Josh Skatrud feels like his team has been preparing for this moment for a long time.
The Elkhorn Area High boys basketball coach truly believes that this Elks team was destined to play in the state tournament.
That opportunity comes today, when Elkhorn (23-3) plays Glendale Nicolet (25-1) in a WIAA Division 2 semifinal game at 1:35 p.m. at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“I’m not really surprised that we’ve gotten to this point,” Skatrud said of playing at state for the first time since 1987. “I don’t mean to sound conceited about the whole thing, because we know how difficult it is to get to state, but I really think these guys have been preparing for this.
“There’s a reason we play such a tough summer schedule against teams like Madison East and Sun Prairie, and why these guys are shooting hundreds of shots after practice or getting in a workout in the weight room. It’s so you’re mentally and physically prepared once the season starts.”
Elkhorn finished second in the Southern Lakes Conference and lost twice to conference-champion Westosha Central during the regular season. The Elks exacted revenge with a sectional semifinal win over the Falcons.
They followed that up with a come-from-behind win over Mount Horeb in the sectional title game.
Skatrud said in this day and age of open enrollment and players transferring in and out of districts, his players have stayed true to their roots.
“These are homegrown kids that have played together since they were young kids and have lived in Elkhorn their whole lives,” Skatrud said. “I can remember coaching Vince and Luke (Umnus) when they were in kindergarten and I was working with the youth program.
“We might not have the high-profile play ers that the other teams at state do, but we’ve got good players that have bought in to what we’re trying to do.”
Of all the teams at state, no team has a higher-profile player than today’s opponent. Nicolet is led by Jalen Johnson, the third-ranked player in the country in the class of 2020, according to ESPN.
Johnson and his younger brother, Kobe, transferred to Nicolet from Sun Prairie before the start of the 2018-19 school year. The Johnsons are now playing alongside summer AAU teammate Jamari Sibley, a 6-foot-9 forward who is the second-ranked junior in the state behind Jalen Johnson.
Elkhorn starting guard and second-team all-Southern Lakes selection Vince Umnus said the Knights are difficult to prepare for.
“We’ve had six guys on defense, because obviously we can’t simulate their length,” Umnus said. “We don’t have two 6-9 guys as athletic as them.We might see them in the NBA someday. It’s hard to prepare for guys like that.
“We’re just doing the best we can. We obviously have to stay disciplined and strong with the ball.”
Elkhorn counters with four players that average double figures scoring—including first-team all-SLC selections Luke Umnus and Nick Brown.
Skatrud said the Elks have to minimize their mistakes, not give up second and third chances around the basket and run the offense to perfection to try and take Nicolet out of its game. The Knights like to play an up-tempo style predicated on live-ball turnovers that turn into easy dunks and layups.
Skatrud knows the Knights are like no other team the Elks have seen this season.
“They’re long and athletic,” he said. “We’ve got to try and slow them down, rebound and box out. And I think their pressure is what sticks out when I watch them on tape. They seem to take it to another level when they have to, and when they turn it up on you, the entire complexion of the game can change in their favor in two or three minutes.
“We realize things have to go our way, but if we can keep it close and be right there with five minutes or so left, these guys have proven that they can finish the job.”
Elkhorn is not a stranger to play against the state’s top recruits.
Last year, the Elks took on Whitnall in a nonconference game. Tyler Herro, now a starter at University of Kentucky, scored 42 points in a 74-59 victory for Whitnall.
Larsen completes a trifecta
Eric Larsen is no stranger to the WIAA boys state basketball tournament.
The current Elkhorn assistant boys coach has the rare distinction of playing in a state tournament, officiating in a state tournament and now coaching at state.