The Ellsworth Panthers girls' basketball team has seen glimpses of its true potential this season.
However, the team's record has been blemished by the "missed opportunities" they've failed to capitalize on.
"We have mixed feelings about our season at this point, as we have a couple of really good wins and several strong performances in games we did not win," Panthers' head coach Jason Janke said. "Overall, we feel like we missed a few opportunities that would have put us in a better position in the Middle Border Conference and for postseason matchups."
The Panthers are nearing the end of the regular season with a 5-13 overall record along with a 2-9 conference record. One of Ellsworth's MBC wins came against Baldwin-Woodville on January 15, the Panthers' first win against the Blackhawks since March 2011.
"Our game at Baldwin was a real turning point for the season, we felt like," Janke said. "Baldwin is in third place in our conference and has really 'had our number' in terms of bad defeats the last few years. Despite being down 10 points at halftime, the girls came out and played the best half of ball I've seen out of them, both ends of the court."
The Panthers' five wins on the season were possible thanks to the added roster depth they've benefited from this season. Seniors Masen Bach and Claire Straub have responded well to their larger roles this season, while underclassmen such as Brianna Giese and Hayley Bach have stepped up for their team when needed.
Janke said the team in general has learned a lot about playing team defense and what it takes to be patient and disciplined on offense. Yet, he'd still like to see his players improve their defensive positioning, noting his team had a run of five games out of six where the Panthers recorded over twice as many fouls as their opponents.
"Once we get a little better at boxing out on the boards and aggressively attacking the ball, we'll be rid of that problem, which will make us that much tougher to compete with," Janke said. "Our kids have developed a tenacity that I'm very proud of."
The Panthers are down to their final three games of the season with an important road game at St. Croix Central coming on Friday, Feb. 8. A win against SCC would help boost Ellsworth's WIAA regional seeding.
"Our goals the remainder of the season are to get some more wins and go into the WIAA regionals with some momentum to spring an upset," Janke said.
The Panthers' progression towards that goal will be measured in the coming weeks, but their larger goal will be ongoing once the 2018-19 season concludes.
"We have worked hard to put Ellsworth girls basketball back on the map and to give the girls in the program a reason to be proud to be a Panther," Janke said. "We feel like we've done that, but we also know it's ongoing and we have tons of work to still do."
The Panthers' progress toward the aforementioned long-term goal has been evident in this year's seniors who've stuck it out with the girls' basketball program despite its limited success.
"I'm really proud that in an age where many programs struggle for numbers, we have five seniors that have hung in there through a tough stretch in a program that has not won many games in their high school careers," Janke said. "They have seen it through and found a role on this team, and helped make us a competitive team. We have not won as much as we would have liked, but we are competitive for most games, and these five have been through a lot as high school basketball players."
The five seniors - Bach, Olivia Lynner, Nadia Sigler, Emma Swanson and Straub - along with juniors Holly Carlson and Kaitlyn Nugent walked into a program 2.5 years ago that had not won a conference game in over 18 months and had only won two games the two previous seasons.
"It was not easy to say they were Panther girls basketball players," Janke said. "They have done some good work since then, and we'd like to think it's starting to pay off for them. Personally, I'm really proud of them and to be one of their coaches."
Ellsworth's final road game of the regular season will begin at 7:15 p.m. at St. Croix Central High School on Friday, Feb. 8.