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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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State Trip For Oconto Falls

Sparked by the play of senior guard McKenna Larsen along with a stingy defensive effort, the Oconto Falls Panthers were rewarded with their first-ever trip to the WIAA state basketball tournament. The 22-3 Panthers used a 14-14 free throw performance to eliminate Fox Valley Lutheran 43-36 in the semifinals at Pulaski Thursday then posted a 30-28 grind-it-out win over Two Rivers in the Division 3 finals at Ashwaubenon Saturday night.

Oconto Falls will now go up against Kettle Moraine Lutheran (25-1) in the state semifinals Friday morning at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Tip-off is slated for 9:05am.

“Making it to state is a dream come true and I am happy for the kids, who put in the hard work to get there. Some of the players in the senior class have been to state in volleyball and softball, but basketball is something new,” Oconto Falls coach Mike Kaczmarek said. “We still have a lot of work to do and Kettle Moraine will be a quality opponent.”

Kaczmarek has been a varsity coach for 21 years...13 years for the Gillett girls, 4 with the Oconto Falls boys program and his 4th with the Panther girls.

All the southpaw shooting Larsen did in the two sectional clashes was total 40 points, direct the Panther defense along with providing floor leadership and defense. All of this with a torn ligament in her right thumb suffered while helping to end New London’s 52-game winning streak 55-54 on Feb. 18. The thumb will be surgically repaired right after the season.

“McKenna is a special player, a once in a lifetime for a coach. Without McKenna, we would have not reached state. McKenna can make any coach look good. On offense she is a calming influence that knows what has to be done. Defensively she is tough to get away from,” Kaczmarek explained. “Our defense has been outstanding in the tournament giving up an average of 29.5 points over games. All 4 of those wins came against conference champions with a record of 85-10. We spend a lot of time on the defensive side of the ball and it has paid off in the post-season.”

Oconto Falls Defeats

Foxes In Semifinals




With Larsen tossing in a game high 26 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, the Panthers overcame a 32-29 deficit heading into the fourth quarter to slip past Fox Valley Lutheran (23-2) Thursday 43-36. Fox Valley Lutheran, champions of the Eastern Valley Conference title for the third straight year, saw its 18-game winning streak get snapped in the semifinals.

“We were able to pull away in the fourth quarter and finished the game 14-14 on free throws. All of the throws coming from Lemke, Manns and Larsen,” Kaczmarek added.

Making their first sectional trip since 2001, the Panthers gained a 15-10 first quarter lead and were still up at halftime 27-25. The third quarter nearly cost Kaczmarek and company as Fox Valley ran off a 7-2 edge to pry open that three point cushion.

With the game and the season on the line, the Panthers came through with flying colors over the final 8 minutes 14-4. Free throws proved key as Oconto Falls was a perfect 14-14, including 8-8 in the fourth quarter.

Fox Valley did manage one final lead at 36-35 with 3:35 left before the Panthers used their defense to close out the win on an 8-0 run. Holding the Foxes to a 4-23 shooting second half shooting mark enabled the Panthers to stay in the game despite committing 21 turnovers.

Elizabeth Manns was 8-8 from the charity stripe to finish with 10 points and back up Larsen’s big outing.

Larsen Comes Through In

Crunch Time As Oconto

Falls Claims Title 30-28


Relying on Larsen and the defense again, Oconto Falls captured the sectional title with a thrilling 30-28 win over Two Rivers Saturday night. With points tough to come by for both teams, defenses took center stage and not many teams play it any better than Oconto Falls.

“Our defense came through with a remarkable performance and sometimes that takes a toll on the offensive end. McKenna struggled with her shooting in the finals as many shots fell short. I really thing McKenna used up so much energy Thursday, that she was tired Saturday. Fortunately the other girls picked up the slack a bit and we were able to win,” Kaczmarek said.

Oconto Falls fell behind 5-0 to start the game and didn’t get on the scoreboard until Elizabeth Watzka drilled a three pointer at the 1:51 mark to spark an 8-0 closing run. Elizabeth Manns followed with a 12-footer and Watzka canned her second trey for an 8-5 lead at the break.

After missing her first 4 shots, Larsen got rolling in the second quarter for 6 points to keep Oconto Falls in front 15-14. A layup by Larsen extended the Panther lead to 11-5 with 5:10 left in the half before Two Rivers got back in the game with a 7-0 surge of their own.

Alexi Walesh drilled a three point shot and Bailee Walesh scored following an offensive rebound for a 12-11 Raider lead (1:18).

Two Rivers didn’t hold the upper hand very long. Larsen made sure of that. The senior fired in a 5-footer on an out-of-bounds play (1:09) then added a pair of free throws with 49 ticks left for a 15-14 halftime spread.

In the third quarter Oconto Falls got a lift from 6’1 senior center Carly Lemke, who connected on a pair of shots for a 19-17 edge at the 4:27 mark. Two Rivers didn’t back down and got even on a rebound shot by MacKenzie Walesh.

Larsen answered as she glided through the Two River defense for a layup and added the free throw to put her mates up 22-19 at the 3:37 mark. With the clock ticking down, Larsen shook free for a jumper to put the Panthers in front 24-22 heading into the fourth quarter.

Two Rivers used a layup by Mackenzie Walesh to tie the score at 24-24 before Alexi Walesh connected on her fourth three point shot of the game to put Two Rivers up 27-24 with 3:03 remaining.

Over a heart stopping final two-plus minutes, Larsen was able to get her mates even at 27-all with a three point shot at the 2:29 mark. With the clock sitting at 1:56, Lemke canned the back end of a two shot foul to put Oconto Falls on top for good 28-27. Following a couple of missed shots, Elizabeth Manns was fouled with 65 seconds left. But the Panthers couldn’t capitalize as she missed both free throws. A jump ball ensued following the second miss with Two Rivers getting the possession with 0:43 remaining.

After watching Two Rivers work the ball around, Oconto Falls got a huge break when Larsen used her defensive prowess to force a jump ball near midcourt with 14 seconds left. Coming out of the timeout, Oconto Falls freed up Manns for a breakaway layup and a 30-27 lead (0:11).

“We used McKenna as a decoy and had her set a screen to free up Manns. We figured Two Rivers would follow McKenna, which they did while Elizabeth flew out the other way for an easy basket. The play worked to perfection,” Kaczmarek explained.

Two Rivers got the ball to halfcourt and called timeout with 7.3 seconds left. With a foul to give, Oconto Falls saw Larsen get whistled at the 4.8 mark and again with 4.0 ticks left. Alyson Wanek hit the front end of the bonus, but intentionally missed the second with Oconto Falls rebounding. Lemke was fouled on the rebound, missed the free throw before Two Rivers saw a desperation shot fall short of the basket to end the game.

“I am both excited and relieved. Excited for the girls and relieved that Oconto Falls is finally going to the state tournament in basketball. This senior class knows how to win,” Kaczmarek concluded.


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