double- and even triple-team Larsen, throwing a box-and-one at the Panthers’ offense. If Larsen is blanketed this season, Kaczmarek is confident he has enough scoring options in Lemke, Manns and Watzka.

The Panthers finished runner-up last season in the Bay to New London. The Bulldogs lost three starters, including star Brenna Heise, from the team that went 16-0 in conference.

“New London’s the team to beat,” Kaczmarek said. “They’re the two-time conference champions and been to state three years in a row. Until somebody knocks them off, they’re the team to beat.”

Last season, the Panthers lost a tight postseason game to top-seeded Xavier in a WIAA Division 3 regional final. They are looking to get over the hump this season.

“We have to consistently get better every week and we have to become a more physical team,” Kaczmarek said. “Offensively we have to have the courage to penetrate the basket and find gaps and play sound defense. If we don’t do that, we won’t get too far.”