A tiny town called Beaver Dam has one of the best girls' basketball teams in the country
It has become a tradition.
The girls' basketball players at Beaver Dam High School in Wisconsin take a day off from practice, pile into about six cars and visit the local businesses that have supported them. The team -- nicknamed the Golden Beavers -- prints about 90 "thank you" cards, complete with a color photo of the 13 girls on the squad.
At the bottom of the photo, in cursive writing, there are two words: Thank you.
"The community support we get is unreal," said Tara Stauffacher, one of the leaders on the team and a University of Wisconsin recruit. "They truly want us to succeed.
"When we walk into their stores with a thank-you card -- you can see them smile with happiness."
The Golden Beavers have made a lot of people in their community of some 15,000 people smile lately. They have won the Wisconsin state title the past two seasons. They were ranked No. 16 in the espnW 25 Power Rankings for Week 1, which were released Tuesday. Beaver Dam is a public school with roughly 1,000 students. It went 28-0 to win state in 2017 and 25-2 to repeat in 2018. The girls' and boys' basketball teams also have a new gym -- complete with five courts and room for 2,500 fans -- that was completed this past January.
Prior to this run, the only state titles in major sports for Beaver Dam were won by the boys' basketball team in 1938 and the football team in 1979.
"I think that because we hadn't had a lot of success overall as an athletic program, the community feels extreme pride in our girls' basketball team," said Tim Chase, who is in his 14th season as the Beaver Dam coach. "People are excited to watch us play."
From zero to ...
That hasn't always been the case.
Chase, the third coach since the program started in 1976, led Beaver Dam to wins in a total of nine games his first three seasons. His second season ended with an 0-21 record.
"We worked hard and played tough defense. We just weren't that talented about putting the ball in the basket," Chase said.
With us being from a small town in Wisconsin, maybe we will catch people by surprise.Matyson Wilke
The coach decided that the only way to build a successful program would be to start doing camps at grade schools and middle schools, the proverbial brick by brick.
That's exactly what has happened, but Chase has never forgotten those lean years. He lets his current players know the program's history and how greatness has been born from struggle.
"He mentions it to help us remember where we came from," said Stauffacher, a 6-foot senior shooting guard. "To go from 0-21 to 28-0 is insane."
This season's team may be even crazier in terms of talent. The Golden Beavers return six of their top eight scorers, boasting a half-dozen girls with Division I scholarship offers. Beaver Dam is off to a 6-0 start, including a 10-point win over Benet Academy (Lisle, Illinois), which was considered a national contender.
One of the major tests on the Beaver Dam schedule is still to come: the Naples Holiday Shootout later this month in Florida. Chase said his players and their parents raised $20,000 to make the trip and to test themselves against some of the best teams in the country.
The fans in Fort Myers can expect to see a Golden Beavers team that prides itself on defense and balanced scoring.
Meet the players
Stauffacher, for example, is averaging 9.8 points and is one of the team's most efficient shooters.
"She holds the school record for 3-pointers," Chase said. "I can't think of a kid who works harder. She has a chance to be our No. 2 or No. 1 career scorer if she stays healthy."
Then there's Paige Schumann, a 5-foot-8 senior point guard who signed with Eastern Illinois. She averages 6.6 points and leads the team in assists (5.4) and steals (2.4).
"This is her fourth year as a starter, and she has an 83-4 record as our point guard," Chase said. "She's the leader you want."
Aly VanLoo, a 6-3 senior center, has signed with North Dakota. She is second on the team in scoring (10.2) and first in rebounds (4.6) and blocks (1.2).
"She has come up big in championship games," Chase said.
Jada Donaldson, a 5-6 junior guard, has an offer from North Dakota. More schools are likely to get involved in the pursuit of Donaldson, who does her best work away from the ball.
"She's the best defensive guard I've seen in 26 years of high school coaching," Chase said. "In the state finals the past two years, she held Division I recruits to four points each."
Matyson Wilke, a 5-9 sophomore shooting guard, leads the team in scoring (11.8) and is considered the best prospect on the team. She already has 28 college offers, including Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and many more.
She got her first offer in the seventh grade from North Dakota -- which is where her father played basketball and her mother attended.
"Everyone wants to talk about Maty," Chase said. "The buzz in our gym regarding her has been amazing. Her basketball IQ is off the charts."
Beyond the starters, the Golden Beavers get good contributions from a bench led by 6-3 sophomore Paige Hodgson, sophomore point guard Natalie Jens and junior guard Carley Burchardt. Hodgson already has an offer from Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Everyone on the roster has been trained in the art of suffocating defense. Chase said he has borrowed defensive principles from college coaches such as Dick Bennett (now retired) and Shaka Smart (Texas).
The idea is to use pressure to create confusion and panic, and no one on the team does it better than Donaldson.
"She's so fast, it's incredible," said Wilke, who has been around the program -- her mother is an assistant coach -- since first grade. "[Donaldson] doesn't fear anyone. When she guards me in practice, it's quite exciting."
Defense and domination aside, the Golden Beavers are a team that has fun and is full of superstitions.
Before every game, each player eats a slice of an orange. They all have nicknames. VanLoo goes by "Big City," a nod to her height.
Before every road game, the team splits into groups of three or four and plays a trivia game, with Chase asking questions and the players writing down answers.
Gum is another huge part of the team. Every player has her own favorite brand, and team manager Lanie Roedl carries about four bags of the stuff.
"She's on top of it," said Stauffacher, who chews Juicy Fruit at practices and Polar Ice for games.
But when it comes to games, these Golden Beavers are focused, and they view the tournament in Florida as an opportunity to show their skills.
"We're excited," Donaldson said. "We want to see where our talent lies compared with the other teams there."
Added Wilke: "With us being from a small town in Wisconsin, maybe we will catch people by surprise."