Monday, January 23, 2006

Wauwatosa East vs. Wauwatosa West: The Rivalry Continues (and Begins)

Before I get to the meat of today’s recap, I’d like to offer a quick disclaimer. On Saturday night I attended the Wauwatosa East-Wauwatosa West basketball game. As most of you know, I grew up in, and have since moved back to my favorite Milwaukee suburb, the aforementioned Wauwatosa. I actually wasn’t going to recap this game, since I’m just a little too close to the community, and didn’t want to run the risk of inadvertently saying something that could result in me hit over the head with a beer bottle the next time I’m at a local tavern. But as usual, there’s a ton of good things to say about the game, so I’m going to go ahead and talk about it. Apologies if I’m a little more subdued than usual, though. Here’s the night in review:

Saturday night was the time for the big rivalry game in my community, the Wauwatosa East-Wauwatosa West game (as most of you know, I’m an old East alum). Since I first learned about the concept of rivalries in sports, this has been one of the most lopsided rivalries that I can think of. For years, Tosa West had a significantly smaller enrollment than Tosa East, leading to great difficulty for the West Trojans in bringing home any sort of victory in various competitions with their east-side counterparts. Indeed, my understanding is that the last Tosa West basketball victory over perennial high school basketball power Tosa East came in the early 1990s (though it should be noted, that the series was halted for several years when conference realignment led to both schools ending up in different conferences). It’s been a rough road for the smaller school in Tosa.

But all that has been starting to change. Due to boundary changes made several years back, enrollments have begun to even out. And as a result Tosa West athletic programs have started winning, a fact pointed out by several Tosa West students who brandished signs detailing their school’s recent outstanding athletic achievements, and started a chant of "We Own Tosa!" at the onset of the game. After a solid start to the season, was this to be the year that Tosa West’s basketball team would finally take down its neighbor, which just happens to have one of the top basketball programs in the state?

In fact, this would not be the year that Tosa West would triumph, as they ultimately fell to Tosa East by a 68-60 margin. However, a solid Trojan team did play the first half to a tie, and keep the game in doubt until the final minute of the game. Things seem to be headed in the right direction, and if we have a few more years like this, this could actually turn into the rivalry that it always should have been. My more specific thoughts below:

1) When I looked at the box score for the game on Sunday morning, the numbers that stood out were the so-impressive-that-you-don’t-even-notice-him-scoring-anymore Jerry Smith with 35 points, and Tosa West’s Rico Combs with 26 points. But all I saw on Saturday night was Tosa West point guard Dan Christensen having an unbelievable game, dropping 22 points on the Red Raiders. Everything seemed to be dropping for Christensen, which, I suppose, is why he just seemed to stand out more than the two stars who had more points.

2) Like I said, I barely even noticed Jerry Smith scoring 35, partly because he scored a lot of those points from the foul line, where he seemed to be every 30 seconds or so. When he wasn’t shooting foul shots, though, he managed to throw down probably the most impressive dunk that I’ve seen out of him in the time that I’ve been watching him. It was pretty simple–he just went sky high and tossed the ball down with all his power. The basket was still shaking when Tosa East got the ball back for its next possession.

3) Tosa West came out of the gates pushing the tempo about as fast as they could go. I thought it was a pretty decent idea, and it seemed to throw Tosa East off a bit right at the start of the game as they scrambled to get back on defense in transition. Eventually the pace settled down a bit, but attacking was a nice way to start things off, particularly given Tosa West’s underdog role in this game.

4) Tosa East’s Joe Kapp certainly isn’t the physically strongest guy on the court, but in terms of guys who are strong with the ball, he’s near the top of the list.

5) I realize that when Jerry Smith scores 35 points, it’s sort of ridiculous to praise the way that he was defended, but what the heck–I’ve never been one to say the logical thing, so I’m going to do it anyway. When Tosa West was in a man-to-man, a lanky 6'7" Rico Combs was guarding Smith. Combs’ length largely kept Smith from creating space to hit his outside jumper, a deadly shot that he’s been getting off by jabbing forward and taking a quick step back most of this season. You’re not going to take away Smith’s driving ability with one guy, no matter how quick, so why not put a guy on him who’s physically capable of taking away his outside shot? Let the rest of the team help when he gets into the lane. Sure, things didn’t go as hoped when he got into the lane, but I still think it was a well-conceived plan, which I’d expect Tosa West to try again in the event of another meeting in the playoffs.

6) Tosa East had their issues with taking care of the ball, but make no mistake–Tosa West played a heck of a game. It was one of the guttier performances that I’ve seen this year. At one point in the first half, Tosa East went on a run and built up either a 22-7 or 22-10 lead (I don’t recall exactly). In a rivalry game, in front of a packed house, a lot of teams would have folded at that point, and the game would have gotten ugly. Tosa West just kept pushing the ball and upping their defensive intensity. They’re on my list of teams (along with Germantown) that I didn’t expect a lot from going in, but would actually like to see again this year.

7) As for any big game in a hot, overcrowded gym like Tosa East’s, the atmosphere was great. Lots of student chants came out, and there was the feeling that each school really wanted this game. There’s something about playing your neighbor that really makes a person want to put their best foot forward.

8) The game ended with a 3/4 court inbounds pass to a wide-open Joe Kapp, who had gotten behind the Tosa West defense and punctuated the win with a dunk that to me, seemed to be a good metaphor for the entire game. It wasn’t the most impressive dunk ever, and it just barely got down (and likely would have drawn Kapp a technical foul for getting stuck on the rim, had the game not ended at that very moment), but it was still a moment of some excitement and joy for Tosa East. After the dunk, Tosa East coach George Haas had some words with Kapp, and if I had to guess, I’d think that he wasn’t totally happy with the dunk, since Kapp’s response was to shake his head and say (and this could be totally wrong, since I can’t read lips all that well) "I had to do it." And if that’s what he said, it’s hard to disagree. I can’t come down too hard on a kid tossing down an unnecessary game ending dunk against a cross-town rival. Those are the things that you live for when you’re 17.

9) Finally, it should be said–kudos to the powers that be for making this game happen. As I noted, for a handful of years, this rivalry game was stopped due to both schools being in different conferences. While the conference split is still present, the game was recently brought back as a non-conference event. It might not make logistical sense from a scheduling point of view for either team, but it makes great sense in terms of fostering a rivalry and giving the Wauwatosa community something to get excited about. I, for one, am extremely happy to see this game in existence.

And with the game over, I sauntered out of the stands with my friend past a Tosa East team celebrating as much as I’ve ever seen after an 8-point victory. The early game time left a lot of time for nightlife, but I suspected that I wouldn’t see anything that night that was quite as much fun as taking in what was still a true rivalry game.


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