By Greg Bates
DE PERE – If this season was a high-stakes poker game, the De Pere girls’ basketball team would be all in.
The Redbirds are coming off a 23-4 campaign and lost in a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 sectional semifinal.
De Pere graduated one key contributor — Sophia McCarthy — from last year’s squad.
With the 1-2 combo of Jordan Meulemans and Claire Bjorge, the Redbirds will be one of the top teams in the Fox River Classic Conference and state.
De Pere is preseason ranked No. 7 in Division 1 by WisSports.net.
“We have four girls who’ve played varsity since their sophomore year – (Meulemans) her freshman year – so we’ve got lots of experience,” sixth-year De Pere Head Coach Jeremy Boileau said. “We had lots of success last year that we can bring those experiences into this season. We also have one of the better sophomores in the state, Claire Bjorge. She was a big-time performer for us last year, so we’re looking for big things in her game this year. I’m excited about that opportunity for her to step up with our group this year.”
Over the summer, De Pere competed in a team camp at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
For three days, the girls took on some of the top teams in the state.
“We had lots of success and learned lots about players,” Boileau said. “That was a moment where I knew we were going to be good, but that summer experience showed we’ve got something special here. Let’s bring that urgency and make this a fun experience for everyone.”
Competing in the camp was a great learning experience for the players.
“We learned at Stevens Point know our role, play together and trust each other,” Meulemans said. “Some people had to switch around different roles this year and everyone trusts each other, telling each other what to do and we’re communicating super well overall.”
De Pere is led by standout Meulemans.
The Butler University signee had a monster junior season, averaging 20.7 points, 5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
“The great thing about Jordan is she can score in multiple ways, but she understands it’s not only her,” Boileau said. “She can create and find the open teammate and does a good job within our system. She plays fast, quick and hard.”
The 6-foot Meulemans has 1,149 career points.
“This year, it’s going to be different because we have six seniors who know what they’re doing,” Meulemans, who drained 92 3-pointers a season ago, said. “They’ve been on varsity for two or three years now, so there’s going to be less stress on me. I hold myself accountable for lots of things. I’m still going to be trying to score lots this year, too.”
The aforementioned Bjorge averaged 10.7 points per game off the bench as a freshman.
She hit 35 3-pointers at a clip of 48.6%.
“Bjorge can light it up from anywhere,” Boileau said. “She’s a good, productive shooter and also gets to the rim and sees the floor and open teammates.”
Meulemans said she watched Bjorge’s confidence grow throughout the summer while playing for the Purple Aces in AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) ball.
“When we were playing in our summer league, she’s been growing in confidence,” Meulemans said. “I’ve been telling her, ‘Keep shooting, keep scoring. It doesn’t matter if you miss, doesn’t matter if you make mistakes. No one’s going to yell at you.’ She’s been doing great.”
Avery Bierowski is another solid 3-pointer shooter, hitting 39 last season.
She averaged 6.6 points a game, the fourth-best on the team.
Another senior, McKenna Ciesielczyk, put in 6.1 points and can get to the rim.
She’s a sound defensive player as well.
Oakley Witteck is a reliable point guard who handles the ball well and with care.
She put in 4.3 points per game as a junior.
“They can shoot, and they can drive,” Meulemans said. “We have people who can pass well, so it’s going to be tough for everyone to guard us.”
Boileau said he loves to challenge his opponents with his balanced scoring squad.
“Every one of our girls can shoot the ball, and they can drive and take it to the rim,” he said. “We may not have that inside force presence, but we’ve got girls who are willing to step in there, but also pop out. The versatility we have as a team to score in and out is a strong point.”
De Pere runs up and down the floor, but when the perimeter-strong Redbirds get into a half-court set, their lack of height is exploited.
Meulemans is the tallest girl in the starting lineup at 6-foot, but De Pere has a pair of 6-footers who will come off the bench in junior Lauren Schneider and sophomore Sophie Hafeman.
“It’s going to be different because I’m going to be the tallest girl out there for our team,” Meulemans said. “We have to rely on our quickness, jumping to the ball and communicating.”
Boileau added a wrinkle into practices this season: bringing in De Pere senior boys more often who once played basketball to take on his team to get them better prepared.
Boileau invited the group of boys for five-on-five games and to act as a scout team before games.
De Pere didn’t have a conference schedule to play last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it should compete for the top spot this year against Notre Dame Academy.
The Tritons, preseason ranked No. 1 in Division 2, beat De Pere twice last season during the regular season.
Notre Dame finished 28-1 and won the Division 2 state title.
“It’s probably going to be us versus Notre Dame,” Meulemans said. “Notre Dame is a great team. They lost a couple of great seniors last year, but they’re still going to be strong because Head Coach Sara Rohde is a good coach, and they’ve got great players. We’re going to try and compete with them for conference.”
Losing in sectionals a season ago leaves the De Pere players hungry.
“They want the ultimate,” Boileau said. “It starts with the conference. Notre Dame is a heavy favorite and rightly so. They have a great coach, a great program and great players. There are other teams in our conference that are good, and you’ve got to respect them and be ready. My girls want to make it further than last year and by getting there, that means state is that goal. The challenges we have in front of us through conference and our nonconference schedule are going to give us a clear window with things we need to do to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”
Sports editor’s note: To read the preview for the Ashwaubenon girls’ basketball team, CLICK HERE.
To read the Bay Port girls’ preview, CLICK HERE.
2021-22 De Pere girls’ basketball regular-season schedule
11/20 – Oshkosh West (W, 66-20)
11.26 – @ Kettle Moraine Thanksgiving Showcase (Germantown, 7 p.m.)
11.27 – @ Kettle Moraine Thanksgiving Showcase (Pewaukee, 4 p.m.)
11/30 – Sheboygan North
12/3 – Sheboygan North
12/7 – @ Green Bay Southwest
12/9 – @ Pulaski
12/14 – Green Bay Preble
12/17 – @ Manitowoc Lincoln
12/21 – @ Fond du Lac – 7:30 p.m.
12/23 – Appleton North
1/4 – Bay Port
1/7 – @ Sheboygan South
1/11 – Notre Dame Academy
1/14 – Ashwaubenon
1/15 – West De Pere – 3 p.m.
1/21 – @ Sheboygan North
1/25 – Pulaski
1/28 – Manitowoc Lincoln
2/1 – @ Green Bay Preble
2/8 – @ Bay Port
2/11 – @ Ashwaubenon
2/15 – @ Notre Dame Academy
2/17 – Green Bay Southwest
Sports editor’s note: All games begin at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted.