In this Feb. 15, 2019 file photo, the Rhinelander High School girls’ basketball team hoists the Great Northern Conference championship trophy after defeating Antigo at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium to complete a perfect 12-0 conference season. The Hodags, seeking to repeat last year’s success, open their 2019-20 season tonight at home against Merrill. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
In this Dec. 28, 2018 file photo, Kenedy Van Zile dribbles between defenders against Madison LaFollette at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium. Van Zile returns as the reigning GNC player of the year, scoring 24.6 points per game last season. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
Date Opponent Time
11/21 MERRILL 7:15 p.m.
11/29 Menomonie (at UWSP) TBA
11/30 Wausau Newman (at UWSP) 5:15 p.m.
12/6 at Northland Pines* 7:15 p.m.
12/13 MOSINEE* 7:15 p.m.
12/17 at Medford* 7:15 p.m.
12/20 CRANDON 7:15 p.m.
12/27 Milw. Riverside (at Watertown) 2:15 p.m.
12/28 Milw. Pius XI (at Watertown) 10:45 a.m.
1/3 LAKELAND* 7:45 p.m.
1/7 at D.C. Everest 7:15 p.m.
1/10 at Antigo* 6 p.m.
1/13 at Tomahawk* 7:15 p.m.
1/17 MARSHFIELD 7:15 p.m.
1/24 NORTHLAND PINES* 7:15 p.m.
1/28 at Ashland 7:15 p.m.
1/31 at Mosinee* 7:15 p.m.
2/7 MEDFORD* 7:15 p.m.
2/8 STEVENS POINT 7:15 p.m.
2/11 at Lakeland* 6 p.m.
2/14 ANTIGO* 6 p.m.
2/21 TOMAHAWK* 6 p.m.
2/25 WIAA Regionals TBA
* Conference Games | HOME GAMES IN CAPS
11/21/2019 7:30:00 AM Team preview: RHS girls' basketball Lady Hodags seek to fill roles behind big three in bid for GNC repeat
After one of the most successful seasons in program history, the question is what will the Rhinelander High School girls' basketball team do for an encore in 2019-20?
The Hodags have a tough act to follow coming of an 18-6 season that included a 13-game winning streak, the team's first Great Northern Conference championship and a run to the WIAA regional finals.
Coach Ryan Clark said the goal is to match last year's success.
"I think we're a very dangerous team," he said. "We have a great shot to win the conference and I think we have a good chance to get to the regional championship game again."
Make no mistake, however, despite returning three starters from last year's team - including reigning GNC player of the year Kenedy Van Zile - the Hodags are a different team this year. Just how different remains to be seen as Rhinelander gets set to open the season tonight against Merrill at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium.
Just like last year, when the team was 5-5 at the end of December and then didn't lose again until falling to New London in the playoffs, Clark said it may take a while for this year's squad to hit its stride.
"It feels like it's a whole new team and the kids don't talk much about it," Clark said of duplicating last year's success. "I think they know that we have so many new pieces trying to find their way on our team and they also know the other teams are good."
Van Zile, one of the most prolific scorers in school history, leads the way for this year's. The 5-6 guard averaged 24.6 points per game as a junior and reached the 1,000-point mark for her career last February at Medford. Should she maintain her pace from last year, Van Zile would finish her career as the leading scorer in RHS history and second on the all-time GNC scoring list behind Northland Pines' Lexi Smith.
But, Van Zile is more than a scorer. She also led the team in steals (102) and assists (71) last year, and was second on the team in rebounds (111).
She's joined by two other returning all-conference players in senior Cynthia Beavers and junior Rebecca Lawrence. Lawrence averaged 8.5 points per game last season and finished with one rebound fewer than Van Zile. Beavers averaged 8.2 points per game and had a team-best 169 rebounds despite a 5-6 frame.
Clark called that trio his "big three" and expects more out of all three this winter. He said Van Zile has worked to add even more variety to her offensive game, outside shooting has been an emphasis for Lawrence and the team is trying to get Beavers to look to score more often.
The Hodags do need to fill some scoring void from last year, after graduating outside shooter Brooke Mork. The team also graduated Payton Van Zile, Kenedy's older sister, who was a steady, defensive presence in the starting five.
Rhinelander's depth took a hit as well with scrappy guard Marissa Martin transferring out of the district during the latter half of last season. Junior Hannah Worachek, who was Kenedy Van Zile's back up at point guard, had not gone out for the team as of this writing.
Clark said he has eight players vying for the two other starting spots and key roles in the rotation. Sophomore Annika Johnson appears to be in the mix after scoring nine points - second on the team behind Van Zile - in Saturday's scrimmage at Wisconsin Dells.
"Annika played with us a lot last year and is solid," Clark said. "She's got good length, is a defender but I need to see her take a step up offensively, be a little more aggressive."
Clark said sophomore Brynn Brzycki and freshman Ava Lamers could provide a taller post presence the team lacked last year, that guard Sophia McGinnis adds a steady senior leader and that the team has a number of speedy, interchangeable guards in sisters Ella and Audrey Schiek, Kat Metropulos and Megan Brown.
"For our team, finding pieces four through up to nine or 10 are going to be the key," he said. "I think all those pieces are pretty equal in certain ways. Some have strengths, some have weaknesses, but nobody has separated themselves at all yet. I'll have to play around with that and see if I can find some players that can help us a little bit."
Clark said depth will be necessary in the conference title defense because the Hodags' nearest pursuers have improved. Though Lakeland graduated 2018 conference player of the year Melissa Bruckner, freshman Julianna Ouimette - daughter of head coach Melissa Ouimette - will make an immediate impact. Mosinee had a talented, underclassmen-laden team last year and Medford returns three of its four all-conference recipients from a year ago.
"I think the conference is better this year. I think most teams returned most of their big-time players," he said. "I think Mosinee is going to be a really dangerous team. I think Medford is a dangerous team and I think Lakeland with Julianna stepping into the role, is very dangerous."
Rhinelander will be tested early and often in its non-conference schedule. The Hodags have four Wisconsin Valley Conference teams on its schedule, as well as strong, small school programs Wausau Newman and Crandon. Additionally, the team will head to Watertown over the Christmas break where it will face Milwaukee Riverside and Milwaukee Pius XI.
"I think every year I say it's probably our toughest, but I think this year is our toughest," Clark said. "I think it's our most talented team and I think it's our toughest schedule. I think it will help us in conference, but we've got Newman coming up here right around Thanksgiving, Stevens Point again, Milwaukee Pius will be very tough, Crandon's tough. It should make us better. I think if you're battle tested, you should be a good team."
The majority of Rhinelander's non-conference contests come during the first half of the season, which Clark hopes will help steel the Hodags for another run at a conference title.
"By late February, I think we'll be very dangerous. I think we'll get our roles solidified I'd say right around early January is my hope, that we have our roles solidified and we kind of figure out what's the best style of play for us, what presses might work the best for us," he said.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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