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Prep Boys Basketball: Thorp coach Sonnentag steps down after 21 seasons leading program
Prep Boys Basketball | Thorp Cardinals

Prep Boys Basketball: Thorp coach Sonnentag steps down after 21 seasons leading program

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Thorp Boys Basketball Welcome Home 3-16-14

Thorp coach Rich Sonnentag walks into the Thorp gymnasium with the WIAA Division 5 state championship trophy at a prep rally in March 2014 in Thorp.

Thorp boys basketball coach Rich Sonnentag has stepped down from his position leading the program after 21 seasons.

The Cardinals finished 19-6 overall this year, second place to Altoona in the Western Cloverbelt Conference standings.

Thorp won a Division 5 regional championship before falling to McDonell 47-35 in the sectional semifinal round.

“I ran my leg of this race and I ran it to the best of my ability,” Sonnentag said. “I had a lot of fun doing it and it’s probably best if somebody else takes the baton and runs right now.”

Sonnentag had a 258-230 record including a Division 5 state championship in his 21 seasons leading the program after taking over for Roger Moe beginning in the 1999-2000 season. Thorp won its first boys basketball state championship in 2014 after an 18-9 season. The Cardinals won their last 11 games of a season that culminated with the team’s first trip to state since 1982 and a 49-42 victory over Green Bay NEW Lutheran in the Division 5 state championship game. Sonnentag was also named the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year following the season.

“We had eight years where I felt we started to build momentum in the middle 2000s, 2006 or 07 we started to build momentum and basketball became more of a big thing to play here,” Sonnentag said. “We had eight straight seasons where we were at .500 or we had a winning record and it culminated in that state championship.

“There were a lot of young men in those years who attributed to us winning a state title because they started to make basketball a very important thing to play year round.”

The Cardinals won at least 11 games in 12 of Sonnentag’s last 14 seasons leading the program. Thorp won its first regional championship under Sonnentag in 2008. The team finished with a 20-7 mark during the program’s second trip to sectionals under Sonnentag in 2010 where the Cardinals fell in the Division 3 sectional finals to eventual state runner-up Eau Claire Regis.

Thorp dealt previously unbeaten Colby a 63-55 defeat in the Division 3 regional semifinal round of the 2009 playoffs, another memory Sonnentag noted, citing it as a key moment in his tenure for it helping to spark the eventual state championship squad five years later.

“When we defeated Colby in that game, after the game was over and the boys were celebrating on the floor there were two young men, two small boys jumping around on the floor with them,” Sonnentag said. “Those two boys were Eric Lewandowski and Albi Maksuti and that’s the kind of momentum you build in programs where kids are so touched by success and excitement they go dribble the ball and they want to be great.

“Those boys won a state title. That game in Colby helped fuel them more down the road and those are the things you look back on and you’re really proud of when you coach.”

During his time leading the program, Sonnentag’s teams were known for their strengths in fundamentals and defense. Sonnentag started coaching seventh grade basketball prior to joining Moe’s staff as an assistant coach where he spent five years before becoming head coach and overall spent 28 years in the district as a coach at some level.

“This is a tough job, coaching,” Sonnentag said. “It’s tough and if I have a listening audience people have to remember it’s not an easy job to pull people together. It’s like teaching. Teaching and coaching are difficult jobs. To pull kids together, unite kids and — like teaching — you’ve got to accomplish something. Otherwise people don’t think that you are successful. So it’s easy to just do it and not be successful. To try and be successful and make tough decisions, it’s not easy because you have to make tough decisions sometimes.

“There’s some people that weren’t happy with me in my 21 years, I didn’t have the market cornered on that. But I hope they understood my intentions were the best.”

Sonnentag, Tetzner and Moe are the only three coaches to lead the Thorp program since the 1950s with Tetzner coaching the team until Moe took over in 1988-89.

“I think consistency in your school is important,” Sonnentag said. “I think hanging onto your teachers and your administrators — you look at really quality schools, they’ve got consistency — and that’s part of success because you can build each year.”

Sonnentag is a Thorp alum, playing for WBCA Hall of Fame coach Jack Tetzner as a part of the Cardinals’ 1982 Class C runner-up team that fell to Kohler 61-56 in the title game. Thorp defeated Eleva-Strum 65-47 in the semifinals to advance to the title game.

The victories and championships will never be forgotten, but for Sonnentag it was also about the relationships he’s formed and sharing the court with a number of great coaches from Dave MacArthur and Mark Wagner during his earlier days to Western Cloverbelt battles in the later years against Bill Uelmen’s Regis Ramblers, Rick Storlie’s Fall Creek Crickets and Archie Sherbinow’s McDonell Macks and Colfax’s Andy Meade in nonconference and tournament action.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people through coaching that if I had not coach I would not have met and those are my life-long memories of the gentlemen I’ve got to compete against, that I built relationships with that I can talk to yet to this day,” Sonnentag said.

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