- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's the morning of the Horizon League championship game, and the staff and players who comprise one of the most successful programs in women's basketball are gathered around waffles and eggs at a local restaurant, their blank (and insufficiently caffeinated) expressions serving as placeholders for the emotions the day will bring. It's quiet enough, in fact, to hear the background music, and Green Bay associate coach Mike Divilbiss perks up when Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" starts to play.
Across from him, junior starter Julie Wojta is unimpressed, or more precisely, unaware of Morrison. Divilbiss tries to give her a hint, offering up "Brown Eyed Girl" as the clue that will unlock the mystery identity.
"Yeah, that doesn't help," Wojta responds.
Apart from being a bit of a sucker punch to the solar plexus of those of a certain age who believed that surely their music would endure as the definitive soundtrack of youth, the exchange is a reminder of the particular moment in time Wojta and her teammates occupy. In minutes together on the court, or hours off it, they are still creating the kind of memories a song might bring to life a decade or four down the road. Yet the whole scene also says something about the staying power a program has in a community.
An Irish singer-songwriter might rate as ancient history to Wojta, but she is nevertheless part of a living history just a few years younger than the song in question, a basketball program for which a lyric like "just like way back in the days of old" is not an entirely unfamiliar sentiment for a local product.
"One thing that I remember is the atmosphere in the old gym; everyone was packed in and it was so loud," Wojta explained later about attending games in the Phoenix Sports Center, the tiny gym Green Bay called home before a new building opened four years ago. "It's the same as it is now. Everyone cheers us on, everyone gets excited for each other, and after the game, there's people out there still talking to the players for an hour. It's just that community, family feeling that's special for a lot of people."
The first program other than Connecticut or Tennessee to enter an NCAA tournament with as many as 32 wins, Green Bay (32-1) hopes to add a first trip to the Sweet 16 to its résumé when it travels to Wichita to face No. 12 seed Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round on Sunday and 4-seed Michigan State or 13-seed Northern Iowa if it reaches the second round. At a school where basketball history is abundant and the banner budget is not a minor financial consideration -- thanks to at least a share of 13 consecutive conference titles -- the current Green Bay team is already the most successful, with respect to wins, in the program's nearly 40 seasons of competition.
And for five days during the conference tournament, the Phoenix opened their doors to give ESPN.com an all-access look at what allows them to maintain a standard of success across decades, and what allows this particular group of players to occupy a moment in time all their own during a season to remember.
Seven interchangeable starters
"Ladies, we're not that good right now."
Actually, despite those words from senior Celeste Hoewisch at halftime of a Horizon League quarterfinal against Loyola, the Phoenix are that good. At least on this night.
The game against Loyola was all but over before it was five minutes old. The Phoenix led 55-16 at halftime, and the 89-41 final score marked the team's 18th victory of the season by at least 20 points (they would add a 19th two nights later in the semifinals) and the fourth win by at least 40 points. Green Bay can't control the composition of its conference, nor can it control which Big Ten or Big 12 teams are willing to make a stop in northern Wisconsin for a home-and-home series, the least the program has earned with its record of success and the least it can give fans who help Green Bay rank in the top 20 percent of attendance nationally.
It can, however, control what happens on the court, and only five teams did so this season by a more decisive scoring margin -- four of which make up the quartet of No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Yet as the coaches talked things over in the Kress Center hallway at halftime, following a routine that leaves the players to themselves for several minutes, Hoewisch made her point inside the locker room after someone jokingly pointed out that the 5-foot-7 guard led the Ramblers 19-16 by herself at the break. It wasn't a scolding, but instead perhaps one part admonition and one part encouragement, accompanied by a list of areas for improvement on defense by all involved, herself included -- too many open 3-pointers, too much ball rotation being allowed -- a list that sounded a lot like the one the coaches offered moments later when they entered the room.
Or perhaps more accurately, when the full-time coaches entered the room.
Green Bay is a model of statistical equality. Its three leading scorers enter the NCAA tournament within three points of each other after 33 games of potential separation (Wojta leads with 452 points, senior Kayla Tetschlag is second with 451 points and Hoewisch is third with 449 points). Technically the team's center, Wojta leads the Phoenix with 121 assists, one of three players with more than 100 assists, and one of five with more than 80 assists. Wojta and Tetschlag are the primary back-to-the-basket options and rebounding presences, but there are essentially seven interchangeable starters at coach Matt Bollant's disposal.
Everything they do on the court is a function of each player sharing the same opportunity and same responsibility for a possession's success or failure.
But if the play on the court speaks of a meritocracy, the banners above tell of a dynasty built on distinct lines of succession. Hoewisch and Tetschlag, seniors and co-captains, take ownership of their team to at least the same degree, if not a greater degree, than any All-American averaging 20 points per game does with any other team.
As the team left the locker room for the second half against Loyola, Tetschlag walked with junior guard Hannah Quilling and offered counsel on playing in the post, a place not unfamiliar to Green Bay's perimeter players in an offense that stresses movement and versatility. Quilling had heard an earful from Divilbiss in the first half when she rushed a couple of off-balance shots in the paint, but Tetschlag encouraged her to keep working for position and discussed how best to get a shot off.
Variations on both scenes, be it Hoewisch speaking up and Tetschlag pulling aside or vice versa, play out with regularity during practice and games.
"The players know how much [Hoewisch and Tetschlag] care about them," Bollant said. "So it allows them to really push and challenge and be direct in how they confront, how they communicate with all of them."
The idea of player input isn't unique to Green Bay any more than a passion for football is to the city. It just feels at times like both were perfected here.
Later in the weekend, the team was in the middle of jogging through sets at a practice. Bollant called out the name of one, "Carolina," but was thinking of another in his head. As it turned out, what he called was one little-used, at least since it had been tweaked and re-tweaked earlier in the season, and the proceedings quickly ground to a halt over a disagreement as to the proper movements. Divilbiss said it should be run one way. Hoewisch shook her head, certain that wasn't how she learned it.
Divilbiss insisted, and Hoewisch persisted. Sensing an irresistible stubbornness colliding with an immovable point guard in front of him, Bollant tried to move on to the next set -- but succeeded only after his point guard gained assurance that he wasn't going to call the set in the game. Had he not, they might still have been there for tipoff.
"Kayla can be just as tough on the court, but Celeste has a little of that stubborn streak in her," Bollant said.
More often than not, interaction between players, particularly the captains, and coaches is more an exchange of ideas than a battle of wills. But even moments of dysfunction fit within the framework of a cherished tradition and are an integral component of success -- a freedom to speak earned by a willingness to work. Teammates hear Hoewisch and Tetschlag speak up, but they also see them outworking anyone else on both ends of the court.
"When I first got here, I was like, 'Whoa, you guys can say what you want to say?' Not exactly what you want to say, but to a certain extent you have freedom to teach," Hoewisch recalled of her freshman redshirt season, the last before Bollant arrived. "And I think that ability to teach someone, I think it helps you learn as a player. And also, when you can hold people accountable, you've got to hold yourself to a higher standard."
That Hoewisch and Tetschlag are empowered to continue the tradition says a lot for the man who didn't recruit them.
It is one thing to grant that freedom when the program exists because of you, as was the case for Green Bay's founding women's basketball coach Carol Hammerle in her 25 seasons, or when you are secure in the knowledge that your voice will always be the loudest, as was the case for the perpetually animated Kevin Borseth when he followed Hammerle. It's another thing entirely to do it when you are hired for your first Division I head coaching job at 36 years old and walk into a room full of people, be they players, boosters or media, who know you weren't the first choice for the job, all of which was true for Bollant when he replaced Borseth in 2007. A head coach only at the NAIA level in college before he came to Green Bay, he also arrived on the heels of Borseth's departure after a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament and the abrupt change of heart by Aaron Johnston, who accepted the job at Green Bay only to resign a day later and return to South Dakota State.
A story in the local paper that first season -- a season in which the team went 26-4 -- posed a question as to whether the new coach might be the next Mike Heideman, whose ill-fated tenure as Dick Bennett's replacement as the men's coach began with early wins before slipping into postseason irrelevance. And that was nothing compared to the skepticism Bollant found waiting for him on the court. He didn't change a lot about the offense at first, but he had watched Green Bay lose to Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Borseth's final season and come away convinced his teams needed to play a different style of defense and pressure the ball more.
The returning players at the time felt the system that gave them a voice and a halftime lead against the Huskies in that game was just fine.
"To come in here," Bollant said, "I wasn't ready for the players to be so strong and [be like], 'No, we can't do it that way. That's not the way we've done it. That's wrong. That won't work with us.' So that was really the adjustment, especially defensively."
It's worth noting that as he coaches a team of players who never played a regular-season game for anyone else, no team in the nation has forced more turnovers this season than Green Bay. An inner intensity escaping when he breaks down a play or in the rare instances that focus becomes an issues in practice, Bollant is otherwise a clerical collar short of a passable pastor imitation. And he found the patience to let the players make his philosophy a part of Green Bay basketball, rather than forcing Green Bay basketball to become an extension of his philosophy.
"It was really, really good on his part, I feel," Hoewisch said. "Everybody has a mentality -- we were winning before he came here, so it's like, 'We know what we're doing here.' But for him to be flexible like that and swallow his pride, or whatever, I think shows a lot about his character. All he wants to do is be successful, and he'll do whatever it takes for this team to win."
Which only makes it fitting that two players he didn't recruit have come to embody everything Bollant is about as they leave the program in the hands of the next generation.
The intensity and poise of champions
"We can play with the intensity and poise of a national champion."
So said Bollant during his pregame speech prior to the conference championship game against Butler.
It is difficult to know just where to place Green Bay in the basketball universe. There is something endearing and even inspiring about a team rising to national prominence composed in large part of players from nearby communities -- towns and cities like De Pere, Hortonville, Sheboygan and Francis Creek. It's a place where Tetschlag will still drive home to Sheboygan on a Friday night to watch a big high school game or where Hoewisch's parents can get stuck working late and still make tip at the Kress Center.
Indeed, part of what makes the program special are players like Wojta, lightly recruited but now poised to make a run at Horizon Player of the Year honors next season.
"I think Midwest, it's unique a little bit," said assistant coach Amanda Leonhard, herself a native daughter and former Phoenix standout. "Not that it's more of a blue-collar aspect, but in certain towns, smaller towns, you tend to see that more often. That's kind of the kid that, within the two-, three-hour radius, that's the kid we've been getting. The kid that -- it's Wisconsin, so there isn't much to do in the winter, so the kids are always in the gym. They're in there on their own, they're working on their skills, they're getting better. I think being Midwest kids, the majority that we get, that's what you find. That work ethic is there.
"I think that helps us, getting those kind of kids that they live and breathe it."
At the same time, the little-team-that-could trope risks minimizing the talent that is here and the athleticism that Bollant has sought to stockpile since arriving.
Watch Adrian Ritchie or Lydia Bauer catch fire from the 3-point line or Sarah Eichler throw herself in the toughest defensive assignments, each a burgeoning standout in her own right behind the established leaders, and it's easy to let your mind wander what could happen if this team catches a break or two in the tournament. Observe Bauer and injured senior Heather Golden conspire with trainer Dusty Lang barely an hour before a championship game to fete Tetschlag with a mock red-carpet interview and shower the "Training Room Queen" with confetti in honor of the copious time she spends getting taped up, and you appreciate that the result on the court means everything and nothing.
It's not dreams of a national championship that bring fans strolling onto, rather than storming, the court to mingle as the nets come down after the win against Butler. It's a program that plays with the intensity and poise of champions, as Bollant put it, and a group of players led by captains who have done that better than any who came before.
A team that is part of a club perhaps even smaller than the champions club. A team that for one season is as good as it can possibly be.
"You're not going to remember every single game perfectly," Hoewisch said. "But you're going to remember the people that you went to battle with and you shared those moments with."
Just like way back in the days of old.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.