MONROE — The familiarity that accompanies a return to the Resch Center has filled the Monroe girls basketball team with comfort and good vibrations this week.
“I think it will help a ton, with the atmosphere, the crowd and all the people there,” Cheesemakers junior guard Emily Benzschawel said. “Being there the year before will really help.”
Second-seeded Monroe (24-2) also will have familiarity playing a team it defeated earlier in the season when the Cheesemakers meet third-seeded New Berlin Eisenhower (23-3) in a WIAA Division 2 state semifinal game at 3:15 p.m. Friday at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
The 5-foot-8 Benzschawel — whose 6-foot freshman sister Megan Benzschawel also is on this year’s team — knows the repeat trip means a lot to the Cheesemakers and their followers, who are extremely familiar with the Benzschawel name in athletics.
“We are really blessed to have this opportunity,” said Emily Benzschawel, the team’s assist leader (2.9 per game) and second-leading scorer, averaging 14.8 points per game. “Not a lot of people make it to state even once, so it is great to go back-to-back. We are confident, but we still need to go in level-headed and expect anything (Eisenhower) will bring toward us.”
The Cheesemakers, ranked fourth in Division 2 in the final Associated Press poll, lost to eventual champion Beaver Dam in last year’s semifinals. Monroe senior forward Sydney Mathiason, the team’s leader in rebounds (8.1 boards per game) and blocked shots (2.7), believed nervousness hampered the Cheesemakers.
“Experience is very helpful in pretty much all aspects of life,” said the 6-1 Mathiason, second on the team in assists.
“But on the basketball court just being in the arena (previously) and with all the noise will help with some of our nerves this year, and, hopefully, they are not as high and we are able to focus more toward the actual basketball game.”
Junior guard Sydney Hilliard, the team’s leading scorer (22.2 points per game), said the Badger South Conference champion Cheesemakers have picked up their defensive play in postseason.
“We’ll be ready for the bright lights and the big crowd,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard, Emily Benzschawel and Mathiason are team leaders. Backcourt players Hilliard and Benzschawel first began playing basketball together in fourth grade and have grown to become fast friends since the two were freshmen on varsity.
“We have played since we were in fourth grade, so we have developed this chemistry that we can read what the other is thinking during the game,” Emily Benzschawel said.
Hilliard, a highly recruited point guard who has UW and Marquette among her suitors, has expanded her shooting range, connecting on a team-best 61.6 percent of all her field goals, including 66.8 percent on two-point shots and 36.7 percent from 3-point range.
The left-handed Benzschawel is second on the team in 3-pointers made with 33, behind sophomore forward Grace Tostrud (38), and converts a team-high 91 percent of her free throws.
“(Benzschawel) just has that scoring knack,” said Monroe coach Sam Mathiason, father of Sydney Mathiason and 5-10 sophomore guard Grace Mathiason. “She finds ways to score in a variety of ways, whether it’s off the drive, whether it’s off the mid-range (shot), getting a steal, or shooting 3-pointers.”
Benzschawel is excited to make the state trip this season with her sister, who’s contributed 5.2 points and 6.6 rebounds in her first season on varsity.
“Just the fact that we got here again this year is overwhelming, but it’s exciting to see what we can do this weekend,” Megan Benzschawel said. “(The older players) told me to go in and relax and do our thing, and everything will be fine.”
A year ago, she watched the state semifinal from the stands with her parents, Eric and Michelle.
“Being able to go to state is just a cool experience,” said Megan Benzschawel, who tore her ACL as an eighth-grader.
Sam Mathiason said: “Megan has continued to evolve — with that confidence and that comfort. The last five or six games, she’s been finding more rebounds and being more aggressive to find those rebounds.”
At times during their middle-school years, Megan Benzschawel would play up on a summer team that included her sister and Hilliard and was coached by Eric Benzschawel, a former Monroe and UW football player. He played on the Monroe football team that won the 1986 WIAA Division 2 state title over New Berlin Eisenhower.
Eric’s older brother Scott also played football for Monroe and UW; Scott’s sons Beau and Luke, who competed at Grafton, play football for the Badgers and his daughter Abbey played against Monroe in the 2009 girls basketball state semifinals.
It’s just part of numerous family connections in Monroe athletics, said Sam Mathiason, whose wife, Ellen (Sathoff) Mathiason, played on Monroe’s 1989 girls basketball state championship team and played with Grace Tostrud’s mother, Maureen (Deignan) Tostrud, on the 1988 state runner-up.
Fifth-grader Aaron Benzschawel, brother of Emily and Megan, and Sam Mathiason’s son, Ryan, serve as waterboys/managers for the girls team, which likely will again have a sea of red at the Resch Center.
“At the sectional games, when you looked in the crowd, it’s like, `Wow, I think our whole town is here,’ ” said Hilliard, whose father, Greg, played baseball at UW.
“You feel fortunate to do it once; if you get to do it back-to-back, you know it doesn’t happen very often like that,” Sam Mathiason said. “We have talked about taking advantage of the opportunity and making the most of this moment.”