UW-Green Bay has built something special

A handful of Saturdays ago, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant hopped in a car with assistant coach Mike Devilbiss at 7 a.m., drove eight hours and 500 miles into the brutal cold of Detroit Lakes, Minn., stayed for a couple hours to watch a high school basketball game, then hopped back in the car and drove eight hours and 500 miles back to Green Bay.

Bleary-eyed and sore, they arrived home some time after 3 a.m. on Sunday — all in the quest to find players in the tiniest crevices of the high school basketball landscape that have been overlooked by larger college programs.

“You end up getting in the car and driving longer trips because of your budget,” Bollant says. “It’s hard for us to fly a lot of places to go recruiting. That’s just part of the deal.”

It might not be the most glamorous aspect of coaching at a mid-major program, but Green Bay has thrived despite its budgetary limitations, scavenging for players with a hunger to succeed in a team system that other colleges have failed to notice.

Take, for example, Julie Wojta, Green Bay’s leader this season in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. The 6-foot senior didn’t receive any other Division I scholarship offers after coming from a town (Francis Creek, Wis.) so small that it didn’t even have its own high school.

“I think Green Bay does a really good job of going out and recruiting pieces,” Wojta says. “Not just seeing the best player on the team and thinking that they just get 10 superstars that are going to fit together and be able to play well together. Almost all our team can shoot and pass and do a lot of things.”

Green Bay was one of two unbeaten teams in Division I women’s basketball until the Phoenix suffered a stunning 70-58 home loss against Detroit on Thursday night. The Phoenix (20-1) entered the week ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, the highest ranking in program history. Until Thursday, Green Bay had gone nearly two years between regular-season losses, winning 40 consecutive games during that span.

Thursday’s loss certainly represents a blow to a Green Bay team that has received national media attention in recent weeks, including an article in the New York Times. But it won’t stop players and coaches from focusing on their ultimate goal: winning in the NCAA Tournament.

That is where Bollant says Green Bay has its best opportunity to garner respect on a national level. Last season, the Phoenix advanced to their first-ever Sweet 16 before losing to Baylor, 86-76. It was a game in which Bears superstar Brittney Griner scored 40 points and added 10 rebounds, but it also proved to Green Bay players that they weren’t far off from competing with the nation’s best women’s basketball teams.

“To play against that team and only lose by 10, and then beating the other two teams to get to that point, it just gave us confidence and let us know that we can stick with any team in this country,” Wojta says. “We’re just hungry to get back to that point and see what we can do this year.”

A pleasant surprise

Nobody knew for certain how the magic from last year’s 34-2 season would carry over at Green Bay. The Phoenix actually lost their two best players in Kayla Tetschlag and Celeste Hoewisch, who were named co-players of the year in the Horizon League. Both signed contracts to play professionally in Europe.

“This year, just being a younger team, I don’t think the expectations were quite as high,” says Bollant, the fifth-year coach.

But that was before Green Bay rolled over the likes of Illinois and Georgia Tech to win the San Juan Shootout in November. That was before Green Bay squeezed past in-state foes Marquette and Wisconsin in December. And that was before Green Bay buried every league team it faced in January.

It turned out the things that made Green Bay successful with great players last season were the same reasons the Phoenix dominated this season: fundamentals, team play and outworking opponents.

Green Bay ranks in the top 10 nationally in average scoring margin, assists per game, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, steals per game and turnover margin.

“They step on the court believing we should win every game,” Bollant says. “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Baylor or Michigan State. They believe that we should win.

“One of the things we say is, ‘Hey you’ve done the work.’ We just feel like we practice so hard and they work so hard in the spring and summer that they’ve done the work. They deserve to win.”

Four different players — Wojta, Adrian Ritchie, Lydia Bauer and Sarah Eichler — average in double figures scoring for Green Bay. And there is perhaps no player more underrated nationally than Wojta, who is averaging 18.6 points and 9.5 rebounds.

“I think she’s as complete a player as there is in college basketball,” Bollant says. “She just does it all. She can score inside and out, handle the ball and pass. I’m not sure there’s a better player in the country as far as anticipating passes.”

With Wojta leading the way, Green Bay is in line to win at least a share of the Horizon League regular-season crown for the 14th consecutive season. The Phoenix have won every year since 1998-99, when many of this year’s players were in elementary school and the league was known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.

Despite Thursday’s loss, Green Bay is still 10-1 in the Horizon League — two full games ahead of both Wright State and Detroit.

A passionate fan base

Success breeds fan support, and Green Bay’s women’s basketball program has experienced plenty of both in recent seasons.

The Kress Events Center, a $33 million state-of-the-art facility that seats 4,018 people, opened on Green Bay’s campus in November 2007, and Phoenix backers have appeared in droves for women’s basketball games. The old gym, the Phoenix Sports Center, seated just 1,200 people, and tickets were even tougher to nab back then.

During Green Bay’s game against UW-Milwaukee last Saturday — an 85-39 thrashing — not a single seat at the Kress Center went unfilled. It marked the second sellout in two seasons for the Phoenix. In the previous home game, on Jan. 21 against Cleveland State, 3,474 fans showed up to watch Green Bay break the record for best start in school history at 17-0.

In 11 home games this season, the average attendance is 2,483. And players are often treated like royalty around town.

“We’ll get people that come up to us in grocery stores,” Wojta says. “Just around the community it’s sort of neat because you don’t really realize how many people you might be reaching or who comes to these games. People talk about that excitement and that they love watching us play.”

Bollant says Green Bay folks certainly love a winner, and with the NFL season over and Packers games at Lambeau Field now months away, the Phoenix have taken center stage. And Green Bay fans will ride the bandwagon as long as they can.

“When the Packers are done, they kind of turn to the Phoenix,” Bollant says. “We definitely see an increase in our attendance once Packers season is done. We draw well all the time, but we draw even better after that.”

While Green Bay still has a long way to go to be considered a titan in women’s college basketball, players recognize they have an opportunity this season to cozy up alongside or surpass any team in the nation, be it Baylor, Tennessee or Connecticut.

All that stands in the Phoenix’s way is a six-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament. And if Green Bay competes the way its players believe it can, with a team-first mentality and a chip on its shoulder, anything is possible.

“We’re not always going to be the most athletic or the tallest,” Wojta says. “But we don’t get caught up in the big-name schools. We just want to outwork those teams and show that in can be done different ways.”

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