PICKING UP THE PACE - Raiders aim to play fast, win with effort
PICKING UP THE PACE
The Medford Raiders have turned their “relentless” mantra into great success the past four years with three Great Northern Conference titles and three straight WIAA Division 2 regional championships.
This year brings a pretty significant transition in personnel with most of the guys who played major minutes in last year’s 22-5 season having moved on, including record-breaking four-year standout Logan Baumgartner, who is now working his way into the rotation in his first season at UW-Stevens Point.
With several players stepping into more significant roles, the Raiders’ key to success this year may hinge on tweaking that mantra to relentlessly fast.
“We’ve always tried to play fast, and we’ve always tried to press,” head coach Ryan Brown said Friday just before the team headed into its final practice of two-a-days week. “But this year it’ll be a different degree.”
After a season where the Raiders went a perfect 12-0 in the Great Northern Conference, the team does bring back seven letter winners but, in reality, only two of those players –– Tanner Hraby and Charlie Gierl –– logged major minutes and a third, Nick Steliga, got more playing time last year than the rest of the returning crew.
The group saw some important growth during summer tournaments and summer league and Brown said creating competition was an important part of the week-one practices as the team gears up for another challenging 24-game regular season.
The start of the season will be no picnic as Medford opens with three games in four days, starting Friday, Dec. 1 when the Raiders host GNC rival Lakeland at 7:15 p.m. The following afternoon the Raiders have a 3 p.m. tip at Chippewa Falls, one of the four teams that beat Medford last year, and then perennial WIAA Division 2 power Onalaska is at Raider Hall on Monday, Dec. 4. On Dec. 8, Medford visits Mosinee, the pre-season favorite to win the conference.
Medford’s opening roster features eight seniors and two juniors who figure to eat up the vast majority of court time.
The senior class includes Hraby, Steliga, Logan Gubser, Conner Klingbeil, Carson Carbaugh, Brayden Balciar, Owen Stockwell and Isaac Kautzer.
The headliner is Hraby, a unanimous All-GNC selection by the league’s coaches last winter, who took his game up a notch in the off-season and seized his opportunity to be Medford’s go-to guy with the departures of four starters, all of whom were All-GNC award winners at some level. Hraby has been with the varsity since his freshman season.
Always known as a solid outside shooter, it’s his quickness and ability to see the floor that will serve as the catalyst for Medford wanting to play as fast as it ever has this season. Hraby averaged 14 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game last year.
“Tanner is at a whole different level right now,” Brown said. “He is looking so fast and twitchy right now. I think the only guy that will be able to stay with him in our conference will be (Mosinee’s Keagen) Jirschele. That will be a battle.”
Gierl is a strong 6-foot player, who can score inside and outside. He looks to build off a sophomore season where he averaged 4.7 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game.
“I think Charlie is going to have a breakout year,” Brown said. “People will expect him, being our sixth man last year, to be an important contributor. But his aggressiveness is so good, and he’s got a motor too. That’s the thing about this group. With Charlie, he never stops. Tanner, he never stops. Steliga, he never stops. They go, they go, they go, they go. Hopefully we wear teams down.”
Hayden Koester is the only other junior on the opening-day roster. He was cleared to return from a baseball knee injury on the first day of practice. Sophomores Nick Krause and Will Daniels and freshmen Peyton Ried and Blake Thorson have also been working with the varsity.
While each of the seniors and juniors brings his unique talents that will help the squad, it will be their collective improvement and effort that will determine how far this team goes.
“It’s finally, maybe more than ever, the way I’ve always envisioned us playing,” Brown said. “We’ve always had parts of it on each team. But now this is where I think we have enough guys with enough speed who want to play that way.
“These are great guys, good athletes,” Brown added. “It’s just an interesting mix. Some of them are stronger on the offensive end than the defensive end, some are stronger on the defensive end than the offensive end.
One thing they are all learning, to me so far, is they’ve really put in great effort on the defensive end. We’ve seen a lot of things from guys like Logan Gubser, Carson Carbaugh, where their effort on the defensive end and on rebounding is so good. Because we’re going to need that. We need to play this because if we just play half-court we’re going to get dominated on the boards.”
Medford’s size definitely won’t stand out. Stockwell is listed at 6-3 and Balciar is at 6-2. Almost all of the other upperclassmen are 6 feet and under, another reason Medford thinks playing at a fast pace is the way to go.
But, of course, the lack of height makes team rebounding a question mark.
“Stockwell is going to bring us some rebounding,” Brown said. “He’s trying to get tough, he’s running the floor hard. Him and Balciar both can shoot it. They can play a little bit inside. Nick Steliga is going to be big for us. He’s grown. He moves his feet so well. He’s shooting it well. Carbs and Logan will be those guys and we told them, if you’re going to be on the floor you have to be engineers in our offense. Know how to get guys open and defend like your life depends on it. If there’s a loose ball or an offensive rebound we need you to go get it. Both of them have been hitting the boards hard, which we’re going to need because of our size. We’ll have to rely a lot on Charlie Gierl and Hayden Koester to get in there and bang too, although Koester’s not really a big guy either.”
Medford worked with some different offenses in the off-season, but the one tweak that may stick is the use of ball screens. Brown said they are something he’d mostly avoided in the past, but Hraby’s ability to use them to either get open or find open teammates is intriguing.
“Tanner’s getting into space and he’s facilitating,” Brown said. “I told him, I said you could lead the conference in assists. If we can get guys to knock down shots, and I think with Nick and Connor on the floor and Charlie and Stocks and Balciar, Gubser and Koester too, if they can knock down shots, that’s going to be big, because he’s going to create.”
Brown said what the coaches hope to create with the offense is more “freedom within the framework.”
“I think our offense is still really hard to guard,” Brown said. “But I don’t want people to say, ‘if they do this, then they do that.’ I want to be a little more freelance, yet still use the framework of what we have. That’s provided a lot of opportunities for guys.”
With Brown though, success always starts with defense. Through one early week of practice, he said he’s not sure where that stands yet. A Tuesday scrimmage at Eau Claire North was going to tell the Raiders a lot.
“I’m growing in confidence with our older guys, the juniors and seniors,” Brown said. “They’re really trying to jump to the ball. They’re a quiet group and a really mild-natured group in general, but our competitive practices have been really good. And the kids are asking what can they do more. I feel like we compete quite a bit. That’s been good, it’s brought out their competitiveness, we have guys diving for ball, getting on the ground to get to the ball and it’s started to bring out their voices. So that’s what we need is guys talking.”
Mosinee’s returning senior quartet of Jirschele, the 6-4 Landen Thomer and 6-3 Garrett Shupe and 6-2 Aiden Shaughnessy is a big reason the Indians start out as the favorites. Most observers likely see Medford in that next group jockeying for position, probably including Rhinelander, an improved Antigo team under second-year coach Shaun Smith and Lakeland, who lured Jared Jarvensivu away from Tomahawk to be its new head coach.
Medford’s non-conference schedule remains quite strong. After starting with Chippewa Falls and Onalaska, the Raiders will see La Crosse Central again in February, New Richmond, Menomonie and regional finalist Rice Lake from the Big Rivers and D.C. Everest, Wausau West and Merrill from the Wisconsin Valley Conference.