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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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The Breakfast Of Champions (Part I)

Teller-Rabbi-Hanoch

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Dear Readers:

You may remember how we once did an experiment with a story (about a monster fire in Arizona) without Jewish protagonists, but containing a universal lesson that I believed worthy to record for the readers of Chodesh Tov. We are there yet again, this time directly north in Wisconsin.

Please bear with me as we once again record a story we investigated in the hope that the lesson is unique and worthy of our attention. It is going to take us five full columns to complete the tale, and I thank you in advance for your patience.

The road to “State” – a term without even a preambulary article to describe high school basketball competition to crown the top team within federal borders – is a journey incomparable to other major sporting competitions. There is no commercialism or promotions, media appearances or million-dollar contracts in the wings.

Even the feted college sports competitions, which should be free of the mercenary pitfalls of professional sports, are tainted by players who know very well that they are but a contract away from making millions of dollars in sport franchises.

Making State is an achievement in many respects more glorious, and absolutely more humble, than the Final Four or an NFL conference championship. Premier college basketball and football teams appear before sold-out crowds and national television. The players are featured on tabloid sports pages, in sporting magazines and on countless websites.

High-school teams perform before sparse audiences in scrappy gymnasiums and their accomplishments rarely merit more than half a column in a local newspaper (sans portraits). All of this changes if you make it to State, where you will compete in a major stadium that can seat five digits.

Monona Grove High School (city population 6,200) was the least of likely candidates to make it to Wisconsin State in 1998. The year before their record was a dismal 6-15 (and all six wins were lucky affairs). The school’s beloved, veteran coach – a man who looks sort of like the retired version of the Marlboro Man, sans mustache – stepped down, and his large shoes were replaced by a 25-year-old rookie.

But before John Verhelst’s retirement, Monona Grove – an isolated community in a large metropolitan area – had an impressive varsity. But the coach’s departure saw the basketball team slip into a slump that it did not seem it would ever withdraw from.

The first year under Coach Dan Zweifel’s stewardship, Monona Grove’s opponents dominated virtually every aspect of the match-ups. Often they had a 12-point lead early, a 20-point lead late and very few moments of concern in between. The pattern repeated itself in far too many games.

The school board realized that they had been a tad too hasty in hiring such a young fill-in for Verhelst. One more year with a poor showing would be even harder to reverse down the road. As Dan Zweifel’s employment hung in the balance, his august challenge became all that more personally compelling.

To his great benefit he had a lot to work with: pound for pound, his squad was good and unusually tall. Most of that talent was around the year before, but it was raw. Zweifel himself had grown about five years in the last twelve months and his team was beginning to pick up the slack. High-school senior Andy Witte became the coach’s right hand and imposed discipline on his teammates. The team motto became: “play every minute of the game.” This was interpreted to mean play hard every minute of the game. In summation, 32 minutes of hard play!

Andy had met Coach Zweifel at basketball camp when he was a young slip of a lad during Coach Verhelst’s one-week basketball boot camp in the summer. It was there that he fell in love with the sport and Coach V.

(To be continued)
Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!

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Overtime proved to be as tense and white-knuckled as the fourth quarter. Halfway through, New London grabbed a defensive rebound and charging toward their basket when Monona’s forward poked away the ball and broke away. In a slick maneuver he managed to split the defense and went up virtually slamming it to give Monona Grove the lead.

Monona Grove was headed to “State” and the Silver Eagle fans went insane. The coming games would not be played in monotonous high school gyms erected in the 1950s. They were off to the University of Wisconsin’s colossal Kohl Center where they would play before a crowd of 12,000. The games would be broadcast to a statewide television audience of millions, as a battery of newspapers and stations would be begging for interviews. The Kohl Center was just a short drive from Monona, technically in the same city.

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