As Yogi Berra would say, it’s deja vu all over again.
Exactly 364 days ago, the Central and Elkhorn boys basketball teams met in a WIAA Division-2 sectional semifinal at Burlington.
On tap for tonight?
Central against Elkhorn in a WIAA Division-2 sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. at Burlington.
“It’s a little bit of deja vu,” Central coach James Hyllberg said Wednesday. “It’s funny how time flies, and it seems like just yesterday we were playing those guys, same round, same place. It’s going to be fun.”
Last year’s game sure was, as the Elks took the Falcons to the brink and nearly ended their run to the state tournament. In a physical grinder, Central trailed by double digits in the second half before rallying for a 46-41 win.
The winner of tonight’s rematch between top-seeded Central (23-1) and third-seeded Elkhorn (21-3) advances to Saturday’s sectional final against either top-seeded Mount Horeb or second-seeded DeForest. The sectional final is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Elkhorn.
Central coasts into sectionals
The Falcons barely broke a sweat in regionals, winning their two games by an average of 34 points. The Elks got by sixth-seeded Burlington, 62-51, at home in the regional semifinals before going on the road to knock off second-seeded East Troy — ranked No. 7 in Division-2 in the final WisSports.net state coaches poll — 56-50 in the regional finals.
Central, which went 14-0 to claim an unbeaten Southern Lakes Conference title, handed Elkhorn two of its three losses this season, 54-44 at Elkhorn on Dec. 7 and 66-52 in Paddock Lake on Feb. 16. Central senior guard Jaeden Zackery scored 18 and 25 points, respectively, in the two games.
In the second game, however, Elkhorn trailed by just one at halftime before Central pulled away. And Hyllberg has a lot of respect for the job done by Elkhorn coach Josh Skatrud, who played under Luke Reigel at UW-Parkside.
“There’s some pros and cons with playing a team in your conference and playing a team three times,” Hyllberg said. “But we also know at this point in the year, you’re going to play a good team no matter who you play.
“We respect Elkhorn, and I honestly respect the way Elkhorn plays. They play hard, they play physical, and I think every coach respects that style of play.”
Central, meanwhile, has been like a runaway train lately.
The Falcons, ranked No. 5 in Division-2, have won 17 straight games. Their only defeat this season came by a single point, 54-53, to Indian Trail on Dec. 27 at the Doctors of PT Holiday Classic at Carthage.
“I love the way our guys play,” Hyllberg said. “They play fearless, they play hard on every possession. They all play together, and they all play to win. I think any coach would love this group of guys. You have a group of boys that all buy into what we’re trying to teach.”
Roster full of postseason experience
The Falcons are also as battle-tested as any team in the state, having reached sectionals three years in a row.
They start five seniors in Zackery, guards Adam Simmons and Jake Mueller and forwards Dylan Anderson and Joey Michelau. Eleven of Central’s 13 players overall are seniors — the exceptions being freshman guard Jack Rose and freshman wing Bradley Bell — and even the seniors who see sparse minutes in games are refined in practice.
“We don’t have any behavioral problems,” Hyllberg said. “There’s no nonsense in practice.”
Zackery nears scoring record
Zackery leads the Falcons with 22 points per game and is 25 shy of tying 1989 graduate Tim Cates atop the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,265 points.
Anderson averages 12.2 points per game for Central’s balanced attack, followed by Simmons (9.0), Michelau (8.4) and Rose (7.3).
Elkhorn has four players averaging in double figures in senior guard Luke Umnus (12.6), junior forward Nick Brown (11.2), senior guard Vince Umnus (10.9) and senior guard Chance Larson (10.7).
If the Falcons beat the Elks for a third time this season tonight, they’ll move within a game of advancing to state for the second straight year. The program had never even reached a sectional final until the 2016-17 season.
Formula proves successful
In just his fourth year, Hyllberg has ushered a meteoric rise with a rather simple three-pronged goal for each game: win the defensive glass, win the turnover battle and make your free throws.
It’s a formula that’s racked up a lot of wins for the Falcons over the last four seasons. Having talented players, as Hyllberg was quick to add, helps, too.
“I don’t think we ever came to a point where (we said), ‘Let’s go to state, let’s do this,’” Hyllberg said when asked if he ever imagined the program would reach this point so quickly when he took over.
“I think every day we show up and make day-to-day goals. … If your goal is to get better and you work hard — I think it’s a good testament to my guys and all high school players — if you come to work hard and leave the nonsense out of the gym, good things happen.”