The De Pere Redbirds Figured Out the Secret

I gave my nephew, Will, a book to read a couple months ago.  It was Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball.  If you’re familiar with the book you know that asking anyone to read it is a tall order.  It’s over 700 pages.  I only wanted Will to read one chapter.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it.

Will is the starting center on his local high school basketball team.  The De Pere Redbirds.  De Pere is a “suburb” of Green Bay, Wisconsin.  I put “suburb” in quotes because I’m not sure Green Bay is large enough to have suburbs, but De Pere is a town with a population of approximately 25,000 adjacent to Green Bay, so let’s just call it that.  There’s something special happening in De Pere right now and it has everything to do with Will and his teammates.

The De Pere Redbirds hadn’t been to the Boys State Basketball Tournament since 2011.  They’ve only won one state title in the history of the program and that was in 1934 when they knocked off New Lisbon in a 22-19 barnburner. Remember that?  Neither do I.  The past few seasons have come tantalizingly close, but ultimately ended in heartbreak.  In 2021 the Redbirds finished 22-4 and lost 53-52 in the Sectional Final when they missed the front end of a one-and-one up by two with 10 seconds left.  River Falls made them pay, taking the rebound to the other end of the floor and hitting a three-pointer to win it.  In 2022 they went 25-3 and once again had their season end one game shy of state, losing 74-70 to a loaded Menomonee Falls team.  They know all too well the bitter taste of defeat, but a lot of teams have lost heartbreakers before.  It helps fuel them, but it’s not what makes them special.

This year’s Redbirds are currently 28-0.  They’re the lone undefeated team in Wisconsin and they compete in Division 1 against the largest schools in the state.  They are battle-tested, having won multiple games against other top ranked teams throughout Wisconsin both in and out of conference.  The average score of a De Pere basketball game this season is 76-44.  They boast three players currently holding Division 1 scholarship offers and at least three other players who will continue to play at some collegiate level.  While all of this is eye-opening, a lot of teams have gone undefeated before.  It’s impressive, but none of it is what truly makes this team special.

Let’s start with this: These young men are all from De Pere.  More specifically, they’re from the east side of De Pere.  I’ve been told people who live there don’t like being called East De Pere, so I’ll say they live in De Pere on the east side of the Fox River in order to avoid their ire.  De Pere is the only town in Wisconsin with two school districts.  De Pere and West De Pere.  West De Pere has a successful basketball program of their own that came within one game of state this season.  I can only imagine the kind of team that town could field if they all attended the same high school.  Regardless, De Pere High School is a small-town public school with a team full of kids from the east half of the town.  They can’t offer scholarships to great basketball talent from around the area.  They don’t have a roster full of area AAU kids that open enrolled into De Pere so they could play basketball together.  They’ve been playing basketball in De Pere since they were little kids.  They all live within a few miles of each other.  It’s admirable, but a lot of small towns in Wisconsin have homegrown talent.  There’s more to it than this.

It’s how they play the game that makes them special.  Let’s start with their senior, All-State, Mr. Basketball-candidate point guard John Kinziger.  I don’t know whether to call him John or Johnny.  Everyone seems to call him Johnny.  I’ve never met him, but if I do the first question I ask is going to be, “John or Johnny?”  I dislike it when people turn John into Johnny like they’re buddies on a first name basis when for all they know John might hate it when people call him Johnny.  That said, I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve yelled “JOHNNY” during games the past few seasons when he’s made big plays, so I’m guilty of it, too.  For the purposes of this post I’m calling him John unless he tells me personally that I can do otherwise.  John has broken pretty much every possible record in the De Pere books.  He’s scored over 2,000 career points – a feat I believe only six other Division 1 boys can claim in Wisconsin basketball history.  Yet, on a lesser team John could be scoring far more.  His scoring average has actually decreased each of the past two seasons and it’s certainly not because he’s regressed as a player.  The exact opposite.  His basketball IQ is off the charts along with his shooting percentages from the floor, from three, and the free throw line.  He rarely, if ever, makes the wrong decision on the floor.  He’s one of the best shooters in the state, but he’s also one of the best defenders.  He’s the second leading rebounder on the team at 6’ 0” tall.  He’s off to Illinois State next year and I can’t wait to watch him in the Missouri Valley Conference.  I expect them to improve immediately due to his presence.

Then there’s John’s younger brother, sophomore Zach Kinziger.  I keep thinking it can’t be easy to be Zach Kinziger.  Basketball is so complicated at the level he’s playing.  It’s the ultimate team game, but if you want to get recognized by colleges and receive scholarship offers you must showcase yourself as well.  How do you convince a college scout that you’re worth a look when the stat sheet doesn’t reflect your all-around game?  That question is complicated by the fact that he has multiple teammates with the same dilemma that have seniority on him, including his brother.  I wouldn’t expect a 16-year-old high school sophomore to understand that, yet Zach seems to.  He must have times when he feels impatient wondering when it’s his turn.  Zach is averaging 15 points per game but could score double that on a lesser team.  He makes jaw-dropping plays on both ends of the floor every single game.  He was named Fox River Classic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore.  During a game against Wisconsin Lutheran – another top ranked team – Zach seemed to be everywhere on the defensive end of the court.  I leaned to my brother-in-law and said, “Zach Kinziger is a f***ing menace.”  I swear if I had to play guard against De Pere I’d just quit basketball.  No way I’d survive for 36 minutes against the Kinziger brothers…

…or senior guard Hogan Demovsky.  Hogan is yet another Redbird who could be the #1 scoring option for just about any other team in the area.  On a local news segment earlier this season a sports reporter asked the players to say one word that describes the Redbirds basketball team and Will said, “Versatile or fluidity.”  I laughed out loud when I first heard it because that’s more than one word.  Also, “fluidity” struck me as an odd response, but when I see Hogan play I know exactly what Will was talking about.  Like fluid, Hogan just fills in all the gaps.  Hogan is equally likely to drive to the hoop, find an open teammate, make a clutch three, or make a huge defensive stop.  Few players in the area are better.  In a recent game against Manitowoc, Hogan was blocking and altering so many shots I referred to him as Hogkeem Olajumovsky.  You can also call him Hogkembe Mutombomovsky if you prefer.  I’ll accept either.

Another one of those critical “fluid” players is senior forward Gabe Herman.  Need a game-winning bucket against defending Division 2 state champs Pewaukee?  Gabe can do it.  Need a pair of game-winning free throws to beat Wisconsin Lutheran?  Gabe can do that, too.  A full-court inbound pass over two defenders to Will for a buzzer-beating game-winner against Notre Dame?  Gabe did it.  Someone took a charge?  It was probably Gabe.  Someone made a perfectly timed cut to the basket for a much-needed open layup?  It was probably Gabe.  He’s constantly making smart plays and has a knack for the moment.  Stuff that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet but guys like that are critical.  By the way, basketball isn’t even Gabe’s main sport.  He’s going to UW-La Crosse to play quarterback for their football team next year.

I could keep going, but I’m trying (and failing) to keep this thing under 3,000 words.  Ben Willihnganz is a phenomenal young player with D1 potential.  A 6’7” starting forward that can do anything on a basketball court.  Ben injured his knee mid-season and has been forced to accept a role as superfan as his team continues this remarkable run.  I can’t imagine how difficult that is.  Pryce Gregoire, another precocious sophomore who can shoot the three, but also do all the fluid things.  Ethan Ramos, a senior forward who seems to revel in diving on the floor and sacrificing his body.  My daughter and I have bets during the game how long it will take for Ramos to end up on the floor either diving for a ball, taking a charge, or just getting knocked over while flying in for a rebound.  Unofficially his record this season is 20 seconds.  

There are so many players who have embraced the team concept.  There are 17 members of the Redbirds basketball team, many of whom I didn’t mention by name.  The kids who have shown up to every practice for years and work hard but don’t get the minutes or the recognition that the starters are getting.  They’re good enough to move to another school and get those starter minutes, but they stayed in De Pere instead.  In a news segment earlier this season Coach Winchester commented that the toughest games the Redbirds play are often their practices.  Without Caleb Dietsche, James Dorchester, Noah Fischer, Derrick Bunkleman, Carson Kulow, Trey Plos, Colin Wicker, Dayton Ellingson, and Zack Kane this team doesn’t make it this far.  I wish I knew specific details about each of their games, but they aren’t on the floor enough for me to see it. Unfortunately, I don’t get to observe these epic practice matchups Coach spoke of, and that’s my point.  These kids embody this selfless team concept more than anyone on the roster because they put in the work and we rarely get to see it.  

Then there’s my aforementioned nephew, 6’8” junior center Will Hornseth.  I struggle to maintain objectivity when talking about his game, but I’ll try.  Will was a unanimous First Team All-Conference performer this year along with John Kinziger.  He was also First Team All-Defense along with the Kinziger brothers.  He locked down some of the best offensive bigs in the state this season.  He can score inside or out.  He can shoot.  He can handle the ball.  Someone started calling him Will Walton a few years ago because of his height and red hair, but it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Like his teammates, he sacrifices personal gain for the good of the team.  Many nights the best quality Will can bring to a game is his ability to pass out of double or triple-teams because he knows he has so many teammates capable of getting a better shot in that situation.  That doesn’t produce eye-popping stats, but it produces wins.  He never forces bad shots because he knows his team is better when he uses his size and passing to draw the defense to him, then find the open guy.  If they don’t double or triple him, he makes the opposition pay by getting an easy bucket.  Look no further than his ridiculous 77% shooting from the field.  While I can’t say this about everyone on the team because I don’t know them personally, I can say it about Will and I assume it’s true about all of them: Will seems just as happy after a game when he scores six points as he was a few nights ago when he scored a career-high 30 in a sectional game.  He’s happy because they won.  And that leads me back to the chapter that I wanted him to read…

For those of you unfamiliar with The Book of Basketball, the first chapter is about the author, Bill Simmons, having a conversation with Detroit Pistons Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas about the secret to winning basketball.  In it Isiah says that the secret to winning basketball is that it’s not about basketball.  It’s about having the right mix of personalities in the locker room and having them all committed to one thing even if it means sacrificing personal stats. He talks about how he could’ve scored 30 points a game if he wanted to, but the team needed him to play differently. How his Detroit Pistons beat Larry Bird’s Celtics, Magic Johnson’s Lakers, and Michael Jordan’s Bulls two years in a row because every single person on that team embraced the culture.  How they didn’t succumb to “The Disease of More”.  If they didn’t fit, they were cut or traded, sometimes for so-called less talented players who made them better because they understood what it took for that team to win.

That’s what makes this De Pere Redbirds team special.  They’ve had their hearts broken more than once.  They’ve played together for 10+ years and that helps, but a lot of high school teams can claim that.  They’re unusually talented, especially for a group of kids who all grew up in the same neighborhood, and that’s all very important, but there are a lot of talented teams that didn’t make it this far.  What sets them apart is that they have everything I just mentioned, and they understand the secret far more than I’d ever expect from a group of high school students.

I credit their coaches.  Head Coach Brian Winchester has been blessed with the talented players it takes to build a winner, but he has known exactly which buttons to push and when to push them to bring out the best in every one of these kids.  He’s gotten them to play elite defense every single night and embrace team over individual.  Jeff Kinziger – father of John and Zach – coached many of these players when they were young kids.  Now he’s an assistant coach on their varsity team.  I’m sure both of those coaches had to put some ego aside to work together to get the team where they are now.  

I also credit their families.  The hard work and sacrifice these kids exhibit isn’t learned overnight.  They’ve been doing it since they were young.  I’m sure every parent of every kid on the roster has had tough conversations over the years about frustration with playing time, not getting enough shots, etc.  The parents may have felt that way too, but instead of adding fuel to that fire they swallowed their own pride and convinced their kids that patience and hard work would pay off.  

After beating Marquette to secure the Sectional Championship, Will told the Green Bay Press Gazette, “Going to state is a dream of all kids in Wisconsin growing up and playing basketball.”  The selflessness this team has exhibited for years has made that dream a reality.  If they continue to play the way they have they’ll be able to call themselves champions.  That’s a far greater reward than any personal accomplishment they could’ve picked up along the way.

I want to thank the De Pere basketball program for an amazing ride this season.  There’s nothing in sports I enjoy more than basketball when it’s played well, and you guys play it better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.  It’s been inspiring to watch.  Oh, and Will, I’m not upset or disappointed that you didn’t read that chapter.  You didn’t need it.

Note: In Friday’s episode of the “Get to Know your Redbirds” video series Hogan Demovsky revealed that his favorite book is The Book of Basketball. Respect.

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