Though it was over a week on the beach in 85-degree temps with multiple distractions, the Oak Creek boys basketball team kept things real, and in the process, kept coach Mike Jossie happy.
The Knights went 2-1 in their adventure down in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the Sunshine Classic. They left Dec. 26; played games each day Dec. 28-30; swam in the ocean; got tours of Universal Studios, Daytona International Speedway and the Kennedy Space Center; held several team-bonding exercises; and generally made good use of the $20,000-plus that was privately fundraised to finance the trip.
'It was a great trip,' Jossie said. 'The kids were really so well behaved. The hotel was on the beach; the temperatures were great. The guys got to walk the beach everyday, there were amusement parks nearby and what's more they made me enjoy it, too, because things like this are usually not vacations for the coaches, but they made it worth everyone's while.'
It was the second such trip in three years for the Knights. The first time in 2013, the temperatures were actually in the 60-degree range. Jossie said the kids obviously enjoyed the warm and sunny days.
The Knights got back at 11 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 2, and got back into the grind of school and practice with only one day's respite. Jossie then pounded them hard in practice for four days, and again the team responded with a critical 60-50 Southeast Conference victory over Racine Horlick, a win that kept them tied for second in the league race.
'There were a lot of smiling faces after that one,' Jossie said.
That schedule felt absolutely normal compared to the almost surreal slate that Jossie and the Knights kept during the trip.
Jossie put together a highly detailed itinerary for the entirety of the trip, one that had almost every minute of everyday accounted for the team.
'It was important to do that,' said Jossie with a chuckle. 'After all, we were dealing with 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds.'
The players also had to present a research paper on the trip on Dec. 29 (possible topics may have included: best suntan lotions and sunglasses; advantages of living on the beach all the time; and best ways to say hello to a pretty girl in a swimsuit).
There were even fireworks on the beach on New Year's Eve.
And yes, they did play a little basketball along the way.
That part took a little adjustment, said Jossie. Everyone in Wisconsin is just getting used to the new 18-minute halves, but this tournament played by the old rules of eight-minute quarters.
'After going back to the old system for awhile, I can easily say I'm happy with the new system,' Jossie said.
The schedule for the games was also frantic. Sometimes the Knights would get ready for their games and then find out the schedule was so tight that they would have six to 10 minutes maximum to warm up.
'And the coaches had to adjust, too; three games in three days is a real challenge,' he said. Jossie noted that the team saw a lot of zone defense in all three games.
They defeated a team called Schaumburg, 42-40, the first day, as the Knights outscored their opponents, 20-10, in the fourth quarter to rally for the win. Harrison Cleary had 19 points to lead the way.
They then lost a frustrating semifinal game to a team from Fairmont, Kentucky, 53-50. Jossie said the Knights had a five- to 10-point lead most of the game but could not hold it down the stretch. Fairmont outscored Creek, 35-27, in the second half as Cleary had 18 points and Drew Yetka 12.
But Jossie said the team closed the event on a high note, as less than 24 hours after the Fairmont loss, they faced a physical and tall team from Murray County Central, Tennessee. The Knights took a 20-7 lead at the half and then never looked back in a 47-40 decision as Cleary exploded for 29 points and Joey Zietlow had 10.
'The kids really adjusted well,' Jossie said. 'That's how you find out what kind of team you have. Gosh, the kids didn't panic ... this trip really taught them how to bounce back.'
But after the fun in the sun, the Knights were greeted with the snow and cold of Wisconsin as school came back in session and a serious conference game awaited them.
Again the Knights responded well as they held Horlick to more than 30 points below the rebels' season average.
They took a 25-19 lead at the half and then slowly pulled away for the victory.
'That first Monday practice back was rough'' Jossie said, 'because we challenged the kids to get better every day. Our idea was to get back on defense and build a wall.'
Forward Joey Zietlow had a career day with 20 points with some great defense on Rebels star Lamontae Lewis (just five points), while forward Drew Yetka battled foul trouble but still posted a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. The Rebels paid a lot of attention to Cleary as they held him to 10 points.
The win was a by-product of the trip, Jossie said.
'The kids showed how mature they were,' he said. 'They came back with the attitude of getting better everyday.'