Coach Todd Fergot isn’t quite sure where to start, publicly anyway, when discussing how his Central High School boys basketball team needs to prioritize its focuses when Onalaska travels to the Mark Sutton Memorial Gymnasium on Friday.
Coach Craig Kowal is just as coy — again, publicly — about how his Hilltoppers can succeed against the Red Raiders in a scheduled 7:15 p.m. tipoff in front what should be a packed house.
Both Central, ranked second in Division 2, and fourth-ranked Onalaska are accustomed to preparing for big games, but there is always a lot on the line when they play each other. The Red Raiders (9-1, 4-0) can be content in learning about themselves when they play nonconference games in Florida, and the Hilltoppers (10-1, 5-0) can do the same when they travel to Milwaukee for a couple of quality games in December.
But conference championships still meaning something, and a victory here puts the winner in the driver’s seat of the MVC until the teams meet again on Feb. 12 in Onalaska. The second-place Red Raiders (3-0) trail the first-place Hilltoppers (4-0) by a half-game.
“Everything gets a lot more intense (when playing Central),” Onalaska junior Carson Arenz said. “We prepare hard for every game, but this is on another level.
“This is always a tough game, and that goes all the way back to fifth grade.”
The reason that it’s tough is because neither team has a player that needs to be shut down to secure a win.
Can Arenz (a team-high 18.5 points per game) or Central’s Johnny Davis (team-high 23.3 ppg) be shut down? That isn’t a likely scenario either way, but each has enough other weapons surrounding him to overcome that, too.
The Red Raiders also have threats in Jordan Davis, Noah Parcher, 6-foot-7 Terrance Thompson and David Hayden. Davis can be a huge scorer, Parcher is a fantastic facilitator, Thompson is a rebounding machine, and Hayden will gladly take over if opponents want to try him.
Kowal first laughed when asked how to gameplan for such a lineup.
“It comes down to doing some fundamental things right,” he said. “They have elite players, but they are very balanced, so you have to little things correctly like holding blockouts, closing out correctly and helping on defense.”
Fergot is faced with the same issues when it comes to dealing with Tyrell Stuttley, Gavin McGrath (all 6-foot-9 of him), Sam Kick and Dakota Mannel. Stuttley and McGrath are forces in the lane, Kick a terrific shooter from the perimeter and Mannel can score in double figures if teams challenge him to do so.
“Everybody knows how good they are and that they are one of the top teams in the state regardless of division,” Fergot said of the Hilltoppers. “There are so many things at the top of a list of what you need to do to beat them.
“We have to be solid defensively, I know that.”