NEENAH — Players became coaches in early February at the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade in Neenah. For the second consecutive year, members of the St. Mary Catholic High School (Neenah) girls’ basketball team volunteered their time to teach basketball skills to middle school age students in the community center gym.
“The girls on the team already do a lot of service in the community, but I knew it would be a special experience to teach the Brigade kids something the girls are truly passionate about,” said head coach Kali Sawyer.
The team practiced at the Brigade prior to the skills clinic.
“It was really fun,” said junior guard Kate Britt. “In a way, it made us appreciate our coaches. Some of the kids were not enthusiastic about basketball at all, so it was a challenge. Our coaches stepped back and watched us do it.”
“Even if they don’t necessarily like basketball, if they liked this experience because it was fun, that is a win for us,” said sophomore point guard Alicia Thone.
The Zephyrs started with a session for boys.
“They were pretty wild,” said Britt. “They had a lot of energy.”
A session for girls followed. The middle school students were split into five groups for passing, shooting, ball handling, rebounding and defensive drills.
“Our seniors also taught them the importance of eye contact, respect and attention to detail,” said Britt. “Those are the big things we promote in our basketball program.”
Paul Ruthven, gym activity coordinator at the Brigade, said that he was impressed by the poise and maturity of the St. Mary Catholic players.
“It is very gratifying to see our kids interact with young adults who model the character traits that we try to instill in our kids,” he said.
Outreach provides “another bonding experience,” said Britt. The girls spend a great deal of time together away from practice and games, including attending the boys’ basketball games and gathering together to eat after their home games.
“We are each other’s best friends,” said Britt. “The seniors really bring the team together. Last year, we didn’t have any senior leadership.”
The 2014-15 season was difficult. The team was winless in the Olympian Conference and finished with more than 20 losses. This season, St. Mary Catholic finished 9-8 in the Big East Conference and 13-11 overall after falling to St. Mary’s Springs on Feb. 26 in a second round WIAA Regional matchup.
“We wanted to be over .500 this year,” said Britt. “It’s nice to be in the new conference even though we have to drive pretty far.”
“We definitely had a lot better games, so it was worth it to drive that far,” said Thone. “I think teams in this conference didn’t expect us to be very good because we were last in our old conference.”
The Lady Zephyrs jumped out to a good start winning two of their first three games of the season.
“It boosted our confidence,” said Thone.
“It’s easy to develop a losing mentality when you don’t win,” said Britt. “That was one of our main goals, to develop a winning attitude.”
St. Mary Catholic also finished strong, winning seven of their last nine games. The team — the seventh seed — finished fifth in the conference tournament.
“We definitely improved,” said Britt. “I don’t think the quality of the teams in this new conference is any less. We have just been improving so much. We didn’t lose anyone (from last year), so we already knew how each other played.”
This year’s squad featured three seniors — leading scorer Maddie Uhlenbrauck, forward Abby Fischer and guard Shelley Butler — but will return a good nucleus. Assistant coach Maggie Pawlowski was a starting guard on the then St. Mary Central team that won the WIAA Division 4 state championship in 2009 after finishing as state runner-ups in 2008. St. Mary Catholic is seeking similar success.
“It has been my goal to return St. Mary Catholic High School girls’ basketball to the level it was in the past and to rebuild the tradition of great student athletes,” said Sawyer, a St. Mary Central alumnus who was named the girls’ basketball coach in 2014. “This varsity group has been taking monumental steps in that direction. I am so proud of the young women they are and the amazing role models they are for younger kids in the community.”
Molly Griffin, director of Communications, St. Mary Catholic Schools, contributed to this story.