Cudahy - For four years, Taylor Gradinjan and Cudahy basketball were synonymous.
From an attention-grabbing freshman to easily the school's all-time leading scorer, Gradinjan was a thorn in the Woodland Conference all four of her years, guiding the Packers to statewide prominence in Division 2 and picking up All-State accolades. She's also a member of the 2012 NOW All-Suburban girls basketball team, and her career is far from over.
Gradinjan, who finished with 1,692 points in her decorated career, will make the trip all the way south to play for NCAA Division I program Florida Gulf Coast next year.
Florida Gulf Coast isn't just an insignificant dot on the college map, either. The program has spent the past several years making a transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, all the while competing in the Division I Atlantic Sun Conference. The women's basketball team has three regular season championships in four years, but it wasn't eligible to participate in the postseason tournament until this year.
The Eagles looked good in their debut, following up the regular-season crown with a win in the conference tourney, earning a first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament. FGC ultimately lost to fifth-seeded St. Bonaventure in a close opening game, 72-65, and finished 29-3.
"She really doesn't have a whole lot of flaws to her game," Cudahy coach Adam Stranc said. "She'll just continue to get stronger, but her strength is one thing that has allowed her to score as well as she has. She's phenomenal off the dribble and is able to read and react. No matter the system, I don't think she has too many holes in her game."
Her ascent up the Cudahy leader board passed a notable mile marker during her junior year, when she passed her mother, Shelly (Plath), for second all-time on the school charts. Shelly, who scored 1,071 points, held the school mark for almost 25 years before Aimee Lockwood (2003-07) finished with 1,237 points.
Gradinjan was well on her way past Lockwood, eclipsing the mark later that year. In her senior year, it was all gravy.
"She taught me a lot," Taylor said of her mom after bypassing her on the school chart. "She always tells me what I can do better after a game, believe me."
Easier as a freshman
At the time, Gradinjan said her task had become increasingly difficult over the years.
"It was easy as a freshman," Gradinjan said. "With Kelly (Wilde) and all the older girls, it seems like I was twice as open. People didn't know me yet, so things were there. I didn't have to do anything for it. I'm stronger and taller and gained more skills (since then)."
Stranc, who has coached Gradinjan the past two seasons, has seen his star pupil improve despite her impressive starting point.
"She's grown the last two years as a leader more than anything," Stranc said. "Last year, she shot a phenomenal amount of free throws and this year she shot 170 free throws, so she definitely gets to the basket. She's gotten better with her ball-handling. She's always been a good ballhandler and we wanted to take the next step. She's been terrific."
Stranc has seen Gradinjan's influence at the younger levels of the program, as well.
"A lot of younger kids follow along with what she's done; she's a great role model and kids are kind of in awe," Stranc said. "A lot of younger kids really try to emulate that and push themselves to be at that level."
Strong final year
Cudahy finished 19-5 this season, falling in the WIAA playoffs to eventual state finalist New Berlin Eisenhower. With two losses to New Berlin West (18-7), a regular-season setback against Eisenhower (27-1) and one to Pewaukee (18-5), the Packers never incurred a truly bad loss.
The Packers were able to work in senior transfer Emilie Witzius into the post, who along with Jenna Jagler, represented a potential double-figures scorer each night.
"It took us a while to work Emilie into our offense; we put her in a new position, and we had to rely more heavily on Taylor (in the early going)," Stranc said. "Taylor did a terrific job getting her involved along with Jenna Jagler, and her assist total went up from last year to this year. She didn't have to carry as much of a burden this year. They helped her round out her overall game."
She finished with 17.6 points per game this season to accompany her 3.7 assists, 3.9 steals and 5.5 rebounds. She shot 55 percent from two-point range and 38 percent from distance.
She accumulated those stats despite only working into the final moments of just seven games this season.
"More so last year, she didn't really see a whole lot of action in second halves," Stranc said. "She was one player who really seemed to know when to turn it on. She could definitely carry us."
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