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After years of struggling, Martin Luther’s boys and girls basketball programs are back on the map.

With a month left in the 2016-2017 regular season, both programs find themselves in first place in the Metro Classic conference as of last week.

Both teams were coming off notable recent successes. The boys team traveled to face league front-runner The Prairie School on Jan. 24 and came away with a 90-85 win to pull into a tie atop the standings. That came three days after ML staged a victory over Dominican, the powerhouse program once helmed by current ML head coach Paul Wollersheim.

The girls team followed up an uplifting Jan. 17 win over Kenosha St. Joseph -- led by McDonald's All-American Sidney Cooks -- with a gritty win over Dominican on Jan. 21.

“Just having the success has been exciting,” said Martin Luther athletic director and girls coach, Corey Scheel. “It’s been a long time coming. We have great kids that are dedicated to the sport that want to continue to get better.”

New direction

The Spartans' turnaround on the basketball court began last season. Desperate to field competitive basketball teams again, Martin Luther hired new head coaches for both programs in spring 2015.

Martin Luther brought in Scheel as the new athletic director and girls basketball coach, and Wollersheim was hired to turn around the boys program. Both coaching hires paid off instantly.

Following a historic 17-year run as the boys basketball coach at Dominican, Wollersheim spent three years in the business sector before returning to the bench with Martin Luther in 2015.

Wollersheim went 352-66 at Dominican, winning WISAA state championships in 1997, 1998 and 2000 and WIAA titles in 2004, 2005 and 2012.

“I was really convinced that it was a really good spot to work with kids and do things in a similar fashion as I did at Dominican,” said Wollersheim, who also serves as the Dean of Students at Martin Luther. “In private schools, it’s so much about relationships with families, because no one is assigned to go to your high school.

“The relationships I built at Dominican with kids, families and organizations was an important part. There are kids that took a look at Martin Luther who hadn’t looked at it before I took the job.”

Martin Luther won only 12 games, including a 3-45 conference mark, in the three seasons before Wollersheim took over at Martin Luther. In Wollersheim’s first season at the helm in 2015-2016, he led the Spartans to a 9-15 record, despite a roster littered with underclassmen.

“Coach Wollersheim has come in and really changed the culture of the program,” Scheel said. “We are getting great kids who are buying in to the culture. They were really young last year, and it took them a year to understand the program. You’re seeing it pay off. Those kids are working hard on the floor and in the classroom, too.”

The two noteworthy victories have the boys team riding a winning streak.

“With each win and playing well together, I think they’ve continued to gain confidence,” Wollersheim said. “We are taking care of the ball, playing defense and sharing the ball on offense -- all of the things we have to do to be a good program and win.”

Regardless of how the season ends, the future is bright for the program. The team only loses two players to graduation and returns its top eight scorers next season, including sophomore point guard Trequan Carrington, who leads the team with 19.4 points per game. Xavier Jones, a 6-5 sophomore forward, is regarded as one of the best in his class, and the team has fared well even with another top sophomore, Jeramie King, sidelined all season by a knee injury. Junior Ki-Anthony Blake and sophomore Ace Evans are also major components of the rotation.

“With Paul (Wollersheim) coming in you knew you had a bona fide winner,” Scheel said. “He’s won state championships, and when you can get a coach with that type of pedigree, you jump at that opportunity.

“These kids are learning a lot from him. Not only basketball lessons, but also life lessons. You see the kids come into his program benefit from being under coach Wollersheim, not only making them better basketball players, but better men.”

Spartan surge

The girls program is also gaining attention with the success it has had dating back to the start of last season when Scheel was hired.

In the 10 seasons before the arrival of Scheel, the girls team posted only one winning season. Scheel spent four years as the girls basketball coach at New Berlin West from 2009-2013 and then two years as the athletic director at Racine St. Catherine’s High School before accepting the position at Martin Luther in 2015.

Since Scheel’s arrival, the Spartans saw an immediate jump in success, tying the program record with 19 wins in 2015-2016.

That success continued into this season. With a roster balanced with senior leadership and contributions from sophomores Emma Kallas and Bonnie Jensen, the Spartans are outscoring their opponents by nearly 21 points per game. Senior Emily Hafemann is inching close to 1,000 career points, and she's one of three top senior guards on the team, joining Grace Amling and Bailey Zazueta.

“They knew each other well,” Scheel said. “They play with each other well. We have some younger girls, too, who have bought into our system and what we are trying to do.”

The victory over two-time defending conference champion Kenosha St. Joseph, 54-48, marked a statement victory for the program.

“They’ve worked really hard for it and for them to get it done is a big deal for us,” Scheel said. “It means a ton for our program to keep hitting milestones. We keep telling them though that they haven’t done anything yet. We started off well, but it’s about how you finish. The second half of the season is going to be tough. We know we have a target on our back.”

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