It could be argued that senior Oak Creek Now All-Suburban forward Madison Hart was a 'first among equals' on the balanced and talented 23-4 Oak Creek girls basketball team this winter.
She played the role of 'finisher,' the person who could score near the basket on the most consistent basis; she was also among the team's best rebounders and defenders.
But she would be the first to tell you on the senior-dominated Knights (seven all told), everyone was a 'first' and everyone was an 'equal' as Oak Creek won its fourth straight Southeast Conference title and earned a berth in the WIAA D1 state semifinals.
It was the only way the Knights were going to overcome the shaky 1-2 start that left coach Steve Hluchnik shaking his head and the team doubting itself for a moment.
'We had some early meetings (during the early practices), and we talked about winning conference — that was the first goal,' Hart said, 'but after those two losses (to Janesville Craig and Rolling Meadows, Illinois), we weren't allowed to talk about state anymore.
'Coach told us there were three big games coming up (Milwaukee King, Franklin and Kenosha Tremper). We realized that those games (the losses) were not going to make or break us.'
They didn't. The Knights won those three games and set sail to another wildly successful season. The win streak would reach 17 games before a late regular-season loss to Arrowhead.
'I guess we didn't deal with the early adversity really well,' Hluchnik said. 'I think those games taught us how to play a little bit, especially against a zone, because after that I couldn't believe how many teams were playing zone (defense) against us.
'We got more out of those games (the losses) than we thought we would.'
And so did the Knights' opposition as they now faced a unified force where all played a role but none was a star.
Hart came the closest to being one, as the 5-11 forward earned first-team all-Southeast Conference honors this season.
She scored 11.2 ppg., on 57 percent shooting from the field, and hit 70 percent of her free throws (75-107). She averaged 4.6 rebounds per game with 34 assists, 31 steals and 11 blocks.
The team tri-captain came up big in big games. She had 12 points and eight rebounds in the WIAA state semifinal loss to Mukwonago; nine points and eight rebounds in the sectional championship win over 2015 state champ DSHA; and 18 points in the sectional semifinal victory over Brookfield East.
She was joined on the first team Southeast by pre-eminent senior shooting guard Hailey Erdman (74 3-pointers), while fellow senior tri-captain and post Nicky Widenski was second-team, as was sophomore point guard Haley Zylka. Team defensive ace and last of the tri-captains, Katie Settingsgaard was third team.
Hart said the learning curve of the young point guard Zylka was a huge key to the team's success.
'She was always texting me and Nikki (Widinski) questions about basketball,' said Hart. 'I told her that she had the potential to be one of the best point guards in the state ... she made it look effortless and took a lot of pressure off of us (seniors).'
The Knights' true team spirit came up during the WIAA tournament run, where everybody seemed to make a contribution, especially in the tough sectional wins over Brookfield East and DSHA.
'We knew then that preparation was everything,' said Hluchnik. 'We could take nothing for granted. We knew we weren't good enough to just show up and try to get the job done ... week by week, the kids improved individually and as a team.'
Hart agreed emphatically.
'Hluchnik was always getting on me to slow it down,' the three-year letter winner said. 'He said I always knew what to do but that I was always doing it too fast. So I slowed down and took my time. It was interesting. I wasn't known as a finisher until this season. Everyone started to have confidence in me, and I started to have confidence in myself.'
Hart has been preparing for this moment since the third grade when she started playing parks and recreation hoops. She said she was always one of the smallest players on her teams until she caught a growth spurt in eighth grade, and she still plans on playing guard at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, next winter.
Other seniors on the team included Hannah Ciesielczyk, Kara Gilmeister and Zylka's sister Megan, who missed the season with an injury but stayed tight with the team all winter.
The roles included a quiet, collective leadership as Hluchnik pushed the players to get on one another, forcing each other to get better.
'We were almost too good of friends to do that,' Hart said, laughing.
The process was effective. Only a tough, defensive-minded Mukwonago team prevented the Knights from making their second trip to the state finals in three years (they won the crown in 2014).
Hluchnik was largely pleased with the season as was Hart.
'I'm satisfied, especially given as far as we got,' she said. 'It would have been nice to go on, but we have no regrets. We made it a lot further than a lot of people thought we would.'
ANOTHER SMASHING SEASON
Hart earns All-Sub for Knights
FINAL RECORD: 23-4
TEAM AWARDS: Co-MVPS—Hart and Zylka. Top Offensive Player—Erdman. Top Defensive Player—Settingsgaard. The Knight Award (character and leadership)—Ciesielczyk. Outstanding contributors—Widenski and Jessica McIntosh.