Along with their senior classmates at Dominican High School, four basketball players will walk across an auditorium stage this Friday to receive their high school diplomas. It will signify another milestone for these four players, who already have a place in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) history book.
In March these soon-to-be-graduates — Kostas Antetokounmpo, Mike Ferrici, Chris Fuller, and Christian Moroder — helped Dominican, a small school in Whitefish Bay, win an unprecedented fifth straight state championship. The Knights are now also tied for the second most championships in state history (seven).
This season, a championship seemed unlikely because last spring the team lost seven seniors to graduation, including four-year centerpiece Diamond Stone, which meant rebuilding both the starting lineup and the bench. “This championship season was meaningful because a lot of people didn’t expect us to go this far,” said coach Derek Berger. “The team had to really come together and work harder to achieve success.”
Because Dominican is small, with approximately 330 students, the Knights compete in Division 4 in WIAA athletics. DHS has a diverse student body that comes from all over the Milwaukee area. The tradition in athletics may interest students, but “when they visit during eighth grade, they feel that family atmosphere, and they feel it’s a good place to learn as a student,” said Berger.
“When I came to Dominican I just felt a sense of community,” said junior guard and co-captain Jake Bennett.
With such a run of basketball success, does the pressure to win it all grow and grow? Since 1916, only one other team had won four straight Wisconsin championships.
“There was a little pressure because we lost so many guys, and most of us were new to our roles. We went into every game taking nothing for granted. Our focus was what was next ahead of us,” said Ferrici, a forward and co-captain. “We had chemistry because our team was like a family.”
The Knights were 27–1 on the season, a record they achieved by focusing not on the end of the season but the next game. “We talked about what work we would have to do to win a championship early in the season, but it wasn’t our focus,” said Berger. “We talked about winning this game at hand, being 1–0. Each player set goals of what they wanted to work on, and we focused on being our best every day, whether at practice, school, or home.”
Summer workouts and playing in a fall league against much larger schools also helped the team grow and rebuild before the season. And the Knights’ only loss came early, back in December. “We are a very competitive team,” said Ferrici. “We’re ready. We’re ready before practice, we’re ready in warm-ups — we’re just prepared and we are ready to compete every moment.”
DHS players also give credit to the huge fan support they get at home games. “The community played a big role,” said Dominican alum Duane Wilson, who was a part of the 2012 and ’13 championships and is now a guard at Marquette University. “Students, faculty, families, and others would come to games to support us. It was a great atmosphere to play in.”
Dominican also received the 2016 state tournament Sportsmanship Award, which recognizes the team, coaches, fans, and band-cheer members demonstrating the highest ideals of sportsmanship.
True Team Effort
The strengths of this Dominican team were its abilities to play stifling defense and to have a balance of scoring. The Knights only allowed an average of 43.6 points per game to their regular-season opponents, while their own top six scorers averaged between five and 13 points per game.
“When we play good defense, that creates a lot of opportunities, and we control the tempo of the game,” explained Bennett. “We had five to seven guys that could come out, have a really good game, and hurt you.”
An example of this was the Dominican scoring in the state tournament. In the Knights’ semifinal game versus LaCrosse Aquinas, Dominican had three players score in double figures.
Sophomore guard Gacoby Jones Jr. had 18 points; Antetokounmpo, a forward, had 14; and Ferrici scored 10. In the championship, Bennett had his career best game, scoring 25 points, though he averaged 7.2 in the regular season and had just two points in the semifinal match.
This storybook season ended with Dominican making history as the first team in Wisconsin to win five straight. Berger has resigned to spend more time with his own young family. The four seniors will graduate and move on to college. But does the story end here? Said Ferrici, “Whether you play basketball in college or not, Dominican prepares us all for those next steps in life.”
Photos: Courtesy of Dominican High School (2)