Dating back to the 1998-99 season, only three Region 2 schools have had both their boys and girls basketball teams reach the state tournament in the same season — Thompson (2018-19), Grafton (2011-12) and Mayville-Portland-Clifford-Galesburg (2001-02).
The Grafton teams are both 7-1 this season and both were ranked No. 3 in this week’s state Class B polls.
But there is more to the success of the programs than what takes place on the floor each night.
The longstanding coaching chemistry between girls coach Laurie Sieben and boys coach Riley Lillemoen has contributed to this season’s success.
“It’s exciting when both sides are seeing success and I think that brings a really good energy. They’re seeing each other do the work, they’re seeing each other compete,” Sieben said.
Both programs are defensive-minded. The boys have allowed an average 42 points while the girls have limited opponents to 32.5 points per game, ranking first and second in Class B Region 2.
“We’re outworking people a lot of the time,” Lillemoen said. “That’s what has kind of carried us these first few games. Even when things haven’t gone our way offensively or defensively, we continue to work and get through that and usually works out in the end.”
Both squads were met with different summers compared to years past, as COVID-19 shut down their spring sports. They were able to work through that and come into this season ready to play while keeping safety in mind in order to maximize their high expectations for this year.
“We try to echo to the kids each day that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring so let’s utilize today to get better. We’re just really grateful to have a season,” Sieben said. “They’re just excited to keep this season going and do whatever they can to keep it safe so they can get in the gym on their practice days.”
The Grafton girls team lost its first game to No. 1-ranked Central Cass 55-53 before stringing together seven straight wins. The boys program was originally scheduled to open its season against non-region opponents. Instead, its first eight games have been against regional opponents.
“That’s kind of a big deal because normally we try to get one or two games in that are non-region games to start the year. It’s fun to play those games right away knowing that they mean something in the standings, but it is also a little nerve-wracking, too, because sometimes it takes a game or two to work out some flaws. It helps that we had everyone back here, including our starting five,” Lillemoen said.
Sieben’s squad also returns a majority of its roster, including her twin daughters, Cassie and Carlee. The duo practice shut-down defense while also accounting for a large portion of the team’s scoring.
For the boys, two of their most influential offensive pieces returned this year. All-region senior Stevan Garza, after eclipsing 100 assists last year, and Justin Garza who had 90 of his own, both are back.
As the continuity on the court aligns, the connection between coaching staff is paying off for both sides. Lillemoen recalls working with Sieben during youth tournaments and camps that the program puts on during the summer. Working alongside her, Lillemoen has seen first hand the effort she puts in.
“She’s super organized with her team camps that we run in the summer. We run the spring shootout here every year together and get anywhere from 40-70 teams depending on the year,” he said. “That takes a lot of organization and takes a lot of time and dedication and she’s been running that tournament for over 20 years and I’ve been a part of that for 12 or 13 years. She puts in a ton of time, a ton of energy, and is so dedicated to her program that it sort of rubs off on us. It makes us as the boys coaches want to do the same for our kids.”
Lillemoen’s assistants previously worked with Sieben and the girls program. Mike Hanson coached under Sieben while his daughter played on the Spoilers and Sieben’s brother Brent Baldwin is an assistant with the boys program. Their familiarity has aided their development as coaches.
“They’ve jumped in and coached my daughters during youth tournaments, I’ve jumped in and helped some of his so it’s really a collaborative effort between both coaching staffs,” Sieben said.
There’s constant feedback happening daily for Spoilers basketball. Sieben said she is quick to bounce ideas off of coach Lillemoen in order to benefit both programs.
“I think our coaching staffs connect really well. My assistant coaches, his assistant coaches, we’re not afraid to utilize each other’s resources and I’m really grateful for that. And we’ve been consistent within our programs for quite some time,” she said.