JOHNSON CREEK — It’s a difficult decision, but Nonne made it easy on her family.
Back in the day, Maria Cerroni — known affectionately by her extended family as “Nonne (no-knee)” — drove her sons, Andy and Pat, home from football and basketball practices at Johnson Creek High School. When they went into coaching and had families, she drove long distances to watch their teams or to watch her grandchildren at sporting events.
The youngest of her nine grandchildren graduated three years ago, and soon after that, she knew it was time to give up the keys.
“I got hurt on my shoulder and I can’t turn my head,” she said. “So I said, no more freeway for me. Nobody had to tell me, ‘Ma, you can’t drive.’ I quit myself. So I don’t go to see them (anymore).”
On Thursday, it was Andy Cerroni’s distinct pleasure to bring his Sussex Hamilton Chargers to her instead.
Cerroni’s Chargers won their first sectional boys basketball championship in over three decades on Saturday, earning the program a berth in the Division 1 field of the WIAA State Boys Basketball Tournament at the Kohl Center in Madison.
The fourth-seeded Chargers take on top-seeded Oshkosh North in a state semifinal game tonight at 6:35.
They made the trip from Waukesha County to Madison on Thursday and made a special stop at Johnson Creek High School for a final early afternoon practice, with Maria Cerroni in attendance.
“We made it to state when I was at Arrowhead in 1992,” Andy Cerroni said.
“At the time, I was a little younger. I enjoyed the experience, don’t get me wrong. I just didn’t relish it like I probably should have. It’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of great coaches that have deserved to be there and never got there. I feel very fortunate to have my second opportunity. I told my coaches and my players, ‘We’re going to go there and we’re going to compete and we’re going to be prepared but we’re going to enjoy it, too, because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of people.’
“I want to give them as many experiences as we can. We went to every grade school this morning and we did hall walks to get those kids back to their roots and I thought, you know what, and I gave Johnson Creek a call and talked to Timmy Wagner and said, ‘Can we stop and (practice) here?’ Once we get to Madison and check into the hotel (we’re settled in), and we needed to find a place to practice. We needed to get out of town. I thought this was a good trip.”
Cerroni, a 1979 graduate of JCHS, surely would have been less inclined to have his players practice where he played at the old facility on South Street. But the newly minted facility on Aztalan Street, with its unique dome structures and state of the art gym, fit the bill nicely.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” Andy Cerroni said. “The echoing is a little bit (of an adjustment), but I don’t have to do it every day. I had seen the outside of it a few times when I came back to visit my mom, but I had never been in it. This is a heck of a school, I really think it’s first class. I’m grateful they were able to accommodate us, especially the gym teacher (Tyler Huber) for giving us the opportunity. It’s been awesome.”
Cerroni earned his 300th career coaching victory last season but also suffered a heart attack midway through the team’s 10-13 campaign.
He survived the scare, mended his ways and looked forward to the return of several talented players, including 6-foot-4 junior guard Tyler Ellingson. Then came the addition this past summer of 6-8 freshman swing guard Patrick Baldwin Jr. — the son of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men’s basketball coach Pat Baldwin. The younger Baldwin is already being heralded by some as the future No. 1 recruit nationally for the class of 2021. In a blurb posted at prephoops.com, Baldwin was described as a young Kevin Durant.
The Chargers began the season 7-1 but lost Ellingson to a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 5. After a rough 1-7 skid, Hamilton entered the month of February at 8-8.
“We had a stretch where we struggled, but during that stretch we played Brookfield Central, we played Brookfield East, we played Kettle Moraine and Franklin,” Andy Cerroni said. “Three of those four were in the top five in the state. Brookfield East was ranked No. 1. We were competitive, we were there. Against East, we had the lead late, we just couldn’t figure out how to win.
“Then we hit rock bottom when we lost to a Germantown team we had beaten by 14 early in the year. At that point, we just didn’t know where we were going. We had one of those ‘come to Jesus’ meetings with our team and, to their credit, they decided to take the right path.
“The fork was in the road. Which way you wanna go? We talked a lot about it, buying in and believing in each other.”
Since that humbling 66-62 loss at Germantown on Jan. 30, the Chargers have won nine of their last 10 including seven straight. They won at Wauwatosa East 69-66 when Patrick was fouled on a set play behind the arc with 1.2 seconds left and made all three foul shots.
In the regular season finale on Feb. 22, Hamilton hosted Brookfield East and cost the Spartans a share of the Greater Metro title with a 68-63 upset.
“The biggest win of the year was Brookfield East,” Andy Cerroni said. “They came into our gym the last game of the year. They were tied with Brookfield Central at the time. They hadn’t won a conference title in 30-some years, and all of a sudden we’re down 23-7 and I am thinking, here we go. But we just found a way to come back, tied it at half, ended up winning. We took the conference championship away from them. At the time, they were ranked fourth in the state, so that gave us a little momentum going into the tournament.”
The Chargers opened the regional in fine fashion, avenging the loss at Germantown one month earlier with an 84-55 rout. They followed that with a 64-52 road win at Waukesha North for the regional title, then knocked off top-seeded Bay Port 59-49 in a sectional semifinal in Manitowoc.
That earned them a trip to the sectional title game in Oconomowoc and a rematch with Kettle Moraine, a team that beat them by 17 points at a tournament in Middleton in late December. Once again, the Chargers earned redemption with a 63-46 triumph.
“They were excited (to beat Bay Port), but the maturity level impressed me the most, and it showed on Saturday against Kettle Moraine because we did not play well in the first half,” Andy Cerroni said. “We were down seven with nine to go and not hitting shots, but we turned it around and went on a run and we were up 14 with two minutes to go.”
Baldwin, coveted by several Milwaukee area schools coming out of eighth grade, settled on Hamilton. He leads the Chargers with 16 points per game. It’s been gratifying for Cerroni to see the foundation he has laid serve as the landing pad for a game-changing national recruit.
“He loves his teammates,” Cerroni said. “His parents love our community. His three sisters, they love their schools and their friends and teams they play on. It’s a perfect marriage.”
Cerroni was quick to praise others for stepping up after the loss of Ellingson. In the sectional championship game, freshman guard Tanner Resch scored 18, while sophomore point guard J.T. Hoytink scored the team’s first seven points.
“Every player stepped up at different times in different games,” Cerroni said. “Hoytink scored the first seven points against Kettle Moraine when we were just trying to figure out how to get the ball over half-court. Those points kept us in striking distance.
“We’ve got kids that really have special talents, skill-wise. They have played a lot of basketball. They are not afraid of the big moment.”
Hamilton last made it to state in 1987, when Cerroni served as the program’s JV coach. After his first varsity job at Arrowhead, he came back to lead Hamilton and had his eyes on a trip to Madison in 2010.
“My son (Kameron) was going to be a senior and we had a chance to be really, really good,” Andy Cerroni said. “He was first team all-state as a sophomore and was the all-time leading scorer until (Brady Ellingson) broke it (in 2013-14). He blew out his ACL in football. It was probably one of the hardest things that I have had to endure from the fact that I saw what could have happened. To have him be a part of this right now (as an assistant) and to have my grandkids be a part of it, I never could have dreamed of a better script.”
It’s nothing Maria Cerroni could have dreamed up, either. She grew up in Italy, 40 miles from Rome. Her husband, Andy, was an Italian-American from Waukesha who served in the U.S. Army over in Germany. He met his wife while visiting relatives in her hometown, and the two married and relocated to Waukesha for 18 years.
They arrived in Johnson Creek in 1969 and lived on a farm on County Highway X, where they raised their daughters, Nancy and Linda, and their two sons, who went on to tremendous coaching heights.
Pat Cerroni has turned the UW-Oshkosh football team into a perennial playoff power. The Titans reached the Division III championship game in 2016 and lost in the national semifinals this past December. Andy Cerroni has his 300 basketball wins and now a second state tournament qualifier over a career spanning three decades.
“They are so different,” Maria Cerroni said. “Patrick has more of a big mouth. He tells you the way it is. Andy is kind of like me, more reserved.”
Prime seating at the Kohl Center was not available, so she plans to watch tonight’s state semifinal from the comfort of her couch. But she will do so with pride.
“Finally (they made it to state),” she said. “I am really proud. (My sons), they work hard. For them, it’s not just the season. It’s all year long. I don’t like when people say, ‘Oh, those coaches, they get so much money … what do they do.’ I say, ‘You’ve got to see my kids.’ I don’t see them. They’re always busy. When they come home, they say, ‘Mom, fix food,’ and then, ‘Mom, gotta run.’”
She reluctantly agreed to be interviewed, though her oldest son may pay a price for suggesting it.
“No spaghetti for him,” she said.