November 30, 2011 | 07:53 AMLast year, Union Grove ran away with the Southern Lakes crown in girls basketball with an undefeated conference record.
Badger, on the other hand, finished 8-6 but had a chance to take second place before two late-season losses.
While the Lady Badgers showed glimpses of brilliance last season, the girls return seven key players from a 12-11 club last year and are poised to challenge for the SLC title.
Two of the biggest reasons for high hopes are returning first-team all-conference center Lana Wieseman (6-1) and point guard Emma Kopp, an honorable mention selection a year ago.
Coach David Jooss, now in his third full season (18-29), said the squad will lean on the duo on and off the court.
"They are tremendous leaders," he said. "Lana is more comfortable handling the ball and shooting off the dribble. She is stronger and put a lot of time in the weight room. She is the premiere player in the SLC. And Emma has improved her release and consistency. She is a great shooter."
Wieseman (15 points per game) and Kopp (11.1) are back as the team's leading scorers. Wieseman led the area in rebounding with 6.3 per game. Also, Kopp connected on 51 three-pointers. The team will need to find someone else to step up in the absence of junior guard Karina Reeves (9 ppg), who will miss the first 14 games due to an athletic code violation.
But Jooss said senior Stephanie Espinosa, junior Tristan Sproul and junior Natalie Ortego all have the ability to put up big offensive games.
"We have a deep team and I expect several starting lineups," Jooss said. "We will have good depth, team speed and balanced scoring."
Other key returners will include junior Taylar Keenan and senior Annie Gaugert.
With the graduation of post players Abby Ketchpaw and Sara Reek, the Badgers could struggle to win the rebounding battle. Despite the possible weakness, Badger will be guard-heavy. Newcomers Ariel Altergott and Brooke Behrens will provide depth at the position.
Overall, Jooss thinks the SLC is anybody's to win.
"There are five or six teams that could win it," he said. "It's wide open. Four or five conference losses may win conference. There is a lot of parity and no favorite."
At least for now, though, Jooss said the team is taking baby steps.
"We just want to get better every day and have good practices," he said. "We want to bring it every day. We hope to play our best ball in March."
Badger will travel west down Highway B to Walworth to take on Big Foot Thursday in nonconference action. Big Foot will dedicate the game to Jess Lobdell, one of the founders of Fontana Recreation and Geneva Lake area little league. Proceeds will go toward local youth sports.
Jooss said the game will be fun for the community.
"We play against them in the summer," he said. "We are looking to establish a team identity and find out what we have to work on."
Badger opened its campaign Saturday with a 55-41 home loss to Fort Atkinson, a team that won 15 games last year and returns most of its key players.
After a 10-10 tie at the end of one, Fort utilized a 16-6 second quarter and cruised the rest of the way.
Wieseman paced the Lady Badgers with 14 points, including eight of nine from the charity stripe.
Kopp added 11 points including three triples. Ortego scored six points, and Altergott tallied four.