Mitch Listau admits next year will be pretty weird when he takes to the basketball court without his sidekick, Mason Steffen.
But before that happens, the senior stars from Waunakee hope to leave behind some memorable parting gifts for their community.
The standouts have played alongside each other almost exclusively since the fifth grade. Actually, their friendship started in second grade, when Steffen’s family visited Listau’s in Kansas City before the Listau family eventually moved to Waunakee.
That partnership is scheduled to end at the conclusion of the basketball season. But with the Warriors (20-2) ranked fourth in the latest Associated Press Division 1 state poll, Listau and Steffen hope to delay their goodbyes.
“It’s definitely going to take a little getting used to, and it will be strange at first,” said Steffen, a 6-foot-3 point guard who averages almost 13 points per game. “We’re ready for it. We’re excited for it, but really right now, we’re thinking about the upcoming playoffs.”
Second-seeded Waunakee faces a decidedly different path this year in its bid to return to the Kohl Center for a third consecutive year. After advancing through Division 2 sectionals to the state tournament in 2016 and 2017 — losing the championship game to Kaukauna in 2016 and a semifinal to eventual champion La Crosse Central last year — enrollment shifts bumped Waunakee up to Division 1.
The Warriors open the postseason Friday against the winner of tonight’s regional opener between Kenosha Indian Trail and Janesville Parker. If the sectional falls according to seed, the Warriors will face a steady dose of Big Eight Conference teams, with a potential final against second-ranked and top-seeded Sun Prairie.
Listau, a 6-5 senior wing averaging about 22 points per game, isn’t concerned with the teams which may stand in Waunakee’s path back to the Kohl Center.
“We’re excited to play new teams, and able to play D1 teams,” Listau said. “We’re up for the challenge. I think honestly, it doesn’t matter who we play. We hope we have a few good weeks ahead of us.”
No matter how much time remains in their prep careers, they will head their separate ways with a bucket full of memories. Their connection began before they were born when the boys’ fathers, Chris Listau and Rich Steffen, played together at NCAA Division II Minnesota-Duluth in the early 1990s.
The fathers’ friendship endured, resulting in the Steffens visiting the Listaus in Kansas City, where the boys played tournaments together starting in second grade.
When a job opportunity brought the Listaus to the Madison area, the family settled down in Waunakee — in part because of the Steffes’ suggestion.
Waunakee coach Dana MacKenzie watched them grow in the Warriors’ youth program and had high hopes for the pair.
“We could tell going through the youth program that they were special and a little different than most of the players we’ve had,” he said.
With the Warriors coming off a 5-18 season in 2013-2014, after a sustained run of success, MacKenzie installed the then-freshmen into his starting lineup. They have remained there ever since.
Since finishing 12-12 their freshman year, Steffen and Listau have helped guide Waunakee to a 69-8 overall record and three Badger North titles in the past three seasons, while providing program-building leadership.
“We basically have two more coaches on the floor,” MacKenzie said. “They’ve heard our voices now for four years, and whether they’re sick of it or not, they listen to it and repeat it. In the future, it’s going to be really strange not to have them. But right now we realize how fortunate we are to have them for so long, and I know their teammates realize it as well.”
The countless hours Steffen and Listau have spent together on and off the court have toned their games to the point that each usually knows what the other is thinking on the court.
“We’re inseparable and always together,” Steffen said. “We’ve formed a bond and connection over the years and developed a strong chemistry. We know where the other is going to be.”
That includes next year, when the first time either passes in preseason practice, it won’t be to the other. Instead they’ll play hundreds of miles apart for the first time in more than a decade. Steffen is following in his father’s footsteps, heading north to Minnesota-Duluth, and Listau is heading south to play at Division I Belmont in Nashville, Tennessee.
Both are excited for the opportunities that college holds, but they don’t figure to forget about each other any time soon. Will they talk on the phone, stay in touch online and follow each others’ successes on the court?
“I’d say every day,” Listau said.