If you take Interstate 90 far enough into central Wisconsin, the udder of America's dairyland, you will reach the town of Wisconsin Dells. There you will find one of the nation's best Division III basketball players, Wisconsin-Platteville guard T.J. Van Wie. In the summertime you'll spot him on the Wisconsin River in a Duck. For the uninitiated. Ducks are amphibious trucks that were used by U.S. troops in World War II.
"When I came here and heard people talking about Ducks," says Platteville coach Bo Ryan, "I thought they rode down streams on the backs of these enormous inflatable waterfowl."
Van Wie spends his summers in his hometown conducting tours of the beautiful sandstone formations along the river. But his favorite part of the job comes during lunch break, when he retires with staffers from nearby Tommy Bartlett's Robot World and Noah's Ark Water Park to a tiny poplar-shaded basketball court for pickup games. This is not surprising, considering that as a youngster Van Wie shot baskets alone in winters that were so cold he was forced to wrap his cracked, bleeding fingers in gauze. Later, he wedged flattened soda cans between the doors at the local high school gym so that he could sneak back in after dark.
His diligence has paid off. As a junior last season Van Wie was the main reason that Platteville made its second straight appearance in the Division III Final Four. He led the Pioneers in scoring (15.3 points per game), assists (3.3) and grade point average (3.87). "A Platteville gets a player like T.J. maybe once every 30 years," says Ryan. "He is truly special."
Spending summers steering a slow, often unwieldy vehicle seems altogether fitting for Van Wie because the Pioneer offense clips along at an equally logy pace. Platteville relics on a variety of back-screen cuts that succeed mostly because of his savvy skills at the point. Even more conservative is the Pioneer defense. Ryan forbids players to leave their feet, even when trying to block a shot.
This plodding approach sometimes rankles Ryan's charges. They are eager to dispel the notion that just because they're from the sticks they behave like hicks. This isn't the easiest of tasks when your campus is surrounded by silos. Or when the national championship won by the 1990-91 basketball team is overshadowed by the nine national titles the school's soils and crops agricultural squads have won since 1976.
Even Ryan has been known to serve up some stereotype-enforcing fodder. He'll freely tell you how he often excuses players from practice so that they can complete farm chores. And as a Philadelphia-area native, he'll rhapsodize over how much the world's best cheddar enhances his beloved cheese-steak sandwiches.
Ryan's current crop is an eclectic bunch, to be sure. Oddest of the lot is forward Pat Murphy, who believes the state's choicest grazing territory is located on his own body. During especially tight games Murphy has been known to nervously nibble the hair on his forearms twin-blade close. (Note to Pioneers: If you really are trying to kill that hayseed image, forearm gnawing is hardly cosmopolitan.)
"Someday he's going to choke on a hair ball." says junior center R.A. Caves. This voice of concern comes from a man who spent last summer as a jail keeper in nearby Adams County.
Like his teammates, Van Wie, this year's captain, wants to shed his farm-boy aura. Although he has grown accustomed to the creative woofing of opposing fans—"cheddarhead" is a favorite taunt—he believes a third straight trip to the Final Four will go a long way toward muzzling them. "Around here T.J. is definitely the man," says former Platteville guard Carlton Jeter. "He's the big cheese."
And as every would-be farmer from the Dells knows, the cheese stands alone.
4. Colorado College
5. Illinois Wesleyan
8. Salem State
9. Emory & Henry
10. Christopher Newport