Longtime teammates helping Phoenix soar
Folks in Green Bay are preparing to say farewell to part of the city's sporting culture, and it has nothing to do with whether Brett Favre returns for another season with the Packers.
Senior Day for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women's basketball team will mark the end of an era that began long before honorees Nicole Soulis and Natalie Berglin took up residence in the dorms four years ago. When Soulis and Berglin take the court against Butler on Feb. 24, they move one step closer to ending a local partnership that dates back to the eighth grade.
Success might delay the pair's final farewell, both at the Phoenix Sports Center in Green Bay and from the college game entirely. Unbeaten to this point in conference play and riding a 14-game winning streak, the 24th-ranked Phoenix (17-3) will host the final two rounds of the Horizon League tournament if they finish on top of the standings. A win there would send the seniors (a group that also includes Amanda Popp and Alex Webster) to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
Whenever it comes, that final buzzer isn't something either player is eager to think about.
"We kind of avoid the subject at all costs, because we have played with each other for so long and we really don't want to see it end," Soulis said. "But it's definitely going to be the end of a good era, because I've had so much fun playing with her."
But before the end, there was a beginning.
Both Soulis and Berglin are natives of the city most famous for being the country's coziest home of a major professional sports team (the metropolitan area has slightly more than 220,000 residents, placing it squarely between Johnstown, Pa., and Asheville, N.C., in the 2000 census). Two hours north of Milwaukee, Green Bay is its own world.
"It's pretty laid-back," Berglin said of her hometown, sounding surprised anyone wanted to know. "We're all die-hard cheeseheads, so, you know, we love Brett Favre. It's not too big, but it's not small and boring either."
Soulis and Berglin first played together in eighth grade, sharing the court on club teams during the summer. Although they didn't attend the same high school (Berglin won a state title in her sophomore year at Notre Dame Academy, the first state title won by a Green Bay metro-area team), they continued to team up at various points throughout their prep careers. The result was an off-court friendship and an on-court rivalry between two of the city's top players.
"We played against each other twice in high school, but we weren't in the same conference," Soulis explained. "So we played once our freshman year and then once our senior year. And obviously, our senior year, everyone kind of hyped the game up so big because of [both players] going to UW-Green Bay the next year."
Although Soulis recalled the two joking that they should share a dorm room in college, especially when they would run into each other as spectators at Phoenix games during high school, there was never a formalized plan to auction themselves off as a package deal.
"I think it more just kind of happened," Berglin recalled. "When we got older and we were talking about where we were going, we kind of had the same choices, but we made our own decisions. But we did check in with each other every once in a while."
For Soulis, it was both a literal and figurative sense of home that drew her to Kevin Borseth's program at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
"All along, I think I really, really wanted to come here, because of the family atmosphere with the coaches and the players," Soulis said. "They were just so supportive, and they're so comfortable to be around. They didn't make you feel like they were recruiting you. Any time I talked to them, I felt like I could have a normal conversation with them."
That comfort level off the court surely helped the 6-foot-2 Soulis as she adjusted to a new role on the court in college. More a perimeter or face-up post in high school, she was asked to accept a more back-to-the-basket role for a Phoenix team short on size. And she had to learn on the fly, starting 27 games as a freshman and earning Horizon League newcomer of the year honors.
Between the early success, her hometown notoriety and the program's record of success, Soulis has been in the spotlight throughout her college career. Taking over as the focal point on offense last season following the graduation of four senior starters, she responded by leading the Horizon League in scoring at 18.4 points per game and winning the conference's player of the year award. But she couldn't lead the Phoenix back to the NCAA Tournament, snapping a string of four consecutive appearances (UWGB did advance to the WNIT).
"She really put the whole success or failure on her shoulders for three of her four years in her career," Borseth said. "That's a tough burden to carry, especially when teams get to know you after awhile, know whether you turn left or turn right. Every move you make, they pretty well have it mapped."
Soulis -- who is averaging 17.8 points and 5.7 rebounds, team highs in both categories -- needed help from her teammates and what better place to start than with the point guard who has been a teammate the longest? As Soulis explained, the two have a chemistry born of familiarity.
"I think with Natalie and I, just because we've played together for so long, going on eight or nine years, we have that comfort level that she and I know each other so well," Soulis said. "So all I have to do is get one tiny little glimpse of eye contact with her and she knows where I'm going to be and where to throw the ball."
Berglin started at point guard last season after coming off the bench as a top reserve for her first two seasons, but her game has reached new heights this season.
"Natalie is playing her best," Borseth said. "She's gotten smarter. I think she's really come to understand the game of basketball better; she's become a better student of the game. She understands that maybe if one player dribbles left-handed or right-handed better, to run a play on one side of the court as opposed to running a play on the other side of the court. Switching on a screen, instead of maybe jamming or going underneath.
"I think she understands basketball so much better, and because of that, I think it frees her up to play the way she's capable of playing. I mean, she's fast. She's learned to use her speed and use her mind along with that, so she's not running full blast all game long."
Watch Berglin run the point now and you see a player constantly looking to create. While some guards pound the ball into the ground while waiting for a play to develop and come to them, she dribbles lightly, as if almost wary of not having the ball in her hand when that split second reveals a passing angle or a driving lane.
She is walking evidence that point guards can be polished and perfected but not created by decree. Even off the court, she seeks out meaning amidst the clutter. Her favorite Web browsing destination is azlyrics.com, a site featuring comprehensive music lyrics. Just as she needs to understand the meaning of an offensive set on the court, she is compelled to go beyond the surface when she pops in her earphones.
"I always like to hear what songwriters are trying to say, kind of get their point," Berglin said. "So I check the song out and really kind of listen for the meaning of the song and where they're going with it."
Both players might pursue professional careers, either in the WNBA or abroad. Soulis talked cautiously about hoping that option develops once her season concludes, and the 5-7 Berglin, while short by league standards, is the kind of late-round sleeper that teams like the Connecticut Sun and Sacramento Monarchs have built their bench depth around.
Of course, there are no guarantees beyond Green Bay and no certainty that basketball will define the day to come when the alarm clock goes off one morning in April or May. For now, it's just about enjoying the final few weeks of a partnership that began almost a decade ago in the same city in which it will end. The point guard and the post.
"Playing with her has just been a heck of a time," Soulis said.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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