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Hilltoppers Sports

Tough loss for Hilltoppers in Kowals return to La Crescent

Varsity vs La Crescent HS on 12/23/2008
Posted Wednesday, December 24, 2008 by Jake Merrill
La Crosse Tribune Article

Kowal makes first trip to La Crescent as a visitor

LA CRESCENT — Familiarity did nothing to dampen the emotions Craig Kowal felt when he walked into Mac Dahl Gymnasium on Tuesday night.

Kowal spent seven successful seasons as coach of the

La Crescent High School boys basketball team. In March, he guided the Lancers to their first MSHSL state tournament appearance. Two months later, he resigned to become coach at Onalaska. But Kowal still spends his days in the La Crescent high school-middle school building as a physical education teacher. The basketball gym is essentially his office.

If that was supposed to make his “return” any easier, it didn’t.

“It was hard,” Kowal said after his old team, La Crescent, beat his new team, Onalaska, 48-47 in an intense nonconference game. “Once the game started, I was OK. But before, it was a very difficult time. There are so many good people here. Seeing them, and the kids I coached last year ... it felt awkward and strange, and part of it is because I care for these kids.”

Kowal fought back tears as he recalled his decision to leave La Crescent for Onalaska, where he once served as a ball boy for the Hilltoppers’ legendary coach, John Shelton.

“You know, as 18-year-olds, they see things differently,” Kowal said. “I felt bad leaving them. It was just tough.”

Kowal went 126-61 at La Crescent, including a 28-2 record and MSHSL Class AA state tournament appearance in 2008. When Daren Simms left Onalaska later in the spring, Kowal pursued the job.

Kowal would love to duplicate his La Crescent success in Onalaska, and eventually follow in Shelton’s footsteps and win WIAA titles.

First, though, he had to get through Tuesday night.

“I told my wife (Heather) before the game, ‘This is going to be hard,’” Kowal said. “I looked forward to it with anticipation, but I’m glad it’s over. I’ve got a job to do to make this team better, and we’re just going to move on.”

One of the big reasons that La Crescent prevented Kowal from taking home a win with his new team was Lancers forward Brandon Verthein. The 6-foot-3 senior scored 28 points, including the last five of the game to put his team ahead by one. Verthein hit two free throws with 15.2 seconds left to tie the game and one of two with 2.7 seconds left to make it 48-47.

Hilltoppers freshman Nick Arenz, who had 16 points, missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer. Onalaska dropped to 1-4.

“As crazy as it sounds, it makes me feel good,” Kowal said of Verthein’s clutch performance. “Of course, I wish it hadn’t been against my team.”

Verthein said everyone on the La Crescent team circled Tuesday’s game on their calendars when the schedule came out, but not in a negative way.

“I really liked him,” Verthein said of Kowal. “We went fishing together this summer, and last year he had us over to his house all the time for dinner. He’s an easy guy to get along with.”

La Crescent coach Erik Wuensch, who has his team off to a 4-0 start, was aware of the emotional aspect of Kowal’s return.

“One of the things we talked about was that last year was last year and this team has to move on and make its own identity,” Wuensch said.

After Tuesday night, that’s going to be a lot easier.


Onalaska 26 21 — 47

La Crescent 29 19 — 48

ONALASKA (1-4): Adams 7, Liu 7, Martin-Stanley 2, Klos 8, Price 4, Arenz 16, Socha 3.

LA CRESCENT (4-0): Verthein 28, Erdmann 3, Olson 2, Waller 6, Nelson 2, Lazarcik 7


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