A state championship that was elusive at Rapid River High School became a reality for Sara Boyer-Rhode Saturday.
In her second year as head coach of the girls basketball team at Green Bay Notre Dame High School, she directed the Tritons to the WIAA Division 2 title Saturday with a 42-33 victory over New Berlin Eisenhower. It is the second state title for the Notre Dame girls, who reached the state semifinals last year.
"It is a great feeling," Boyer-Rhode said Monday in a telephone interview as she drove home from her teaching duties at Eisenhower Elementary School in Green Bay. "It is a different feeling (as a coach). It would feel better as a player, but I was so happy for our girls.
Notre Dame head coach Sara Boyer-Rhode hugs Brianna Bryne after defeating New Berlin 42-33 in the Division 2 championship in the WIAA state basketball championship, Saturday in Ashwaubenon, Wis.
"I hate to lose and winning at the highest point in the state, you can't complain.'
Rapid River reached the Class D state championship game in 1997 and 1998 while Sara Boyer was building an all-state resume that includes the leading scorer in school history (1,758 points), but the Rockets lost both times by a total of three points, once in overtime. Her sisters Shannon and Stephanie also played on those teams, and older sister Stacey also played for the Rockets
They were cheering at the Resch Center for the tournament, and Sara said "it came full circle. We've been waiting for this for 15 years."
Sara then played four seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, scoring 1,115 points and reaching two NCAA tournaments. A 2011 U.P. Sports Hall of Fame inductee, she played at UWGB for 2004 UPSHF inductee Kevin Borseth. His twin daughters, Kayla and Carli, played on Notre Dame's junior varsity this season and saw limited action during the state tournament after getting promoted to the varsity.
"I've always had a good relationship with his family," said Boyer-Rhode, who will talk with Borseth during the season. "I call him to vent or ask about things," she said.
The Tritons (23-6) led much of the game Saturday, and defense was a prime factor as they limited Eisenhower (25-3) to 27.7 percent field goal shooting. The Lions averaged 51 percent entering the finale.
"They had to work really hard to get their shots," said Boyer-Rohde. "They were forcing shots, the shots we were giving them."
Notre Dame began applying more full-court pressure the final half of the season, harking back to her days at Rapid River. "I wanted to get more aggressive, and they are athletic enough to do it," she said. "We don't have a big post player, we had to pressure the perimeter, but it was something our girls had to buy into. It really helped during the tournament stretch."
Her husband Matt, a former UWGB player, and Erin Templin, a former UWGB women's player, are her assistants and also provided excellent input based on their backgrounds. Templin played during a period when Boyer-Rhode served as an assistant for Borseth. They also lost in state championship games as high school players.
Boyer-Rhode said she used her Rapid River championship game experiences during team discussions, telling them they had to stay aggressive, be prepared and stay confident.
"I tried sticking with what we did and not change for anyone else. I tried not to over-think," she said.
She said team chemistry improved as the season continued, citing a six-hour team building activity in Door County in late February as a crucial component. Players, who had tended to gather in small groups earlier in the season, shared their feelings and learned bonding skills while handling the various drills.
"We learned how to be successful and to work as a team," she said, indicating the growth was noticeable during the session. "We communicated better and we stayed positive."
The benefits of that teamwork were visible Saturday when all-state junior and UWGB recruit Allie LeClaire was held to five points. A balanced offense picked up the slack and LeClaire did all the other things, with Boyer-Rhode noting "she did a great job handling the ball, controlling tempo and playing good defense. She didn't really have to score."
In addition to using Boyer-Rhode's personal tourney experience, the Tritons were motivated by last year's loss to New London in the semifinals. New London's 68-game winning streak was halted by Eisenhower in this year's semi, which disappointed some Notre Dame players who would have liked a shot at ending that streak.
Boyer-Rhode said the experience of getting that far last year was helpful. "
The girls last year maybe were more in awe of getting to state (at Madison). This year they talked about it all summer and all year long. They wanted to get to state and make some noise," she said.
With the tourney in Green Bay for the first time, the Tritons received staunch hometown support, with more than 600 student tickets sold for each of the three games. "Our fan support was amazing," said Boyer-Rhode.
Having her husband as an assistant has worked well, with both using their UWGB backgrounds to implement game plans and adjust on the sidelines. She said Matt knows the rules, monitors substitutions and game situations and provides critical input.
"That background contributes to what we do," she said, noting the UWGB women ran a motion offense with few set plays while the UWGB men used more set formations. "Tying in the press is more what I played in high school," she noted, indicating both prefer straight man-to-man defense. "I don't really like a zone," she said.
"My knowledge of the game came from playing and coaching at Green Bay," said Boyer-Rhode, noting she doesn't remember much from her sterling prep career. "In college I really learned a lot."
They discuss basketball more during the season, with Sara admitting she "is so obsessed with it during the season" and even during the off-season. "I definitely bring it home," she said with a laugh.
While very happy at Notre Dame, Boyer-Rhode said returning to college coaching is possible at the D-2 or D-3 levels. "I would not mind getting back into the college level," she said. "It is something I could definitely think about. If the right opportunity presents itself, it is something I would pursue."
The former Rapid River standout is the sixth area alum to earn a state title elsewhere as a coach, joining Paul Miller of Escanaba (at Stephenson), Frank Trotter of Escanaba Holy Name (at Lansing Waverly), Mike Mileski of Escanaba (at Ishpeming), Brian Dartt of Trenary/Superior Central (Olivet) in basketball and Pete Kutches of Escanaba St. Joseph (two at Muskegon Catholic Central and one at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer) in football.