By Todd Mishler/Contributor
Front, L-R: Jimmy Merritt, Alex Chironis, Kai Hovden Middle: Jordan Terhark, Nolan Schiller, Braden Tice, Lee Pankau, Chris Lois, Teresa Tomaszewski
Top: Austin Gaugert, Zach Adams, Kevin Wieters, Thor Schiller, Henri Lorenzi
Don't talk to members of the Lake Geneva Badger High School boys basketball team about odds. They know all about words such as long shot and underdog.
After all, Coach Forrest Larson's Badgers finished in the cellar of the Badger Conference a year ago, so great expectations weren't necessarily part of their vocabulary heading into this season.
However, Badger made the leap from last place to first this year, ripping through the league with an 11-1 record to claim the championship.
Larson's bunch then defeated Stoughton by three points to win the regional title. In sectional play, Jimmy Merritt's buzzer-beating three-pointer downed Craig, and the Badgers pulled away to beat Verona by 10 to reach the WIAA Division 1 state tournament.
The Badgers, 18-5 overall, begin action at the Kohl Center in Madison in the first quarterfinal contest at 1:35 p.m. Thursday against Madison Memorial. It's the school's third trip to Madison, having split two outings in 1982 and losing its only contest in 1999.
Steve Collins' Spartans (21-2) finished the regular season as the No. 2 team in the state behind Milwaukee Washington, which was upset in the sectional semifinals and are favored to win their second crown in four years.
Maybe so, but the Badgers aren't listening. But that doesn't mean they don't need Lady Luck on their side.
"These kids finished last in the league and won seven games a year ago," Larson said. "It would have been so easy for them not to work hard during the off-season and during practices, but to their credit they didn't do that. They've been good teammates and good friends, and everybody has helped to make us successful."
That starts with Merritt, a 5-foot-9-inch senior guard who leads the team with a 16.6 scoring average. He nailed the deciding bucket against Craig to finish with 24 points and then registered 23 against Verona.
"Jimmy has done a tremendous job running our offense," Larson said. "He's shot the ball well and is playing with a lot of confidence."
Junior guard Braden Tice (5-10) led Badger with 24 points against the Wildcats after scoring 20 versus the Cougars. He sports a 15.5 average.
"Braden has flat out been shooting the ball," Larson said. "Jimmy hit the big one against Craig, and then Braden drilled two huge 3s late against Verona."
Senior center Kevin Wieters (6-3) and juniors Alex Chironis (5-9) and Henri Lorenzi (6-0) round out the starting lineup. They and junior substitute Zach Adams combine to average a little more than 25 points per contest.
"When Kevin scores and rebounds in double figures, we usually win," Larson said. "Alex gives us tough play, and Henri is probably our best rebounder and a top defender."
The Badgers must continue their hot shooting if they expect to stick with Memorial. They have the firepower to do it after making 25 treys during their two sectional victories.
However, the Spartans have a big-time advantage in size and experience: They're making their fifth straight and fifth overall appearance at state.
Junior forward Jeronne Maymon (6-5) leads the explosive with a 19.7 average. Sophomore guard Vander Blue (6-3) is next at 13.3, while senior guard Devonte Maymon (6-1) is third at 12.0.
"Madison Memorial plays fast, they force you to play fast and it's hard to slow them down, but it's too late for us to change anything," Larson said. "They've got great size and athleticism and won a tough conference in the Big Eight, so they're the clear-cut favorite going into this thing."
But don't tell that to the Badgers, who've fashioned a 2-0 mark against that conference: the thrilling win over Craig and a 10-point, season-opening decision over Beloit Memorial, the only Wisconsin team to defeat the Spartans.
"We lost a couple of close games later in the year, so it was good for us to play and win a couple (in the tourney)," Larson said. "Now the kids know they can handle the pressure." Todd Mishler is a freelance sports writer and author. His most recent book is "Blood, Sweat and Cheers: Great Football Rivalries of the Big Ten."