The perfect underdog story is natural and plays out in backyards and driveways across America.
It’s one of the last places athletic competition can permissibly take place during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a 1 on 1 contest of siblings with a basketball — of course as long as neither has been exposed to the outside world in 14 days and neither has contracted COVID-19.
Jefferson starting point guard Caleb Stelse is the youngest of four children in his family. Lake Mills junior point guard and Capitol North Player of the Year Julianna Wagner is the youngest of three.
Wagner, who tore her ACL in the WIAA Division 3 state semifinal this year for the L-Cats, grew up with two older brothers — Eli, a senior at Lake Mills, and Brady, a 2017 graduate who went on to play at UW-Stevens Point.
Like Stelse, Wagner remembers fiercely competitive family games in the driveway. For the Wagners, that evolved into three-player games of 21 resulting in a fierce competitive edge for the three-sport athlete.
“I easily got my toughness and grit from playing 21 against them in the driveway,” Wagner said. “My brothers have taught me not only to give 100 percent all the time, but also to be the best teammate I can be. I’ve learned to appreciate the game, but also way more, like the friendships and bonds that are made throughout your high school career.”
The competitive nature of playing head to head is obvious in a game of H-O-R-S-E, 1 on 1 or 21; but the idea of becoming a better player than a sibling is another component. For Jeffery and his sister Carley, that means arguing about which player was a better shooter — Drew made 39 percent of his 3-point attempts his senior year and Carley’s career percentage at St. Cloud State was lower.
Stelse also was driven by sibling rivalry.
“I feel like they make me invest more into the game,” Stelse said. “Some people might hop onto the court and enjoy playing. But I feel like it’s a family game and it’s embedded in my nature. When I have my siblings watching me at a game, I want to play better because they’re there — it’s like you’re showing off for them.”
The obvious advantage of having older siblings playing basketball or any other sport is having a rebounder or passer to work with and get more shots up. Jeffery and Nikolay benefited from that as team managers for their sisters — Carley and Anna, respectively.
Another obvious advantage of having older siblings playing any sport is the repetition of competition. Stelse said his oldest brother’s skill set was completely different as he was a 6-4 wing specializing as a slasher.
Wagner’s ability to protect the ball while crossing over is a direct product of playing against her brothers. Nikolay’s ability to absorb contact and still finish in the paint as a 5-foot-9, 125-pounder or quickly pull up and make mid-range jumpers is as much a product of pick-up games with his older brothers’ friends as it is getting extra practice with his dad, Bernie.
“Jay’s friends would come over and bully me physically and that’s where I learned to hoop with contact and size up against me,” Jack Nikolay said. “My dad was also my coach in middle school, so my whole family was connected with the sport. My dad and I spent hours in the gym with countless free throws, 3s and left handers. Basketball was a family thing and it surely made me better.”
In the time of coronavirus, the natural basketball rivals take on an added level of support for each other. Especially for Wagner, who had a successful surgery on Thursday.
“When I hurt my knee, both of my brothers were very caring and were there for me,” Wagner said. “The past few weeks, both of my brothers have just been making me smile and laugh.”
Not all rivalries are bitter.