They were teammates and great admirers of the great senior group of 2015 that was a play away from the state finals, but early on, the new seniors and others who made up the 12-2 WIAA state runnerup Franklin football team of 2016 decided they were going to make their own name.
And they did. Emphatically.
A first-game loss to Mukwonago was a reality check, and early injuries, especially at the quarterback position, threatened to derail any momentum. But cohesion, what was commonly known to the Sabers as a "brotherhood," kept the team glued together.
A gradual return to good health, plus a win over preseason Southeast Conference favorite and archrival Oak Creek, then set them on a course of success that was not halted until the WIAA state finals loss to four-time state champion Kimberly last month.
In short, this was a team that was truly greater than the sum of its parts. But what glorious parts they did have.
A slew of post-season honors have been justly awarded this squad, including five Now Newspapers All-Suburban spots.
Five for fighting
Senior defensive end Latron Kirk-Sprewer Jr. shook off an early season leg injury that cost him close to four games to earn a repeat slot on the All-Suburban Team, while junior quarterback Max Alba also earned a spot after coming back from an early-season injury of his own to display the full promise he showed in spot duty last year.
One of his immensely talented senior receivers, Kyle Lewis, made it, too, as did Kirk-Sprewer's defensive line mate, big Hawk Wimmer (6-4, 303), and also the leader of a talented secondary, senior defensive back Brad Tobin.
Coach Louis Brown said it was an impressive display of leadership on a team that entered the season tremendously inexperienced across the board. But the experience and will of returnees like Lewis, fellow senior receiver Ethan Wittenburg, Wimmer and Kirk-Sprewer Jr. and Tobin provided a firm anchor for this squad, and it never reversed course until it had reached Madison.
"The nice thing was, we had everything to gain this season," said Brown. "It was really special, almost surreal. It makes taking what happened last year (with the last-second state semifinal loss to Arrowhead) a lot easier to take. The kids definitely moved on."
They also taught others what they learned.
"Hawk (Wimmer) and (the other seniors) worked to teach the younger guys how you had to work hard and be dedicated if you wanted to play on varsity," said Kirk-Sprewer Jr. "When you play like brothers like we did, there's just no way to find a weak link."
Moving the chains
Brown and his staff were concerned about weak links everywhere, from a completely rebuilt offensive line that Wimmer helped shore up from time to time, to depth at quarterback, when not only Alba but two other reserves were hurt in the early going. Tobin, a great all-around player who played a lot of offense in youth ball, even played some QB, as did Alba's freshman brother, Mitchell.
"The goals were the same as last year," said Max Alba, "but I tell you, most of the city didn't believe we had a chance, but we always believed in ourselves. We always kept working toward a common goal."
Alba, a baseball and basketball star who might have scholarships in all three sports by the time all is said and done, said the partial MCL tear in his knee was a minor setback, and he was proud of everyone, especially little brother Mitchell, who stepped in while he was gone.
When healthy, Alba was unstoppable, showing off a strong, whip-like arm that threw for five TD passes against Marquette in the WIAA level 3 playoff win and then for four more a week later in the state semifinal victory over Lake Geneva Badger. All told, he had 11 TD passes in the first four playoff wins.
"Very smart, very cerebral, he has offers in baseball too," said Brown. "People knew he would be good, but they didn't know that he would be as good as he turned out to be. You just don't get kids like this very often. As he goes, so we go."
But Alba knew he would not have gotten anywhere without his two senior receivers Wittenburg and Lewis, whose experience and skill made his life so much easier.
Lewis was criminally overlooked in All State and All Region balloting, but he just made one ridiculous key play after another in the playoffs, from the game-changing kickoff return in the Level 2 win over Oak Creek, to the 15-catch effort against Marquette, to the three-TD showing against Badger.
"Ethan and Kyle were both 1,000-yard studs," said Alba. "They blossomed into such a safety net for me and just made play after play. They were gosh-darn great football players."
"How this guy (Lewis) is not (WFCA) All Region is beyond me," said Brown. "In my mind, he's the best receiver in the state."
The other pairing that made life easier for the Sabers: the two returning studs on the line. Kirk-Sprewer Jr. was the lightning finding his way in the backfield with his strength and speed, and Wimmer, using his overwhelming strength and body control cultivated with 10 years of soccer play and several years of gymnastics, was the thunder.
Wimmer was WFCA district defensive player of the year after a season that included 25 tackles for loss, while Kirk-Sprewer Jr. lost at least three games to injury and made a world of difference when he returned.
"At the beginning of the season, some of us were just thinking that making the (state) playoffs would be good, that making finals was just a dream," said Wimmer. "That first loss (to Mukwonago) really humbled us. It gave us focus, and I think it really gave us the energy for this great season.
"Oak Creek was projected to be a really good team, and after we beat them, I think we started thinking we could be a really good team."
Kirk-Sprewer Jr. said cohesion was everything on the defense.
"Hawk and I worked as a team," he said. "We had a brother connection that helped us. He does one thing, and I do another, and then we come together to get the job done."
"Because of him, we have to only put five guys in the box (to stop the run)," said Brown of Wimmer. "There isn't a coach I know who wouldn't give everything he had for a guy like him."
Kirk-Sprewer Jr. was such a big-play artist that teams just ran away from him, and quarterbacks always had to be looking over their shoulder for him because of his leverage and speed. He also became a very effective blocking fullback in short yardage situations, one of the things that colleges are looking at him for.
"Simply the most explosive game-changing player that we have had on defense in a long, long time," said Brown.
Though the front of the defense made most of the noise, Tobin was a quiet, settling influence in the secondary, creating seven total turnovers including the clinching interception against Badger.
"Simply the best athlete we have on the back seven of our defense," said Brown.
In short, the season, short of an elusive second state title, was everything the Sabers could have ever expected and more.
"It was such a fantastic thing," said Kirk-Sprewer Jr.