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Renewed defensive focus to be tested by Pittsville’s Kissner

Renewed defensive focus to be tested by Pittsville’s Kissner Renewed defensive focus to be tested by Pittsville’s Kissner


After ending a 14-year regional championship drought in 2015, the Rib Lake boys basketball program has made winning them a habit, bringing home WIAA Division 5 regional title plaques four of the past six years.

The next hurdle, however, has been difficult to clear.

Each of the last three sectional semifi nal appearances in 2015, 2016 and 2018 ended with losses to McDonell Central in Chetek. The 2001 Division 4 regional champions lost their sectional semifinal to Wisconsin Rapids Assumption.

In fact, the last Rib Lake team to win a sectional game was the state-qualifying 1986 Class C team.

This year’s Redmen aim to change that tonight, Thursday, when they take on the Pittsville Panthers at D.C. Everest in the semifinal round at 7 p.m. The winner takes on either Wausaukee (20-5) or Wabeno-Laona (18-7) Saturday at 1 p.m. in Pulaski for the sectional championship.

Pittsville (7-5, 19-6) was voted the fourth seed by the coaches in the top half of the sectional bracket after the Panthers finished third in the Central Wisconsin South Conference behind topseeded Almond-Bancroft (10-2, 21-4) and the second-seeded conference champions from Wild Rose (11-1, 18-7).

Rib Lake (12-4, 21-4) got the third seed, which it wasn’t thrilled with after the Redmen won the Marawood North by two games over Athens. The Redmen stated their case by beating Wild Rose in Saturday’s regional final 71-58, while Pittsville won its season series over Almond- Bancroft 2-1 by beating the Eagles 62-49 in their regional final.

Like Wild Rose, who had won 10 straight games before losing to Rib Lake, Pittsville enter’s Thursday matchup on a hot streak, having won 14 of its last 16 games. One of those losses was a 60-55 loss to Wild Rose in the regular-season finale Feb. 27.

Rib Lake, on the other hand, wobbled a bit to end the regular season, dropping two of its last four games and, admittedly, not winning real pretty over Colby and Chequamegon. One of those losses was to undefeated Stratford in a 57-44 game that was competitive until the last minute.

The tournament, however, has been a different story as the Redmen rolled to double-digit wins over Wisconsin Rapids Assumption (70-48), Newman Catholic (73-50) and Wild Rose during regional week.

Ask coaches and players why, and the answer is unanimous.

“We emphasized defense,” head coach Carrie Ewan said after Saturday’s win. “We started out the season pretty well, playing tough defense. We had some really ugly wins at the end of the season. I knew we had to change our defense and get back on track. We really worked hard on that and boy it really has shown through the regionals.”

“That’s what our emphasis is in these playoffs,” senior Nick Gerstberger said. “If we play good defense and we run our offense like normal, we can beat anybody. If we keep the defensive pressure up, we’ll be all right.”

“We worked on that in practice a lot this week too,” junior forward Ryan Patrick said. “We did a lot of defensive drills.”

“Lately we’ve been focusing on our defense a ton, hammering on that,” senior Levi Ewan said. “All year, we started out good and we had a couple of losses toward the end of the season and our help defense wasn’t there. We weren’t helping on the drive. We were just slow. We’ve been hammering away at that. We want to play intense defense.”

Behind that renewed defensive intensity and hot starts offensively, particularly in the Newman and Wild Rose games, Rib Lake hasn’t trailed yet in the post-season. The Redmen had to deal with some desperate man-to-man defensive pressure in the second halves of the Newman and Wild Rose games. They handled it well against Newman. At Wild Rose, it was shaky at times, but led by its core group of four seniors, the Redmen didn’t crack when the Wildcats made a big run, cutting a 24-point deficit to eight.

“The senior leadership really came through there, knowing how to handle that,” Carrie Ewan said. “Levi did a great job of handling the pressure and delivering that basketball. He tends to be very solid for us that way.”

The core seniors –– Ewan, Gerstberger, Steven Petkau and Devyn Vlach –– have dreamed about leading Rib Lake to the state tournament since they started playing ball together in elementary school. The next step will mean finding a way to slow down Pittsville’s main man, senior Matthew Kissner.

The co-CWC South Player of the Year with Wild Rose’s Caleb Williams –– both of whom were named to the Division 5 All-State team this week by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association –– the 6-4 Kissner is a strong athlete who has averaged just under 25 points, just over 10 rebounds and a little over two assists per game. Muscling his way inside, he’s posted an impressive .647 field goal percentage, according to statistics posted by (235 of 363). He doesn’t shoot a ton of 3-pointers, but he makes them at a respectable .304 clip (28 of 92) and, naturally, gets to the free throw line often, where he’s made 67 of 112 (.598).

Kissner absolutely lit up Colby in a Jan. 3 matchup, hitting 17 of 23 shots and scoring 44 points in a 59-46 win. He was 13 for 18 while scoring 41 points in a 68-50 win over Eastern Cloverbelt co-champion Spencer on Jan. 28 and surpassed the 30-point mark in Pittsville’s season-opening wins over Gresham, Tri-County and Eleva-Strum.

The Panthers will have an advantage in size. Landyn Wayerski, a 6-4 senior, averages 9.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Jordan Denniston, a 6-2 sophomore, averages 8.4 points per game and is the Panthers’ most frequent 3-point shooter (43 of 151). Senior guard Eric Neve is listed at 6-1. He only averages 4.3 points, but he has hit 27 triples and averages 7.7 assists.

For Rib Lake, Ewan (16.6 points per game) and Gerstberger (15.3) lead the way in scoring, while Gerstberger hauls in over eight rebounds per game. Petkau (11.4) and Vlach (11.2) also average in double digits in scoring.

Ewan earned honorable mention All-State honors this week in Division 5.

The programs were annual opponents until Pittsville left the Marawood Conference prior to the 2017-18 season. They haven’t met since. When Rib Lake’s seniors were freshmen, Pittsville beat the Redmen 77-45 in the second game of the 2016-17 season.

The other side

On the other side of the sectional bracket, Wausaukee and Wabeno-Laona will face off tonight in Elcho. It’s their second meeting of the season. Wausaukee won the first one 66-61 in Wabeno on Feb. 4.

Wausaukee drew that half’s numberone seed after finishing third in the Marinette and Oconto Conference with a 12-4 mark. They were behind co-champions Coleman and Crivitz, who both went 15-1. Neither of those two teams got past the regional semifinals in Division 4 play.

The Rangers are another team entering the tournament hot. They’ve won 10 straight and, starting with the win over Wabeno-Laona, 11 of 12 with a 72-63 loss at Crivitz being the only blemish.

Hayden Renikow, a 6-1 senior guard, is the leading scorer, averaging 16 points per game, while 6-foot senior Tristan Pollard averages just over 15. Andrew Schroeder, a 5-10 senior, is right at a double-double average of 10 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Rib Lake has some fairly recent baseball history with Wausaukee. The programs split WIAA Division 4 sectional championship games with Rib Lake winning