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Preps Alcove

Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.

Stories I loved to tell in 2012

As we plunge into 2013 (take that, Mayans), it gives me a chance to look back at the stories that I had the most fun writing in 2012. A look at my favorites:
"Hardcourt heroes: Chargers girls win first-ever Greater Metro Conference title," March 7, Sussex Sun. When I was in college, I served as radio play-by-play man for the Valparaiso University women's volleyball team, and one of the things that made that experience so fantastic was watching that team evolve from a middle-of-the-pack unit during my sophomore year to a first-time NCAA Tournament qualifier as a senior. There was something so fascinating about being on the ground level.
Watching the Hamilton girls basketball team get better and better every year has been a treat, to see the evolution into a team that could win its first conference title. The win was perhaps the most competitive game I saw last year, complete with overtime, an energetic crowd and a great individual matchup between Hamilton's Mackenzie Latt and Divine Savior Holy Angels freshman Arike Ogunbowale. The winner would get the title, the loser would finish one game back. It was a moment that meant so much to those in attendance.
"Course Corrections," March 22, Lake Country Reporter. I used to cover Whitnall High School several years ago, and there was a story there that I counted it as perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in my journalism career. The Falcons had a cross-country runner named Matt Kruger, who happened to be autistic, and he was a key part of their operation until he contracted Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Not only did he beat cancer, he came back much sooner than anticipated, taking last place in his first race back and ultimately getting back to state before his career was over.
It was a triumph, but I never was able to get the pieces together to make a bigger feature out of it. His former coach at the time, Richard Dodd, used to call me and talk at length about his team, but he wasn't still in charge when Kruger went back to state. There wasn't enough space during the fall season and I wanted to talk to Kruger in person, not over the phone, and those timing issues led me to push the story to the back burner. When Dodd called me out of the blue in the early part of 2012, I was stunned. 
He gave me an update on Matt's story -- now a recreational runner with several race victories under his belt in the Lake Country area and beyond. Not only that, but Dodd gave me some candid background details about his own life as well, how he overcame alcoholism and depression to run again. His relationship with Kruger was a big part of the healing process. The story had been touched upon by a writer in Madison, where Dodd was living, but he hadn't tied in Kruger. It was an irresistible opportunity, and I began working on a broader feature that I consider my best work last year.
"Mukwonago Moments," June 27-July 25, Mukwonago Chief. This was such a fun project. I went to work trying to work together a list of the five greatest moments in Mukwonago sports history, consulting back issues and asking advice. When I had my top five, I went to work contacting former athletes, and the great thing about something like this is the willingness people have to share their recollections and experiences. It was also educational for me, since I wasn't there to witness most of these events first-hand.
I couldn't resist expanding beyond my intended scope of five moments, so I added sidebar anecdotes from other major moments, those "just outside" the top five. One such anecdote was about an insanely long baseball game from the late 60s, and I consulted with Marty Perkins about his experiences during that contest. Perkins, sadly, passed away later in the year, and I'm so glad I was able to talk to him and relay his recollections one last time.
I also greatly enjoyed my conversation with former state champion wrestler Billy Schlottke, who has made lemonade out of lemons since getting hit by a car during his days at Marquette University. There were so many great stories and attributes to the series, and I hope the people of Mukwonago enjoyed re-living some of the past.
Current Mukwonago athletics have provided some great moments as well this year, including some incredible games for the boys basketball team -- a couple losses may have been the best of all. 

"Inside the 4x400 controversy at the state meet," June 5, Preps Alcove. My father in law likes to give me a hard time when it comes to track and field. He's a Hall of Fame track coach in Michigan, and he knows it's not my forte. He still ribs me for an article I wrote several years ago when I referred to the "turns" on a track, as if using auto racing jargon (for the record, I thought it was a good explanation, but whatever).
So when this cropped up, I turned to him for help, because I didn't want to screw it up. The Arrowhead boys track and field team appeared to be robbed of a gold medal in the 4x400 when interference was ruled involving runners behind the front few, requiring a restart in the final event of the Division 1 state meet. There are many perspectives on the outcome, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on video. I asked a couple resources, including my father-in-law, for their opinion, cited the rule book and even got a dissenting point of view from one of the runners on the Marquette team (a team involved in the interference). It was a heartbreaking ending for the Arrowhead runners, but it was a very interesting topic to address.
"Emptying the bench," May 31, Lake Country Reporter. I have to admit what I like about this story is how prescient it wound up looking after Lake Country Lutheran girls soccer team -- a team that barely had enough players to fill a roster -- surged to the first state title of any kind in school history. The story about their struggles to field a team was a no-brainer topic, and it's amazing to me that the Lightning actually pulled it off, first getting to the state tourney and then winning it in dramatic fashion.

I also wrote a follow-up column to summarize the occasion, but I don't think anything I wrote can do the story justice. I hope this team doesn't get lumped it with other private schools when considering the merits of their championship -- this was truly a Hollywood underdog story played out in real life.

"Young offensive lineman part of sparkling unit," Nov. 20, Lake Country Reporter. I have two Packers jerseys in my wardrobe -- offensive lineman Josh Sitton (custom made) and defensive lineman B.J. Raji. I love supporting the big fellas, and if there's a chance to glorify the work of an offensive lineman, sign me up.

Arrowhead had the best football team in the state this season, evidenced by its rampage to the Division 1 state championship and its dominant tournament victories. They had skill at every position, which is why most people didn't even notice that a freshman -- a FRESHMAN -- was playing the physically demanding and all-important left tackle position. Someone first brought Ben Bredeson to my attention in the second week of the season, and I looked to the line and refused to believe that the kid I was looking at was only in ninth grade.

It's exciting to think in a state known for its offensive lineman on a team that has produced its share, the Warhawks could have something very special brewing on the line. Of course, their team could be special for the next several years as a whole.

Pictured: (Top) Matt Kruger points to the sky after winning a race in the RACC Series, (middle) Arrowhead's Ryan Adamski reflects after a bizarre finish to the state track and field meet, (bottom) Jamie Schnuck (left) and Gabrielle Simons celebrate after a goal at the state tournament for Lake Country Lutheran.

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