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WIAA state boys basketball: Waunakee’s youth brigade settles in for another state ride

March 15, 2017 GMT

An all-freshman starting backcourt at a school the size of Waunakee is far from the usual modus operandi.

But today, almost three years after coach Dana MacKenzie installed Mitch Listau and Mason Steffen as his starting guards before their freshman season, no one is second-guessing the decision.

“Coach put us on the team as freshmen to contribute and learn to be leaders,” Listau said. “Our freshman year, we were just trying to earn respect. But as the years have gone on, we’ve earned that respect.”

They’ve also helped take the Waunakee program to a level it’s never experienced. With now-seasoned juniors Listau and Steffen leading the way, the 24-2 Warriors will make their second consecutive trip to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament this weekend.

Fourth-ranked Waunakee will face top-ranked La Crosse Central (24-2) at 1:35 p.m. Friday in a semifinal at the Kohl Center.

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“Last year we weren’t projected to do a lot. We were projected to finish fourth in our conference,” Steffen said. “This year we felt we had to live up to the expectations to get to back to state, so practices were tough. Everyone had to accept their roles, and we’ve done a good job of coming together.”

As sophomores, Listau and Steffen were the guards on a team that finished 25-3 and rolled to the Badger North championship and all the way to the Division 2 championship game, where the Warriors lost to Kaukauna 91-62.

But despite the title game setback, the success fueled high expectations in Waunakee, and the Warriors have not disappointed this season. Behind Listau, who averages more than 22 points a game and his sidekick Steffen pitching in 14 per, the Warriors again advanced to Madison.

The location won’t be new to the Warriors, and neither will their opponent. The Warriors and Red Raiders played on Jan. 14 in the La Crosse Center, with Central rolling to a 75-54 victory that was Waunakee’s first loss of the season.

But the team has found its groove heading into Friday’s game, running off eight straight victories, each by at least 12 points — including Saturday’s state-clinching, 57-39 win over Westosha Central at Middleton.

Like last year, it was the kind of run that MacKenzie envisioned would eventually come when he handed the keys to his backcourt to two freshmen.

The pair experienced growing pains that first season as the Warriors finished 12-12. The two combined to average fewer than 16 points a game. But in order for the Warriors to eventually take a step forward, MacKenzie knew his team likely would have had to take a brief step back.

“We knew that they were going to be special players coming into high school,” MacKenzie said. “We’d never had freshman players on the varsity before. Part of that was they were good enough, but part of that was out of need, as well. We’ve had a lot of teams where they wouldn’t have played as freshmen. We needed them.”

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Listau and Steffen are almost a package deal for Waunakee. Their fathers, Chris Listau and Rich Steffen, played together at Minnesota-Duluth.

Although both grew up in different areas of the state — Listau in Milwaukee and Steffen in Ashwaubenon — they each settled down in Waunakee, where the boys have been friends and have played basketball together for as long as they can remember.

“We know each others’ games so well,” Listau said. “We know where the other guy is going to be, and we trust each other so much the positions (point or shooting guard, which they both play at various times) doesn’t matter.”

Senior captain Tyler Ronk, the team’s third-leading scorer at 7.6 points a game, helps form the Warriors’ supporting cast along with players such as Nate Carter, Josh Cash and Dylan Haack. Ronk said the presence of their suddenly veteran guard tandem helps the rest of the roster settle into various roles.

“They’ve been on varsity longer than anyone, and they’re only juniors,” Ronk said. “Having them on the team is like our security blanket. If we need a shot, they can hit it, and they are great leaders as well.”