GREEN BAY — Coach Sara Rhode is not only proud that the Notre Dame Academy girls basketball team won the 2013 WIAA Division 2 state championship, but in how they did it. Rhode, the Associated Press coach of the year, always believed the team had enough talent to finish on top, but, early in the season, saw a lack of defensive urgency and struggles with team chemistry as potential roadblocks.
“I’m proud of the way they never gave up and how their friendships developed over the year,” said Rhode. “I didn’t know that they were really great friends, and now I look at them all hanging out together. It’s really exciting to me as a coach that they are a tight-knit group.
“When they have something to play for, they play hard and I knew that about them,” she added. “I wish we had that throughout the whole conference season, but they definitely showed their determination in the end.”
“We came together as a team,” said senior guard Sabrina Rapisarda. “We figured out where we fit together with our team chemistry and it fit together nicely.”
Both Rhode and Rapisarda point to a team-building outing at the Door County Adventure Center as an important step in the squad’s unity. The team had utilized the center in past seasons, but this year was different, said Rapisarda, who also won a state championship as part of Notre Dame’s 4 x 200 meter relay track team last June.
“I felt a spark,” she said. “It was about learning to trust one another, learning how to work together as a team. Another emphasis was communication. That was definitely a key because we were having difficulty communicating on the court. Everything we did at the camp — communication, teamwork and building trust — made us better.”
Notre Dame advanced to state in 2012, but fell to New London in the semifinals. The team opened this season with two losses in the first three games. On Jan. 7, the Tritons’ record stood at a modest 5-4, but an 11-2 stretch earned Notre Dame a number one seed in the post season. A 77-49 regional victory over Menasha started the team’s championship march. Senior guard Brianna Byrne, who finished her prep career as the second all-time leading scorer in school history, poured in 20 points in the victory. Rapisarda drained five 3-pointers.
“Menasha played a triangle and two (defense), which gave me open shots,” said Rapisarda. “The bucket felt huge when I was shooting. I was feeling my shot that day.”
Different players stepped up each game during the post season, said Rhode. Following a 70-43 regional final victory over Seymour, the Tritons faced Pulaski for a third time. Senior Alix Everson and freshman Olivia Campbell sparked Notre Dame off the bench in the 48-36 overtime victory. Beaver Dam, a team that defeated the Tritons during the regular season, was the sectional final opponent.
“Last year, we played them in the sectional semifinals. They were the better team in my opinion, but we came out in overtime and won it,” said Rapisarda. “They had two large posts and that was the primary focus defensively for Anika (Johnson), Alix and Eliza (Campbell). We needed to shut down the guards with pressure and high hands, which we did. We played very good defense and Allie (LeClaire) got into the zone.”
Notre Dame outscored Beaver Dam 36-19 in the second half en route to a 71-50 victory. LeClaire, a second team AP all-state selection, led the Tritons with 32 points.
“Offensively, Allie broke open the game in the third quarter,” said Rhode. “She drove to the hoop or came off a screen ready to shoot it. Once she started marking shots, it was really hard to guard her (one-on-one), which opened up shots for everybody else.”
Notre Dame adopted two mottos for state: “unfinished business” in reference to the return trip and “home sweet home” because the tournament had moved to the Resch Center in Green Bay. Rapisarda admits that she had mixed feelings about the trip to state being less than two miles from school.
“In the beginning, I was a little more hesitant about it because it was a fun experience (Madison),” she said. “After our first game, the semifinals, I realized that I really liked it at the Resch. It’s nice to have all the fans. We had 600 tickets sold to the students the first hour. They were a great support and it’s nice to have a large amount of fans.”
Notre Dame advanced to the title game with a 61-35 victory over Milton behind 14 points by LeClaire and 13 by Eliza Campbell. The championship game versus New Berlin Eisenhower was a low-scoring contest for the Tritons who had averaged 65 points in the previous five post-season games. Rhode called the team’s effort in the 42-33 win “very satisfying.”
“It was a kind of a sloppy game and we did have to battle back,” she said. “We pulled together in the fourth quarter. It seemed like everything fell into place in the fourth quarter.”
The game was a fitting end to a season where everything eventually fell into place.
“I can’t imagine ending it any other way,” said Rapisarda.