|It took a couple of stops before Jared Staege found the right school, and right sport.
UW-La Crosse athletics photo by Jim Lund
By Josh Smith
When Jared Staege first went off to college, he figured his time as an athlete was over. But four years later, Staege is leading the UW-La Crosse men’s basketball team in its pursuit of its first WIAC championship since 1965.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I came here,” said Staege, who is averaging a team-high 14 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the Eagles.
Staege is enjoying his final season on the court, but he made a couple stops before finding a home at UW-La Crosse. Upon graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota looking to get his academic path established.
“All my high school coaches were trying to convince me to go somewhere and play. But I had kind of made my mind up that I was done,” he explained.
However his competitiveness led him back to his home state of Wisconsin. He joined his brother and a former schoolmate at UW-Eau Claire, playing wide receiver for the Blugolds. But he still hadn’t found the right fit.
The next year, he was in La Crosse interested in joining the basketball team.
“There were a couple guys on the team that I knew, or at least one in particular, that I knew I really wanted to play with and that was Johnny Coenen,” Staege recalled “He’s a guy I grew up playing against, and I really respected his game. He was one of the reasons I transferred here to play basketball.”
UW-La Crosse coach Ken Koelbl had seen Staege play in high school. The coach remembered Staege being very competitive, but knew he had plans to attend school in Minnesota.
“Really the contact that we had was when he decided to transfer here after a stop at Eau Claire. And he just indicated he had an interest in basketball when he came here,” the coach said.
Koelbl visited Staege at his apartment near campus, not knowing he was talking to the future leader of his squad.
“He’s been just an unbelievable force in terms of how steady he’s approached things and just the way he’s got at it,” the coach said. “He’s been a real key for us.”
Explaining basketball has always felt natural, Staege said he brings a level-headed approach to the court and tries to be a player-coach during games.
“I’ve played in the league and I know how to win in the league,” said Staege, who has helped UW-La Crosse to a tie atop the WIAC standings with a 6-2 record. “To the team, I think I bring a defensive edge. The guys always make fun of me for taking charges.”
Additionally, Koelbl said the 6-foot-2 senior brings versatility and competitiveness to the lineup.
“The best strength that he has is he does a lot of things well,” Koelbl explained. “He’s not going to be your best 3-point shooter. He’s not going to be your best ball-handler. But I think it’s his completeness as a player that’s allowed him to be so successful.”
Winners of nine of their last 11 games, UW-La Crosse is tied with UW-River Falls for the WIAC lead – one game ahead of UW-Eau Claire, two ahead of UW-Oshkosh, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Platteville and three in front of UW-Whitewater.
The conference has a different feel to it this year with UW-Stevens Point and UW-Whitewater – winners four of the last six national championships – further back in the league standings.
“I think when you have more teams in it, and have something vested yet, I think it’s going to create more excitement every time teams match up,” Koelbl said.
However, the coach was quick to point out that he doesn’t think it is a down-year in the WIAC. Rather, he believes the league is competitive as ever – the only difference is there isn’t a Stevens Point or Whitewater squad pulling away from the pack.
Staege said the players wanted to make the most of this year’s opportunity in the conference, and they were motivated by being picked seventh in the preseason predictions submitted by the league’s coaches and SIDs.
“We’re playing like we have nothing to lose, and I think that’s been a huge part to our success,” Staege said.
“We’re in a good spot right now, but when you look at our conference, you’ve got seven teams that are vying still for the six playoff spots in our conference tournament,” Koelbl added. “There’s a lot of things at stake yet.”
The coach said his team’s strong start in conference play has boosted the players’ confidence. Additionally, the team’s tough non-conference schedule – featuring Augustana and Hope – helped the team developed.
The Eagles non-conference schedule also included two games in California, allowing the team to bond on the road.
“It’s a really tight group of guys. It feels like we’ve been together a long time, even though it’s been a couple months,” Staege said, crediting that West Coast trip for strengthening the team’s bond.
In the second round of conference games, Staege said UW-La Crosse plans to keep doing things the same way.
“We’ve had success in this first go-around,” he said. “We’re really not trying to do anything flashy … we’re just trying to play tough, gritty basketball every day we come out there – move the ball on offense, get great spacing.”
Of course, doing things the same way also means continuing to rely on Staege’s leadership.
“He has just been rock solid. We have leaned on him tremendously in a lot of different areas and have asked him to do a lot of things. The way he plays and the way he leads has been fantastic,” Koelbl said, adding the team also has gotten excellent play from Devin Yurk, Ben Meinholz and Austin Fritz.
“It’s been a big key for us, no doubt about it.”
Central Region clippings
Edgewood senior Rachel Pope became the 10th women’s basketball player to score 1,000 points. She reached the milestone during the Eagles’ 61-53 win over Dominican Jan. 23. … Juwan Henry poured in a game-high 47 points, lifting North Park to a 93-86 win over Carthage, Jan. 27. … D.J. DeValk scored a game-high 19 points to help Midwest Conference leading St. Norbert edge second place Carroll, 74-72, Jan. 30. It was the Green Knights’ 57th consecutive victory vs. a conference foe. … The UW-Oshkosh women’s basketball team won its seventh game in a row Jan. 30 to take a one-game lead in the WIAC standings. Taylor Schmidt scored 21 points, leading the Titans to a 61-59 win over UW-Stevens Point. … Chicago’s Jordan Smith scored his 1,000th point in the Maroons’ 112-100 win at Case Western Reserve Jan. 17. He’s the 17th player in program history to eclipse the mark. … Chip Wilde earned his 100th win as Eureka’s men’s basketball coach when the Red Devils topped Spalding, 83-72, Jan. 27. … Aurora’s Anna Roszkowski notched her ninth double-double of the season in the Spartan’s 56-51 overtime win over Edgewood Jan. 30. She finished the game 14 points and 17 rebounds. … Blackburn junior Chris Davis scored 34 points to eclipse 1,000 for his career Jan. 30, however the Beavers lost a shootout with Greenville, 130-116. … Connor Patterson scored his 1,000th point for MSOE during the Raiders’ 97-73 win over Edgewood Jan. 2. During the same game, Patterson’s teammate Austin Stueck moved into second place on the NACC’s all-time scoring list. He now has 1,743 career points.
Where they rank?
Six men’s basketball teams from the Central Region were ranked in this week’s Top 25 poll, including a trio of top 10 teams.
Augustana and Benedictine remained ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, with the Vikings receiving eight first place votes.
Elmhurst dropped three spots to No. 9 while CCIW rival North Central (Ill.) climbed four spots to No. 13. St. Norbert rose two places to No. 14. Chicago fell 10 spots to No. 21.
Aurora (19), Carroll (5) and North Park (1) received votes this week.
In this week’s women’s poll, Wash. U. and UW-Oshkosh each moved up one spot to Nos. 9 and 10, respectively.
UW-Whitewater, UW-Stevens Point and UW-River Falls checked in at Nos. 15, 16 and 18, respectively. The Warhawks are two places higher than last week, the Pointers are two spots lower and the Falcons remain steady. Wheaton (Ill.) climbed three spots to No. 20.
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Around the Central Region was written by Josh Smith during the 2015-16 season. Josh covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3sports.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.