The Future is Bright with Rising Stars Basketball
Winter excited to build on last year’s successes
By Ross Patterman
For most student-athletes summer is a time to kick back, relax, and enjoy some vacation time before the next school year begins. But that's not the case for student-athletes from the Winter School District and the surrounding area. They're using the summer to get better by taking part in the Rising Stars Basketball summer developmental program.
Now in its fourth year, the Rising Stars Basketball program is the brainchild of Curtis DeCora, an assistant head coach with the Winter Warriors boys basketball team, and a man with years of experience playing and coaching at all levels. Under the guidance of DeCora and Head Coach Josh Hautamaki, the Warriors enjoyed their best season in over a decade.
Several players from Winter were able to make their mark on the season thanks to their time in Rising Stars Basketball. What separates Rising Stars from other programs in the state is their emphasis on skill development rather than just playing time.
“I call Rising Stars a ‘player-centered skill development program’ because we're centered around the player. It's not about the coaches, it's not about the team, it's about the player. We want every player to develop not just their skills but their physicality, game IQ, ability to work with others, ability to work with coaches, and ability to take constructive criticism and positive coaching - everything that encompasses becoming a great player”, DeCora says.
“So, with that, our whole focus is how can we take these athletes and develop them in just 10-weeks time? AAU programs focus on competition, college exposure, and promises you’ll get recruited. We also offer this with Elite, Showcase, Prospect, and Exposure camp opportunities, but that’s far from our focus. We took another approach. We wanted to develop the athletes and help them use their summer productively. For 10-weeks the athletes go through an intensive skill enhancement program, while spending 4 weekends playing 13 AAU tournament games against some of the best teams in the midwest. Another unique aspect we decided to adopt was that we don’t hold tryouts, anyone that wants to join is welcome to join us. Again, we’re focused on development, so we welcome anyone to come and grow with us.”
Over the course of the past ten weeks players from the East and West Lakeland Conferences, Indianhead and Heart O’ North Conferences focused on skill enhancement like ball handling, shooting, scoring, defense and team concepts. The program operates across a wide age range and is open to players of every skill level.
As part of the players’ development, the program travels throughout the summer for tournaments, which includes numerous trips to the Just-A-Game Fieldhouse in Wisconsin Dells. There, the six Rising Stars teams compete against players from across the state, and from various divisions and conferences.
“We have 6 teams: - 14U Boys B (Chandler Walowinski); 1-12 - 14U Boys A (Chandler Walowinski); 6-7 - 14U Girls (Hootie Hautamaki); 6-7 - 15U Girls (Steve Eder); 2-11 - 15U Boys (Curtis DeCora); 6-7 - 17U Boys (Curtis DeCora); 3-10. We played teams from all over the midwest, and all of the teams we played were true AAU Clubs that held try-outs to find the best players in their area.”
While these other programs select only the best players from their try-outs, and focus on college exposure and playing time, DeCora is more focused on creating all-around skillful players. He believes this approach is far more beneficial for his players and programs in the long run. This approach has already provided dividends, says DeCora.
“Every team [we played] was very good; there weren't really any teams that we just rolled over. The players were challenged with unique presses, zones, and man-to-man schemes with trapping and of course the speed of play is significantly faster than they will experience in northern Wisconsin,” DeCora said.
Rising Stars Basketball teams were extremely competitive in these tournaments and games, defeating teams with stacked rosters, much to the joy of their parents and families.
“The players and parents all had great things to say about the program, referencing the increased level of play, and amount of developmental work we place an emphasis on to help the players develop new skill sets which will prove to be beneficial for them as they return to their school teams.
It's not just the parents and coaches who have noticed a difference. The players themselves feel better and stronger and more comfortable on the court.
“My handling the ball has gotten a lot better, and I’ve really been working on my shooting,” Winter High’s Kaydance Granica said, who has been with the program for over a year. “I’m a lot more comfortable on the court now.”
The Lady Warriors will need to replace a plethora of production, with leading scorers and rebounders Cassie Bishop, Kate Pasanen and Hailey Coss gone to graduation, but the learning curve will be easier since several Lady Warriors have gone out for Rising Stars this summer.
“It makes me way better than I was before. We’re in a smaller town, and playing against bigger city groups, and that makes us push harder and it makes us better,” incoming Winter High sophomore Reiley Kavanaugh said. “It just helps make us a better all-around player, offense and defense, ball handling, shooting, everything that we need.”
The Lady Warriors bring in a talented squad of freshmen who will vie for varsity minutes. Winter’s Maddyson Dalrymple, an incoming freshman, says that while she is nervous to be moving up and playing varsity, she’s confident in her abilities to contribute to the team.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, I just want to work as a team, and not be worried about myself. I’m a little bit nervous, but it’s been good to be with Rising Stars. I’ve gotten quicker, better shooting and better conditioning.”
As for the Warrior’s boys, they will need to replace 1,000 point scorer Albert Blair, and key contributors Carter Roberts and Jacob Rudnicki. To that end Carter Petit, CJ Thompson and Adam Bednorski have all been working diligently this summer to hone their skills.
“I’d say this year was a big reason for coming out,” says Thompson. “I came in to increase my game for next season, and maybe collegiate sports in the future. We’ll definitely start on a higher skill level from last year so I think this year could be even better than last year.”
Carter Petit knows a lot of teams underestimated the Warriors last year. That won’t be the case this season, with Winter a contender for the East Lakeland title. Petit knows Winter is no longer the hunter, but the hunted. He says his time with Rising Stars Basketball has made him ready to shoulder more leadership and scoring duties for the upcoming season.
“Curtis has really helped me with my shooting, my handling and my finishing. Honestly, it’s really improved everything,” Petit remarked. “I’ve really been coming along with finishing once I get to the rim. I also have gotten a lot better on my defense. The coaches have really helped me hit my stride on defense and being a really good defender. So, I think that’s really going to help us when we get back into the East Lakeland.”
DeCora agrees with his players’ assessments, citing their growth over the past few weeks. While he admits there will be some growing pains, Rising Stars Basketball is helping bridge the gap between junior varsity and varsity, middle school and high school athletics. Winter, like many other smaller schools, do not have a junior varsity program or C-team to help ramp up the development of athletes, so they have to rely on programs like Rising Stars to help prepare them to go from middle school competition to competing against seasoned juniors and seniors.
“The 14U girls have been with us for two years now, and will contribute immediately in the 2023-2024 season in either starting roles or scoring and leadership roles. The 15U girls with Reiley Kavanaugh and Kaydence Granica had a great deal of skill enhancement work throughout the summer and will see significant improvements and expansion of their roles.
“On the boys’ side, Carter Petit and Adam Bednorski have advanced their game significantly and are expected to have very exciting seasons. Logan Hautamaki and Kingston Frey saw great summers, including 14U game play, while also moving up to compete with the 15U group, as well as the Winter Varsity Boys team while competing in the Ashland Summer League. CJ Thompson had a breakout summer with some great games, showing his explosiveness as a scorer and pesky on-ball defender getting steals, blocks, and forcing turnovers.”
While there are membership fees, DeCora says the program has also been able to grow thanks to the generous contributions of local businesses. Rising Stars Basketball sponsors include Sevenwinds Casino, Hooties Hauler, Coops Pizza, Biller Realty, Top Design Hair Salon, Lakewood Cafe, Treeland Resorts, and Superior Marketing.
DeCora said after last year’s successes, his players are poised for big things this season, and the money spent on the program is already producing positive results and growing the strength of the sport in the Northland.
“I think people are starting to see that the players that go through the program are excelling in their conference, whether it's becoming All-Conference, leading scorer, taking on starting roles. Some are moving onto college, so they're starting to see that the program is producing better players.”