Three decades ago, Mauston’s girls basketball team forged a magical run that still sticks with those who were a part of the journey all these years later.
The 1988-89 edition of Golden Eagles girls basketball holds a special place in Mauston sports lore after accomplishing what no other team in school history has managed before or since: a state tournament berth.
“They were a special team,” said former longtime Mauston girls basketball coach and athletic director Randy Fabian. “We had a balance of height, shooters and scorers. It was a very special team.”
The 1988-89 team was recognized before a packed gym between games during Mauston’s boys-girls basketball doubleheader against Westfield Friday, Jan. 4 at Mauston High School. Eleven of the 13 members from that year’s team were present at the ceremony.
The reunion gave the former teammates of a tightly knit group the chance to reminisce on the memories they made on and off the court.
“We really had a lot of fun as a team. I remember we had a lot of dinners together. It wasn’t that we just played ball together. We were a family together,” said Lori Webster, one of the senior co-captains of that team. “I remember going to Coach’s house so many times. When we ended the season, it kind of felt like we were leaving family members.”
That season’s team went 24-3 overall and collected all sorts of hardware along the way. The Golden Eagles went 15-1 in conference play to share the South Central Conference championship with SCC powerhouse Portage.
Several years earlier, Mauston was responsible for ending Portage’s 75-game winning streak in conference play.
After capturing a share of the SCC crown, they marched on through postseason play to win both a regional title and a sectional title on their way to a state tournament berth that featured a series of dramatic finishes and captivated the community.
But for all its memorable moments, the Golden Eagles faced their fair share of setbacks and hardships throughout the year.
Midway through the season, sophomore post player Traci Vinopal broke a bone in her foot that kept her sidelined all the way until the state semifinals.
“The interesting thing was at first they did not think it was broken,” Vinopal said of her injury. “Then when they had the radiologist read the X-ray one more time, they brought me back in and said no, I actually had a separation of a bone from my heel to my foot.
“I was not in any of the regional or sectional games. Once we won the sectional final, I actually came out of — I was in a walking boot at the time and probably was not supposed to take it off for a couple weeks. But I got the clearance and came out of my boot early so I could play in the state tournament.”
Already down a key player, Mauston nearly lost leading scorer Tonya Waller to a sprained ankle in its first playoff game.
However, the Golden Eagles eked out a narrow 61-59 win over Nekoosa in their sub-regional contest and got Waller back for the rest of their postseason run.
They moved on to beat Holmen 40-28 on the road, defeated West Salem 61-56 in overtime in the regional championship and topped Wisconsin Dells 52-44 in the sectional semifinals. This set the stage for a sectional final matchup with Cuba City, a girls basketball program that’s historically been among the best in Wisconsin.
In a game that came right down to the wire, Waller buried a 16-foot jumper at the buzzer to hand the Golden Eagles a 41-39 win and punch their ticket to the program’s first and only trip to state.
Mauston’s Cinderella run brought them to the UW Field House in Madison, where they were pitted against Clinton in the state semifinals.
Throughout the season — and especially during the latter parts of the postseason — the Golden Eagles drew inspiration from the 1986 movie “Hoosiers.” It tells the story of the Hickory Huskers, a small-town Indiana basketball team that makes an improbable run to the state championship. The film resonated with Mauston, as the parallels between the Golden Eagles and the Huskers weren’t hard to see.
The similarities between the two would only grow stronger in Mauston’s win over Clinton.
In “Hoosiers,” Hickory wins its state semifinal game 56-55 after team manager Ollie sinks a pair of free throws with three seconds left. Mauston earned its spot in the state championship game when Chris Robbins buried two free throws with four seconds remaining to give the Golden Eagles a 43-42 win.
“The movie ‘Hoosiers’ was only out for a year or two at that time,” Fabian said. “We watched that movie a lot. We watched it before the state tournament and at the state tournament. … We made it to the state final on two free throws. So it was a cool thing that they took to this movie and the same kind of thing fell into place for us.”
Mauston fans packed the UW Field House for the Class B state championship game against the Kimberly Papermakers, the top-ranked team in the state. The Golden Eagles even got a surprise visit from Elroy native and then-Gov. Tommy Thompson to offer his support.
In their David vs. Goliath matchup, Mauston fell behind 11-0 early and eventually trailed by 14 after three quarters. However, the Golden Eagles rallied back to tie the game with just over three minutes left in the game.
Kimberly retook a two-point lead, but Mauston had a chance to tie it once again on its final possession. The Golden Eagles inbounded the ball to Waller with three seconds remaining, who dished it to Vinopal in the post. As Vinopal went up for a potential game-tying shot, it was blocked by Kimberly’s Amy Kilsdonk to deny Mauston a chance at overtime and its “Hoosiers”-esque storybook ending.
Though the Golden Eagles fell just short of the ultimate prize, they’d still made it further than any Mauston team ever has. Fabian expresses particular pride in the level of support that team got from the community.
“The attendance at our Class B championship game set a record at the old Fieldhouse,” Fabian said. “We had over 9,000, almost 10,000 people there. There were so many people from the community there.”
Mauston ended up winning the WIAA Sportsmanship Award. The award is given each year at each sport’s state tournament to one team whose players, coaches and fans display exemplary sportsmanship.
“That year we won the WIAA Sportsmanship Award and that banner still hangs in our gym. That was a community thing, it wasn’t just the team,” Fabian said. “That was the teachers, the coaching staff, the players, the cheerleaders, the band and certainly the community. It was pretty cool to see everybody rally behind this team and follow them all the way to the last game of the season.”
“We had high expectations for ourselves not just on the court, but off the court too,” team member Sue Jensen added. “When we won the Sportsmanship Award at the state tournament, it gave us this immense sense of pride.”
Given how much the team meant to the community and all involved at the time, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the memories they created still resonate so strongly three decades later.
“There are a lot of things you don’t remember from 30 years ago,” Fabian said. “But when it comes to a team like this and an athletic event, a bunch of games — you can still replay those things like they were yesterday. That’s what’s really cool about it.”