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Feb. 24—FALL CREEK — It wasn't unusual for a prep sports team to have to deal with a COVID-related pause during this winter sports season. For a time, it felt like the pandemic derailed the entire Western Cloverbelt.
"All of us were walking on eggshells for the longest time," Fall Creek girls basketball senior Emily Madden said. "Every other team just seemed to be getting COVID-ed out. You never know when we could be next."
Unfortunately for the Crickets, they were next. Twice. Talk about a test in mental fortitude.
"Trying to come back after those quarantines, it was difficult, trying to get back into a routine again," senior Mackensy Kolpien said. "Being in a routine is a big thing, trying to stay on schedule, but then also trying to stay in shape during that time and coming back and running, it was definitely hard."
It was a stop-and-start season for the Crickets, who went 21 days between games in December and 17 days in January. But they handled it in stride, and now are being rewarded for their ability to go with the flow in a year full of curveballs. Fall Creek is set to make its return to the state tournament after a six-year hiatus. The Crickets will meet top-seeded Mishicot on Friday morning.
"You started playing a little bit, got on a little bit of a roll, and then you're stopping again," Fall Creek coach Jason Martzke said. "To get to this point now is just above and beyond."
Martzke said the team lost about 15 to 20 practices because of the breaks. Players were forced to do work on their own to stay ready for their return. Even Madden, who tested positive for the virus. She luckily was without symptoms but had to sit out for nearly four weeks of action.
"That was before we got hit with a lot of snowstorms, that weekish time when we had some really nice weather," Madden said. "I was still able to keep in shape, at least get some running in, do some cardio, get outside which was really helpful. That helped me stay in shape for the season."
There were some expected struggles when the team returned to action — the Crickets went 2-2 in the first four games after both pauses — but Fall Creek clearly regained its footing by the start of the postseason.
Fall Creek claimed a regional title as its bracket's top seed, besting Augusta 54-32 and Cloverbelt rival Regis 36-30. After a dominant 45-28 win against Edgar in the sectional semifinals, the Crickets upset Phillips on Saturday 63-53 backed by double-digit performances from Kolpien, Madden and Gianna Vollrath.
The Crickets have won six of their last seven games. Understanding the fragility of the season has made the run even sweeter.
"If we keep playing like we have been, I think we can do some really great things," Vollrath said.
Fall Creek, which finished second in wins in the Western Cloverbelt this year at 8-3, boasts a balanced attack. Getting to state without a first team all-conference selection is evidence of that. Madden and Kolpien were second team picks.
"They look to be very well-rounded," Mishicot coach Will Garceau said. "They don't have one or two studs that you have to take away. It's going to have to be a group effort. ... But I guess initially, my fear is that they've got several kids averaging in that eight to 10, 11 points per game (range), and not one or two kids at 17 or 18 and everybody else just kind of bringing in the caboose. We've got to guard all five."
Standing in the Crickets way is a Mishicot team which took care of business at the No. 1 seed in both its regional and sectional. Now the Indians look to do the same as the No. 1 D4 team at state.
Mishicot enters the weekend 18-2 and finished second in the Big East at 8-2. The squad hasn't lost since its third game of the season, a Jan. 5 meeting with Howards Grove, adding up to a 17-game win streak.
The Indians have won by 16 or more points in every playoff game thus far, and bested Randolph by an eye-popping 28 in the sectional finals. Kylie Schmidt and Desiree Kleiman lead the show, with both averaging 16 points. Both are Division II commits. Schmidt nearly averages a double-double with 9.1 rebounds.
"They've got some good size, a really good team," Martzke said. "Right now we're the biggest underdog down there, being the four seed. Our kids just have to go out there and play and let it rip."
Tipoff is set for 9:05 a.m. on Friday at the La Crosse Center. That means an early start for the team, which will depart from Fall Creek that same morning.
They're hoping it will be a late night, too. The semifinal winners will play again on Friday at 6:35 p.m. AAU and summer ball has prepped some of these players for the unusual circumstance.
It will be a tough test, but the Crickets know it's their foes who have the most to lose.
"The pressure isn't really on us," Madden said. "They're not expecting us to do anything. Is that disappointing? A little bit because we've worked so hard to get here, but at the same time, for us to even get to state in general, that's amazing. We're just going to go out there and give it our all and see how things shake out."