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Whitnall alum guided Tigers to state crown

Nelson played hoops for 1995 Falcons squad

March 26, 2013

Greenfield - In the 2012-13 basketball season, the Whitnall High School teams both enjoyed some success, combining for 30 victories, but the school also had a connection to a state championship.

Milwaukee Riverside girls coach Donald Nelson, whose team took home the gold ball in WIAA Division 1 competition, is a 1995 graduate of Whitnall.

Nelson was a Chapter 220 student who attended Whitnall from 1991-95. He played basketball on the junior varsity team in his sophomore year and on the varsity squad as a senior.

He still has great memories of the school.

"Overall, I enjoyed all my teachers," Nelson said. "I have lifelong friends (from Whitnall) I communicate with still. Katy Ryan (girls basketball standout) was talking about her playing for my team (Riverside), and I told her she was 'the truth' in high school, and she could play with my girls."

Nelson remains friends with Ryan and remembers being a big supporter of her and the entire girls program at that time.

"We had some great girls teams with Katy Ryan, Alicia Allen, Shannon Richter and Katy Zacher," he recalled. "They were great. They just never got over that hump in the postseason."

Playing memories

As a senior, Nelson played on the varsity squad with Mike Paryl, Matt Beres, Corey McBride, Brian Suggs and Eric Stelske.

"We were a good team but lacked that killer instinct," he said. "Coach (Kent) Kroupa had left to coach his sons at Muskego. That really killed us and the program, but we understood why he left."

His squad won its regional quarterfinal contest against Juneau, scoring more than 100 points, as he recalled, but then fell to Greendale in the regional title game.

Nelson said he had one regret regarding sports in his time at Whitnall.

"Towards the end of my sophomore year, the head football coach asked me to come out for the team," he recalled. "I gave him the basic 'I don't want to get hurt for basketball' garbage. He said I will put you in as a defensive back, but I turned him down. Boy, I wish I would have taken his offer, or have played soccer."

Coaching career

Nelson graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1999 and later went into basketball coaching.

He began his career at Milwaukee King in 2001 and eventually took the Riverside head job three seasons ago. His Tigers struggled at first but won a school-record 16 games in 2011-12, taking second place in the Milwaukee City Conference.

That set Riverside up for this season, and everyone knew the Tigers would be strong with a nice blend of strong veterans such as 6-foot, 5-inch senior center Breanna Lewis and a solid group of talented newcomers.

Nelson began the campaign by doing something that is usually avoided by most coaches, who tend to be a cautious group.

In mid-November, he made the bold pronouncement that the season would not be successful unless the Tigers claimed the state championship.

By doing so, he applied additional pressure on his team and increased the size of the bulls-eye that was already on Riverside's back.

Early struggles

The gambit appeared to have backfired in the early going, as the Tigers started out 1-4. They routed eventual North Shore Conference champion Cedarburg, 73-42, in their opener, but then lost to De Pere, Bay Port, Oak Creek and an Illinois team, Trinity.

"We started out slowly due to a major injury and our incorporating two new players into our starting lineup and system," Nelson said. "The schedule I composed was the toughest in the state, especially those first five games."

The statistics back him on that point. De Pere, Bay Port and Oak Creek combined for a 65-8 overall record this season.

"After the losses, we were able to get some practice time in and look at our faults and correct them," he said. "The girls bought into what I expected and we began to hit our stride. In turn, we became battle-tested from those early-season losses. It gave us poise, resiliency and a willingness to do better."

Trying for trophy

Riverside adopted the slogan of "Gold Ball or Bust" and went on a winning streak that lasted the rest of the season. The Tigers blew through the City Conference at 12-0 and downed Bay View/Lifelong Learning, Brookfield Central, Divine Savior Holy Angels and Franklin to advance to state.

"At state, we really focused on being patient on offense and disciplined on defense," Nelson said. "The Riverside brand of basketball is very exciting, because we can attack teams from different angles. Playing on a college court, which is bigger than a high school court, was taken into our game planning; that's why we pressed in spurts.

"Our half-court defense was all fueled by our relentlessness to get the gold ball. Playing pressure defense without fouling is one of our philosophies. Having a phenomenal player such as Breanna Lewis, we could also play a half-court game. By wearing down the opponents on defense, then keeping them on their heels on offense, we created problems for opposing coaches."

Using the quickness of guards Alona Johnson and Amani Wilborn, and the intimidating inside presence of Lewis, the Tigers beat Superior and Mukwonago to win the championship and reach the goal that Nelson put before them in November.

In an interview immediately after the state title game, Nelson was promising to repeat "Gold Ball or Bust" slogan in 2013-14.

With Johnson, Wilborn and a cast of other stars back next season, Nelson may just create more happiness for his old friends from Whitnall.

TALENTED TIGERS

Under head coach Donald Nelson, a Whitnall High School graduate, Milwaukee Riverside put together a 23-game winning streak and won the Milwaukee City Conference.

Other stats:

LEADING SCORERS: Amani Wilborn, 15.7 points per game; Breanna Lewis, 15.5; Alona Johnson, 14.8

STEALS: The Tigers came up with 403 on the season, led by Wilborn with 85 and Johnson with 82

EXPLOSIVE: Riverside topped the 80-point mark on 11 occasions, including games of 93, 97 and 96 points

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