Girls basketball: Panthers look to step it up this season

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Oconto Falls returns 10 players from last season
By: 

Greg Bates, Times Herald Correspondent


Oconto Falls High School’s Sami Shallow looks to pass during a scrimmage against Laona/Wabeno on Monday at Oconto Falls. (Times Herald photo by Jacy Zollar)

It may have been a rough 2016-17 season for the Oconto Falls girls basketball team, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Panthers return 10 players from last year, many of them earning significant playing time. Those 10 girls will be relied on to log quite a bit of minutes this season.

“Optimistic to get better, but we’re still young,” Oconto Falls coach Mike Kaczmarek said. “All the girls are going to get plenty of playing time.”

Oconto Falls has just two seniors — Kennedy Kratz and Olivia Steffens — but they bring back experience and leadership. The two combined for 8.4 points per game. They will be looked upon for much more than their in-game play.

“The major thing is just stepping up and practicing as hard as I can to just set a great example,” Kratz said. “Talking as much as we can to bring the team together, I think that’s our most important job this year on and off the court.”

Coach Kaczmarek will have to bank on three sophomores who were productive last year in their first varsity season: Kari Albrecht (5.3 points per game), Morgan Helmle (3.6) and Natalie Brauer (3). All three should be regulars in the starting lineup.

“Our sophomores are going to be looked upon to do a lot of the scoring for us,” Kaczmarek said. “That’s tough to do in our conference if you have sophomores doing your scoring. You have to have some seniors around them, and unfortunately, we only have the two seniors.”

Albrecht was a big-time scorer in middle school and has the potential to be a productive scorer in high school.

“Kari’s got to create her offense with her defense,” Kaczmarek said. “That’s one thing she started doing more at the end of the year, she started getting more tips, more deflections, getting a couple transition baskets off turnovers.”

Scoring will be a major crutch for Oconto Falls. The Panthers only averaged 31 points per game last season and lost their leading scorer, Jenny Krueger. Also gone to graduation are Kaitlyn Donart, Sadie Pankratz, Ashley Keuken and Virginia Misco.

Oconto Falls will have to have a variety of players get in the scoring column this season, and returns four of its top six scorers.

“There’s not a whole lot of different between our No. 1 player and our No. 10 player,” Kaczmarek said.

What hurts the Panthers is their tallest player is Brauer at about 5-foot-9.

“Natalie’s got to be the one who takes the biggest step,” Kaczmarek said. “She’s going to almost have to be a double-double person for us.”

“We’re all pretty similar shooters, so we’ll have to look for Natalie down low a lot, because she’s our biggest girl,” Kratz said. “I think she’ll really start to step up this year. We’re all going to have to make shots, drive.”

The Panthers showed some offensive ability late in the year, scoring a season-high 49 points in a season-ending playoff loss to Oconto. Three games prior, Oconto Falls notched its first 40-point game of the year. Kaczmarek is hoping to carry over that late-season success.

To combat its small lineup, Kaczmarek will have his girls playing full-court press defense in an attempt to not allow teams to get into half-court sets.

“We’re going to have to try and get easy transition baskets, that’s our whole goal this year,” Kaczmarek said. “Play a little more up-tempo, get more attempts off this year than our opponents.

Oconto Falls will need to create turnovers and get easy looks. Kaczmarek started working more with his players over the summer on full-court pressure.

The Panthers gave up 51.3 points per game last season, which didn’t keep them in many games. Kaczmarek is looking to trim that figure to 40 points per game this year.

“We’re really stressing at practice, tips and deflections,” Kaczmarek said. “Just get touches.”

Oconto Falls is coming off a ninth-place finish in the North Eastern Conference with a 2-16 record.

The conference will be loaded against this year with Luxemburg-Casco (15-3 in conference last season) leading the way, according to Kaczmarek. Freedom (15-3) and Wrightstown — which won the conference title last year at 16-2 and advanced to the WIAA Division 3 state semifinals — will be near the top of the standings. Fox Valley Lutheran should be tough, too.

Kaczmarek is hoping his girls are more competitive in conference and finish with double-digit wins overall.

“I hope we can go at least .500,” Kratz said. “I know last year was a really bad year for us, there were a lot of good teams in our conference. But if we get out there and we don’t play so scared and we don’t think about the three wins last year and we go out there with a purpose and a goal, we can get a lot done.”

Kratz and her teammates will be playing with a chip on their shoulder, not happy about coming off a three-win season.

“I think a lot of teams going into our game think that, ‘Oh, this is Oconto Falls, this is an easy win,’” Kratz said. “We need to use that to our advantage and play off that.”

AT A GLANCE

Oconto Falls High School

Girls Basketball Schedule

Nov. 16 vs. Antigo

Nov. 21 at Freedom

Nov. 28 vs. Waupaca

Dec. 1 vs. Menominee

Dec. 5 at Denmark

Dec. 8 vs. Wrightstown

Dec. 14 at Fox Valley Lutheran

Dec. 19 at Little Chute

Dec. 21 at Menasha

Dec. 27 at Shawano Community

Jan. 5 vs. Luxemburg-Casco

Jan. 11 vs. Marinette

Jan 15 vs. Freedom

Jan. 19 vs. Clintonville

Jan. 23 at Waupaca

Jan. 26 vs. Denmark

Jan. 30 at Wrightstown

Feb. 2 vs. Fox Valley Lutheran

Feb. 6 vs. Little Chute

Feb. 8 at Luxemburg-Casco

Feb. 13 at Marinette

Feb. 16 at Clintonville