MONROE — The commons area at Monroe High School is much more than a cafeteria and a place to congregate.
It is known as the “M Room,” where oversized team photos and plaques of Monroe’s championship teams grace the walls and trophies and gold balls fill the glass cases.
Each day, when Monroe junior Sydney Mathiason enjoys her lunch or enters the gymnasium, she can stop and take a peek at the large photo of the Cheesemakers’ 1989 girls basketball team, which won the WIAA Class A state championship over Madison East.
In the middle of the back row stands the Cheesemakers’ tallest player, No. 44, senior Ellen Sathoff.
Sydney Mathiason — No. 44 for the current Monroe girls basketball team — knows her simply as Mom.
Nearby, two additional large team photos recognize Monroe’s 2006 and 2008 WIAA Division 2 state title teams, which, like that 1989 team, also were coached by Kevin Keen.
Sam Mathiason — Sydney’s father — was an assistant on Keen’s staff for those two championships. That was during a span when the Cheesemakers made state appearances four times in five years — with the last trip in 2010 vivid in then-fourth-grader Sydney’s memory.
“When I was young, I watched him coach at multiple state tournaments,” 17-year-old Sydney Mathiason said about her father. “My mom and I have talked about her experience a little bit. She talked about how much fun she had and the good memories she had.”
Now, Sydney Mathiason, a 6-foot forward, and her nine teammates, plus Monroe head coach Sam Mathiason and his staff, get to create their own state memories.
“We talk about, ‘You have this opportunity. You have to take advantage of these opportunities because you never know when they will happen again,’ ” Sam Mathiason said. “That is why I am so happy this group is able to participate in the state tournament week.”
The Cheesemakers (21-3), after defeating Stoughton in a WIAA Division 2 sectional semifinal and Milton in Saturday’s sectional final, will make their ninth state appearance and first since 2010. They will face top-ranked Beaver Dam (26-0) at 3:15 p.m. Friday at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
“You have to be impressed,” Beaver Dam coach Tim Chase said. “To knock off Stoughton tells you how good Monroe is.”
The Cheesemakers, ranked sixth in Division 2 in the WisSports.net state poll and eighth in The Associated Press poll, dropped a 70-49 decision to Beaver Dam in December. But Sam Mathiason said his team, which shared the Badger South Conference title with Stoughton and Madison Edgewood (which is in the Division 3 semifinals), has showed consistent improvement since then.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Ellen Mathiason, who’s been married to Sam for 23 years. “I’m really happy for both of them. Sam, I’m happy for him as head coach to take a team to the state tournament. It’s unbelievable to see. He’s the same great guy if his team wins 20 games or loses 20 games at the end of the season.
“Sydney, she has seen a lot of basketball. She saw what it takes to get to the state tournament. It really wasn’t something we were thinking was going to happen. But now that it is happening, it is pretty special.”
Ellen, who grew up in Monroe, expects to see a sea of red and white in the Resch Center stands, much like she remembered when she played for the Cheesemakers.
“The community support remains strong amid the highs and the lows,” said Ellen, a pharmacist at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. “That is what makes Monroe special.”
A 6-2 center, she played on the 1988 Monroe girls team that defeated Hudson and Bay Port before falling to Hartland Arrowhead 56-32 in the Class A state title game. The next season, the undefeated Cheesemakers (27-0) defeated Milwaukee Washington and Shawano before topping Madison East 62-50 in the championship game.
“(Ellen) was a senior my first year as varsity coach,” said Keen, who was the Cheesemakers’ coach for 22 years before retiring in 2010 and being succeeded by Sam Mathiason. “That was one of those teams with a really great group of kids. They were very unselfish, much like Sam’s team this year. It didn’t matter who got the credit. And Ellen was a huge part of it. … She was a force inside, that’s for sure.”
Ellen Mathiason said the Cheesemakers, also led by Peggy Shreve (who played at the University of Wisconsin) and Jill Wittenwyler (South Dakota State), were motivated to be the first girls team to attain state championship recognition in the M Room.
“They were the first girls team to get on ‘The Wall,’ as it’s called,” Keen said. “They were pretty proud of that. That was one of their goals.”
Ellen played basketball at Mankato State (now called Minnesota State-Mankato). That’s where she met Sam Mathiason, a Minnesota native who played for the men’s team. During a visit to Mankato to watch Ellen play, Keen was introduced to Sam Mathiason — and their friendship began.
“We go way back to the early 1990s,” Keen said. “He coached against us when he was at Monona Grove, then he became my assistant. We have a lot of ties. … I’m really happy for Sam. He deserves this opportunity.”
Sam Mathiason was an assistant on Kent Evenstad’s staff when the Monona Grove girls advanced to the WIAA Division 2 state title game in 1994, dropping a 46-44 decision to Luxemburg-Casco. Mathiason took over the next season as head coach for the Silver Eagles, and coached seven years.
Mathiason, a math teacher, later became an assistant for Keen, when the Mathiason family moved from Cottage Grove to Monroe in 2004.
“I’ve always had a basketball in my hands since I was little,” said Sydney Mathiason, who averages 11.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
The current Cheesemakers are an unselfish group, who share the ball well. They are led by sophomores Sydney Hilliard (19.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 steals and 3.5 assists) and Emily Benzschawel (13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds). Also key contributors are seniors Lexi Hilliard (4.7 points), Sydney Hilliard’s sister, and Jordan Hirsbrunner (5.8 points, 3.6 rebounds), who won the Division 2 300 hurdles at state last spring and plans to compete in track and field at UW, Sam Mathiason said.
“At the beginning of the season, I knew our team would have good chemistry and we had some players who could do big things,” Sydney Mathiason said. “In the back of my mind, I thought the state tournament could be possible. And here we are.”