So let me introduce to you the most thrilling thing, for all these years, that's happened to me in play-by-play: March 15, 1997, when the Elkhorn Elks won the Wisconsin Division 2 Girl's Basketball State Championship.
[Read Todd Mishler's outstanding 2014 retrospective here.]
From its first days, Elkhorn High School girl's basketball didn't have much success. The Elks never made it out of Regionals -- the first week of Wisconsin's three-week post-season tournament -- in their first 20 years. In those days, winning 10 games in a season was cause for celebration.
But as the program plodded through so-so campaigns in the mid-'90s, fans pointed to a promising class that was making its mark first as freshmen, then in JV. This group of girls, it was hoped, would take the Lady Elks to the next level.
Indeed, this group led Elkhorn to its first-ever appearance in Sectionals (the second week of the tournament) as juniors in 1996. A blowout loss in the semifinals did nothing to dampen the expectations for the next year. This group delivered.
Elkhorn lost only two games in 1996-97, to Wilmot and Jefferson, each traditional Southern Lakes Conference powers. The Lady Elks made Fred Suchy Gymnasium the place to be, won the conference championship (back when it WAS the Southern Lakes, know what I mean?), then braced for the post-season.
As Todd Mishler reminds us, 1997 was before Wisconsin started seeding its playoffs; the bracket pre-determined by the WIAA (the state's high school governing body) sent Elkhorn through a murderer's row. In the Regionals, the Lady Elks had to meet Fort Atkinson (a traditional power from the rugged Badger Conference, coached by the legendary Pete von Allmen, which prided itself on being a blueblood), and Jefferson, again (coached by the legendary Steve Rogers).
Wins over the Blackhawks and Eagles qualified Elkhorn for Sectionals, and ... truth be told, if Leah Hefte wasn't injured early, maybe the semifinal wouldn't turn out the way it did. But the Elks grinded out an electric overtime win in a sauna-hot gym in Edgerton, getting them within a game of State.
There was one more hurdle, and it was substantial -- having to play Sauk Prairie (another Badger Conference power) on its home floor, as the pre-determined WIAA brackets struck again.
Elkhorn fans traveled well, but it was, of course, a largely pro-Sauk Prairie crowd that turned out for another game that went down to the wire. But ... and maybe this is purely hindsight, I don't remember feeling the Elks were ever in danger, even when starting small forward Brook Van Dyke got in foul trouble (for the second straight game).
From there it was on to State, and Madison, and history. Elkhorn dispatched Whitefish Bay (a Milwaukee-area power) in the semifinals; all five starters scored in double figures, with Van Dyke and center Bridget Seegers posting double-doubles. That set up the upset of defending champion Kimberly (which had won 51 of its last 52 games) in the championship game. The Field House never looked so good in purple.
Note: The box score of the Kimberly mistakenly attributes Van Dyke's stat line to Dawn Greving. It's worth pointing out because, well, it's the right thing to do, and Van Dyke's perfect day from 3-point range. I think she made (memory fails me) maybe five or six three's in the prior 25 games combined, and each of her long shots against Kimberly came at just the right time. She was clutch.
So many things made Elkhorn's "Cinderella" run so memorable. It was the inaugural State title, of course, and the first rocket ride to the top is always the most exciting. The entire community came together behind the girls -- there's nothing like a small town supporting its team. Jim Henriott and his coaching staff and Dean Wilson and his athletic department staff were beyond amazing to work with. And, of course, there the girls themselves.
Henriott was right about their "businesslike fashion" and how well they bought into and played their roles. But it seemed like they knew, at the time, that they were part of something special, and they were truly enjoying it. They were in the moment, they rose to it, and they were more than happy to take the small-market radio station that covered them along for the ride.
It'll take a bit of searching, but I may have a cassette tape of the State championship game stored away somewhere. If I unearth it I'll do my best to get the audio into a digital format and post it here.
In the week after the win over Kimberly, a kind soul in Elkhorn High School's AV department dubbed the audio of the radio call over the video of the statewide television broadcast and put it on a VHS cassette. I never found out who did it, but I'm eternally grateful. I still have that tape. Maybe someday I'll upload it to YouTube.
The team also gave me a framed, 3' x 4' autographed picture, taken when they hoisted Henriott on their shoulders after clinching the conference. I still have that, too.
So, thanks again to Brooke and Bridget, and Heather and Erin and Katie, and Kelly and Christie and Liz and Stefanie and Melissa and Dawn and Michelle, and all the ladies. The championship, and the memories, would have been impossible without all of you. Go Elks!