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11 Mar 2015

There’s nothing small-town about Megan Gustafson’s game

There’s nothing small-town about Megan Gustafson’s game

Originally posted on Prep Zone Wisconsin by Dave Lubach

Megan Gustafson was too young to remember many of the details of South Shore High School legend Jolene Anderson's memorable WIAA state tournament experience.

But as she sat in the stands at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison as a grade school student, watching Anderson transition from small-town curiosity to Wisconsin basketball legend, one thought came back consumed her during the long ride back home to the shores of Lake Superior.

“I thought it would be super cool to help your team to go state and play like that,” Gustafson said.

A little more than a decade later, Gustafson hopes to deliver a similar story line — and an even happier ending — for her school, with an enrollment of 47, located in a town few could locate on a map.

Time to shine

Anderson, a high-scoring, 5-foot-8 guard, arrived at a 2004 WIAA Division 4 semifinal against Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah as the state's all-time leading scorer and a University of Wisconsin recruit. But Anderson was an unknown to a large segment of state basketball fans. Port Wing, where South Shore is located, sits just west of Superior and is almost a 6-hour drive from Madison.

“That whole area is a mystery,” said Mark Noll, coach and director of Team Wisconsin Basketball, an AAU program based in the northwestern part of the state for which both Anderson and Gustafson played.

Anderson convinced fans she was the real deal, delivering a performance for the ages. She scored 46 points and grabbed 28 rebounds as the Cardinals advanced to the state title game, which they eventually lost. Anderson finished her prep career with 2,881 points before starring at the University of Wisconsin, where she finished as the Badgers' all-time scoring leader and earned all-Big Ten honors. She is now playing professionally in Europe.

Fast forward 11 years to 2015. Gustafson is the state's new scoring leader, taking the torch from the girl she watched play while growing up, as South Shore (25-2) prepares for Thursday's Division 5 semifinal game at 3:15 p.m. against Wisconsin Rapids Assumption (24-3) at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.

Gustafson, whose team was just happy to be there when she was a sophomore, returns as a senior with bigger plans.

The first time to state “was out of the blue,” Gustafson said. “Everyone was shocked we were there. This year we want to get down there and win a game or two.”

And this time, like Anderson before her, Gustafson will hit the state floor with a legion of state fans eager to see what all the fuss is about.

South Shore's second-year coach Ryan Tiberg is among those happy she's getting the opportunity in the spotlight.

“I got a couple of emails (Sunday) from friends and an old coach from back home in Glenwood City, who said they were so happy that the state is going to get a chance to see Megan play,” Tiberg said. “Up here it's been going on for some time, but Milwaukee or Madison doesn't get a chance to see her play. So we're excited for Thursday. She'll get a chance to show what she can do.”

Record(s) holders

The comparisons with Anderson are inevitable, and Gustafson seems to embrace them. In this small community where everyone knows everybody, and where she considers her senior class of 12 students all “brothers and sisters,” the Gustafson and Anderson families are tight.

Jolene's sister, Janice, is a freshman at UW-Eau Claire after graduating from South Shore last year. Gustafson considers her a close friend.

“We're both from South Shore, and it's pretty cool that we both come from such a small school,” Gustafson said of Anderson. “Obviously, people are going to make the comparisons. She was a great player. I remember watching her and it's nice to know her family. Her family is great. Jolene's legacy has been at South Shore for such a long time.”

So it also comes as no surprise that Gustafson brings her own element of mystery to the state tournament this weekend — along with a chance to extend her own legacy.

In leading the Cardinals here, Gustafson has put up the kind of monster stat nights usually only found in a video game. A sampling includes:

• The 46 points (on 20 of 28 shooting from the field) and 18 rebounds in an 81-45 win over Chequamegon on Feb. 16, the game in which she surpassed Anderson's all-time scoring record with a free throw early in the second quarter. “The most important thing I remember that when I set that record, I just wanted to make the free throw,” Gustafson said. “I thought, 'Well, I better make this.'”

• Back-to-back nights of 50 points Feb. 19 and 24, when she had 54 against Solon Springs and 51 against Mellen.

• Or the night she scored a single-game, state-record 64 points in a Feb. 27 playoff victory over Mercer.

• Perhaps her finest effort was her last game, a 48-point, 21-rebound masterpiece to lead the Cardinals to a 59-55 victory over Chippewa Falls McDonell in the sectional final.

With at least one game remaining in her career, Gustafson is the first girl in state history to eclipse 3,000 career points (she currently sits at 3,199) and 1,000 in a season (with 1,097, she has outscored South Shore's opponents by 200 points this season). The player who previously held the all-time, season and game scoring records? Of course it's Anderson.

For the season, Gustafson leads the state averaging 40.6 points and 19.0 rebounds per game.

She understands the comparisons to her predecessor, just as she gets why many fans are curious about the player behind the otherworldly statistics.

“I'm in the middle of nowhere pretty much, so it's hard for people to come watch me,” Gustafson said.

Beyond the numbers

Her statistics jump off the page, and certainly some will question the quality of the competition in the northern part of the state. But a Top 25 college program such as the University of Iowa won't recruit players strictly on gaudy numbers.

Gustafson is a top-100 national recruit, according to ESPN, and a 6-3 post player at heart who during the last couple years of her prep career started to handle the ball more and play on the wing.

“She's more than a classic post player,” Tiberg said. “The last two years she's played on the perimeter probably more than than she wants to. Offensively we're more of a passing-cutting offense, which freed her up for more open cuts and things than getting beaten up so badly in the post with her back to the basket. I wouldn't call her a post player or a guard. It's just a combination of everything.”

Noll, the head women's basketball coach at the University of Dubuque, recently saw a couple of Gustafson's prep games and lauded her ability to handle a constant stream of double or triple teams.

“It was like the opponents played a triangle in 2, and the triangle was on her,” he said. “The two was on the rest of the team, but she handled it all with ease.

“A lot look at her in Division 5, but she could score 30 a game if she played at Verona, Middleton, or Arrowhead. She's that kind of player.”

Making memories

Gustafson's first state tournament experience in 2013 (a 54-45 semifinal loss to Barneveld) was special because she shared it with her older sister, Emily, now a sophomore at Upper Iowa University in Fayette. Since the university is a six-hour drive from Port Wing, opportunities are limited for the sisters to see each other play are limited. So Megan was elated to see Emily at Saturday's sectional final at Spooner.

“It's great to have her there,” Megan said. “We talk a lot on the phone, but next year at Iowa we'll be closer. We'll be an hour and a half away from each other.”

While Gustafson will probably never escape the comparisons to Anderson, it is her relationship with Emily that is more responsible for Gustafson evolving into the state's all-time leading scorer.

“We've been playing basketball since I was little,” Megan said of her sister. “So we were always in the gym and in the summer we were playing not only basketball, but volleyball and track. She was a huge influence on me in whatever else I played.”

This state trip is special for a different reason. It's her last go-round with lifelong friends, a chance to generate even more memories out of a season — and prep career — she never dreamed she'd have.

“The most special part of all these milestones is my teammates,” Gustafson said. “They've supported me through everything I've done. I wouldn't be able to do this without them.”

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