A ride to remember

Lena and northeast Wisconsin rallies around girls basketball team
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

For the community of Lena, the three-day adventure began and ended with a stalwart group of teenage girls riding atop fire trucks to the high school gymnasium.

In between were exhilarating highs and heartbreaking disappointments as a community rode a roller coaster of emotions with the young ladies.

The Lena High School girls basketball team earned a trip to the WIAA Division 5 state tournament March 8-9, along with three other outstanding teams from around Wisconsin. The Wildcats defeated Clear Lake 53-48 on March 8, then came within seconds of a state title before falling in overtime to Albany/Monticello 57-54 on March 9.

Main Street was decked out in blue and white and signs of support all week, and the student body gathered in the parking lot March 7 as the team got a police and fire escort from the fire station to the gym for a community pep rally.

Superintendent Ben Pytleski told the crowd that the theme of the rally was “Past, Present and Future.” Guests of honor include the coach and members of Lena’s 1980, 1990 and 1991 girls basketball teams that earned a trip to the state tournament, winning the title in 1980 and finishing as state runner-up in 1991. The celebration included a short “Future Wildcats” basketball game featuring girls from Lena Elementary School.

Pytleski said as he watched TV interviews in advance of the game, he was struck by how often the team members used the word “together.”

“Together has been a common theme — ‘We achieved this together, we worked so hard together,’ he said. “We as a school, the school staff, community, we feel the same way, and we want to say thank you for bringing us together on your journey, it’s been an amazing ride.”

Retired coach Kristine Young-Gabriel, whose teams made three trips to state, told the girls about the camaraderie of those teams as she stood next to the school’s 1980 gold ball trophy and the silver ball from 1991.

“This brings back all those memories, and you’re going to have them too,” Young-Gabriel told the 2024 team. “There are over 400 schools in the state of Wisconsin, and some of them have never been to state, and we’ve gone four times.”

Pytleski announced that the school has asked that Young-Gabriel be honored for her pioneering contributions.

“She started our program in the early ’70s, nurtured our program, won a state title in 1980, got to state in 1990 and was runner-up in ’91 and brought us a ridiculous amount of victories, so about three weeks ago we nominated her for the Wisconsin Basketball Hall of Fame,” he said.

Coach Tim Goldschmidt received a standing ovation from the community and student body. He is a Lena High School grad who has taught and coached for three decades, including the 11 years as girls basketball coach.

Goldschmidt said he’ll never forget the journey this team has taken.

“This group wins by being so thoughtful and unselfish,” he said. “They’re a hard-working group who dedicates a lot of time in the off-season — a lot — and that’s what makes them as successful as they are — their hard work, their determination and being unselfish.”

He credited the girls who graduated after the 2022-23 season for building the program back from an abyss.

“This was a group of four girls that came into our program with only one win with a goal to get us to a 20-win season, which they accomplished as seniors last year with 21,” Goldschmidt said. “I believe that’s a lot of the reason, and the push and the teaching that they used for us to move forward to get to where we are today. I believe the future is very bright and you’re going to see more Lena teams in this same spot in years to come.”

The joke around Lena last week was that the last person out of town should turn out the lights, Pytleski said. And judging from the number of tickets sold, the entire village was at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.

Despite an official population of 529, more than 700 tickets were sold for the WIAA state girls basketball semifinal game on March 8, and after the Lena Wildcats won that game, tickets were even hotter for the next morning, when the team played for the state championship.

During the short welcome-home celebration March 9, Pytleski said the school earned a $2,000 bonus for having the most fan support.

“Our community support was absolutely outrageous,” he said. “We not only won the ticket contest for Division 5, but they told us that we absolutely destroyed all divisions, all five divisions, for ticket sales for the two days.”

Goldschmidt passed along a conversation he had with Albany/Monticello coach Derik Doucher after the game.

“He said, ‘I have the utmost respect for you and your program, your girls. I’ll be losing a few players this year, I see what you have coming back and watching your program on the rise,’” Goldschmidt said. “And he actually said to me, ‘There is no doubt that you will be back in this same game next year and you won’t be going home with the silver ball, you’ll be going with the gold.’”

Losing the last game of the year is always tough in any sport, but that won’t be how the 2023-24 team will be remembered, Pytleski said.

“Your legacy won’t be that that ball is silver and not gold. It won’t be that a girl hit a ridiculous NBA length 3-point step-back to tie the game at the end of regulation,” he said. “Your legacy is that you have brought not just the Lena community but the entire northeast Wisconsin region on a joyous ride this season, and you did it with class, you did it with dignity, and we will remember that all more than anything how much fun we had the last two days watching you girls play — and the season, but the last two days were just magical, so thank you.”