There have been any number of great girls volleyball teams at Menomonee Falls in the past 25 years and there's a possibility that this year's unit could be the one that breaks through and wins the first WIAA state championship.
But one of the great "what-ifs?" in the program's history is this: "What would have happened at the state tournament in 1988 if then-junior setter Nicole Gross had not turned her ankle in practice the day before the event?"
"It's still a painful memory," Nicole Gross Johnson said as she was one of five inducted into the Falls Athletic Hall of Fame on Friday. "It was just a nothing little drill and I stepped on somebody else's foot."
Then-coach Jean Oettinger knew well the opportunity that was lost.
"That team Nicole's junior year beat every state-ranked team it played including second-ranked Oak Creek," Oettinger said. "...Many coaches and officials told me after matches and tournaments 'Your setter is one of the best in the state!' I told them I knew that, however, I would not tell Nicole that."
Gross could barely walk after the injury, much less play, and the Indians struggled in the state tourney having lost in essence their "quarterback."
The story has a happy ending for Gross Johnson. She wound up being a four-year starting setter for the Indians and was also a three-year starter in softball, playing for championship teams in both sports. She also played basketball for a time and earned a four-year athletic scholarship for volleyball to UW-Parkside.
'Icing on the cake'
"Sports for me was a way to build confidence and make a lot of friends," she said at the dinner before the Hall of Fame ceremonies. "I was really surprised when I got the call about this (the Hall of Fame)....It's just icing on the cake."
Gross Johnson was one of five inducted at ceremonies before and after the Falls football victory over Brookfield East on Friday (see separate story). They included cyclist/cross country runner/coach Mike McKenna, multisport athlete Tom Wolf, athletic director and coach Dave Petroff and athlete and coach Jim Hessler.
All were grateful for the honor in different ways.
McKenna remains a world-class cyclist having won four national titles in his youth while also being selected to the United States Olympic Development team. He is currently an elite masters' racer for the Café Hollander/Benelux Cycling Team. He was a state qualifier his senior year in cross country in his only season out for the sport (1992).
He's gone on to teach and counsel in the Nicolet School District and has been a successful track and cross country coach for Knights for many years, coaching nine state track champions and many other state podium finishers. He was selected to attend an Elite Coaches Clinic by the US Olympic Track Committee.
Nontraditional sports recognized
McKenna is grateful for the selection if only to bring attention to sports outside the normal high school boundaries like cycling.
"It's great for me to see this happen," he said. "The kid who is pretty involved in that nontraditional sport can look up at my plaque and see that it does get recognized. That is pretty special."
He laughed when he noted that he he was also thankful for all the "arm-twisting" that Falls cross country coaching legend Bob Rymer did to get him out for the sport in 1992.
"That turned out fantastic for me and the team," McKenna said with a chuckle.
The football and basketball star Wolf (class of 1992), who was cited over and over again for his leadership skills, made note of all the great side benefits that sports provided him.
"The most important thing to me," he said, "was that I grew up playing team sports and I played with the same guys in grade school, middle school and high school. It's the coolest thing that the friendships I formed back then are to this day still really, really good."
Petroff, who oversaw a vast expansion and upgrade of Falls' facilities in his last years before retirement, took a similar tack in expressing his gratitude.
"I'm most proud that my wife (Ruth Ann) also taught in the district for something like 20 years and that all our kids graduated from here and got what I thought was a world-class education," he said. "They're all successful and happy....I just can't say enough for what this School District has done for me, my wife and my family, thank you."
Hessler, who is currently a coach for the Arrowhead football team, was unavailable to be at the ceremonies because of a game that night. Later that evening, his father, former Falls coaching legend Bob Hessler, accepted the honor on his behalf.
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