George Diekelman came to Eau Claire with something to prove.
Behind that clean-cut, moms-and-grandmas-approve baby face was a burning desire. A burning desire to show everyone how good he really was.
Only one WIAC school recruited him. Only UW-Eau Claire wanted him. So he came here to make sure everyone else regretted it. The rest of the conference didn’t want him, and he needed to prove them wrong.
“I’m still trying to prove something every time I go out on the court,” Diekelman said.
That chip on his shoulder may not allow him to see or admit it just yet, but Diekelman has made his point. And he’s made it emphatically.
The standout senior point guard will leave Eau Claire as one of the WIAC’s best players and the best Blugold of this decade. He’s the living embodiment of what hard work can produce, the catalyst for the recent revival of UW-Eau Claire, the conference’s sleeping giant.
And Saturday he’ll have one last chance to take the floor at Zorn Arena on the court on which he made his name. With the Blugolds battling for their WIAC tournament lives, they host first-place UW-Stevens Point in the final home game of the season. It’s Senior Night for Diekelman, Chris Duff and Dan Becken.
True to form, Diekelman’s in no mood to reflect just yet.
“We’ve got a chance to get in, and that’s the main focus right now,” Diekelman said. “Obviously, we see the finish line in sight. But I don’t think I have any regrets on my career. I’ve worked as hard as I possibly could to get to where I am.”
■ ■ ■
Before he was a 1,000-point scorer and soon-to-be three-time first-team All-WIAC selection, Diekelman was an under-the-radar recruit from Stevens Point.
At SPASH, he was overshadowed by future Division I talents like Sam Hauser and Trevor Anderson. But Blugolds coach Matt Siverling liked what he saw. Diekelman was a big guard who shot the ball well from the perimeter and played at a winning program — the Panthers reached the Division 1 sectional semifinals his senior year, paving the way for their three-year state title reign.
“It’s one of those things where you see him and you see something there, but you’re really not sure what it is,” Siverling said.
Diekelman had been a two guard his entire life. Siverling turned him into a point guard. Some of it was by circumstance. The Blugolds were well-stocked at the wing spots and had a need at the point. Some of it was by design. Diekelman worked tirelessly on his ball-handling and was really effective driving downhill off ball screens. And as a 6-foot-3 point guard, he could cause some matchup problems at both ends of the floor.
That marriage of need and ability produced arguably the best lead guard in the WIAC. By the second half of his freshman year, Diekelman had forced his way onto the court. Rarely would he leave it the rest of his career. He’s a three-year starter with 97 career games and 76 career starts under his belt. He averaged 32 minutes per game as a sophomore, 31.9 as a junior. As a senior, he’s at 31.5.
He’s been the heartbeat of a UW-Eau Claire program that, through no coincidence, climbed the WIAC standings during his career.
“When we finally came to our senses and started playing him, we never looked back,” Siverling said. “He’s the epitome of what hard work can do for you. It’s really paid off for him.”
■ ■ ■
The evidence of Diekelman’s hard work lies in the statistics. His scoring average has increased in each of his four years as a Blugold. It currently sits at 16.3 points per game. His shooting percentage isn’t the gaudy 51.9 percent it was last year, but that’s the result of Diekelman being the focus of each and every defense scheme he comes up against.
These days, everyone in the WIAC knows exactly how good he is.
“He’s a tremendous player,” UW-Oshkosh coach Pat Juckem said. “Matt does a good job of putting him in really good positions. But he’s a tough cover.”
When Diekelman turns the corner off a ball screen, he’s tough to stop. Because once he gets in the lane, he’s just too big for most Division III guards. He’ll either pull up and shoot over them or bully ball them all the way to the rim.
The Blugolds also will throw him in the post when he’s got a smaller guard on him. Diekelman is as nice as can be off the court, but when he senses a physical mismatch, he’s ruthless.
“We just don’t have the size to match up with him,” UW-River Falls coach Jeff Berkhof said. “It’s a tough matchup for us, as he is for a lot of people.”
Understandably, Diekelman didn’t take a ton of big shots in high school. When the game was on the line, the Panthers were going to look to Anderson, now at Wisconsin, and Hauser, who’s now at Marquette.
Well it turns out that Diekelman’s an assassin. He blossomed at UW-Eau Claire thanks in large part to his killer instinct. When the game is on the line, he’s fearless. He wants the ball in his hands. And he produces. As former teammate Jacob Kohner once said, “Crunch time is Diekelman time.”
■ ■ ■
To find a Blugold with a more productive career than Diekelman’s, one has to go back a few years. Maybe back to Dan Beyer, who scored 1,550 points from 2004-09. Another popular comparison is Casey Drake, who scored 1,177 from 2001-05.
Diekelman is the 41st player in UW-Eau Claire history to score more than 1,000 points. He’s the first since Geoff Probst did it from 2006-10. After scoring 20 points in Wednesday’s loss at UW-River Falls, he’s at 1,277, putting him 16th on the school’s all-time list.
If Diekelman is named to the All-WIAC first team for a third time — which seems pretty likely — he’ll join a club that includes Blugolds like Tony Carr, Sherm Carstensen, Gib Hinz, Joe Merten, Mike Ratliff, Frank Schade and Jon Wallenfelsz. The format of the all-conference teams may have changed over the years, but it’s pretty darned good company to keep.
“I don’t care about that stuff,” Diekelman said. “But it’s obviously in good company. There’s a lot of rich history for this program. There’s a lot of good ballplayers in that 1,000-point club or whatever.”
That will be part of his legacy for people interested in numbers. Diekelman doesn’t seem to be one of them, though. He’d rather his legacy be about changing the program’s culture and improving through sheer force of will.
He’s done all of that.
Diekelman came to UW-Eau Claire to prove a point. Mission accomplished.
“I had an absolute blast,” Diekelman said. “I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I just thank coach Siverling for the opportunity to have a great career here.”