Lutheran school third in nation in hoops

Whole congregation, school back seventh- and eighth-grade girls

April 13, 2010

There's nothing like good local competition to prepare a team for the big time.

Just ask the players and coaches on Menomonee Falls' Grace Evangelical Lutheran School girls seventh and eighth grade basketball team about that.

After finishing third in the tough Milwaukee Lutheran Elementary School Athletic Association winter league, they went on to not only claim the title in the Wisconsin State Lutheran Basketball Tournament, but also to make the long hike to Valparaiso University in Indiana and come away with a strong third place finish in the national tournament, March 26-28.

"There has just been a ton of excitement at the school since this happened," said school athletic director and assistant coach Melissa Flynn. "I can't explain how it has brought the school and the church together. People were watching us live on the Internet."

For good reason, as it is believed by Flynn and head coach Dan Otzelberger that this is the best finish by any team in any sport in school history.

And that is saying something. Grace Lutheran Church and School has been a long-time fixture in the Falls with a diverse student population largely made of Falls and Germantown residents.

Small but athletic school

It is home to 240 kindergarten through eighth-grade students and it has a vigorous athletic program for its fifth- through eighth-graders.

Flynn estimates that about 95 percent of the fifth- through eighth-graders go out for at least one of the sports offered, including flag football, basketball, cheerleading, volleyball, cross country and track.

Sports are offered on a per grade basis though as in the instance of the girls basketball team, when not enough players come out in a given grade, the team is made up of combined grades. A one-time student participation fee covers the basic costs of the programs offered.

The hoops team finished just 6-4 in area league play, losing decisions to squads from Hartland and Wauwatosa, but it was an impressive 13-2 in nonconference play including titles in tournaments played in Cedarburg and West Bend.

It benefitted from having some height (six players 5-7 or better) and good leadership from the three eighth-graders on the team Erin Otzelberger (Dan's daughter), Kami Dorn and Jordan Cloyd.

Tough defense key

"Our real strength was our defense," said coach Otzelberger. "We played a hard man defense and a 1-3-1 press all season and in girls basketball on this level, you don't often see that. You see a lot of zone, but our kids were athletic enough and quick enough to make it work."

All that easily qualified the team for the state tournament despite the so-so league record. They outlasted teams from Kenosha and Green Bay in preliminary games before they got a bit of vengeance on their league pals, defeating Divine Redeemer of Hartland in the semifinals in double overtime and Our Redeemer of Tosa in overtime in the finals to win the state title.

"The kids were absolutely thrilled with that," Otzelberger said.

But they weren't done. The win automatically qualified them for the 64th annual national tournament, and in true parochial school fashion, the long trip to Indiana was fashioned in the form of a caravan of family cars.

No scouting works well

In one way, the Grace girls thought they had an advantage heading to nationals.

"There's no way anyone can scout or prepare for the competition here," he said. "That's bad in one way for us, but it's also good in another, as they didn't know us, so they didn't know what we were going to do either."

The result were a pair of first round wins over teams from Minnesota and Texas before the locals stunned 30-0 St. Michael's from Florida, 32-30, in the quarterfinals. It was only the semifinals that Grace stumbled, falling to eventual champion St. Paul's from California, 47-41.

Still, Grace bounced back to rout Holy Cross (Illinois) by a 45-22 count to claim the third-place trophy. Point guard Taylor Higginbotham of Germantown earned all-tourney honors.

Otzelberger was impressed.

"It's a long season, and the kids really played hard all the way through," he said. "They played their best ball in March, which is what you want, and they really played with a true Christian spirit.

"… We've gotten a lot of attention for this, but the kids worked hard to get it."

'Grace' under fire

Grace Evangelical Lutheran School's seventh- and eighth-grade girls basketball earn third in national tourney

Final record: 27-7

Coaching staff: Dan Otzelberger, Melissa Flynn and Austin Sveom

Church pastors: Warren Granke and Rob Goodwin

Team sponsors: Cousin's Subs, Total Lawn Care and CG Schmidt Construction

Roster and hometowns: Erin and Elyse Otzelberger (Menomonee Falls), Jordan Cloyd (Milwaukee), Kami Dorn (Germantown), Taylor Higginbotham (GT), Katie Gullicksen (GT), Nicolle Wein (GT), Kendyl Braun (Sussex), Madeline Collazo (Milwaukee), Gabrielle Norton (GT) and Lauren Arndt (Falls).

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