It was not the way anyone wanted the season to end, but it may serve as a valuable lesson for the Oak Creek boys basketball team, which despite a stumbling finish, still wound up with its best record in several seasons at 13-10.
'I think we've had an opportunity for some valuable self-reflection,' said coach Mike Jossie. 'I don't think we put in the time ... from the workouts before the season to all the drills during the season, to get to where we wanted to go.
'You can't have goals and hope to get to where you want without putting in the time. We had some disconnect there.'
The Knights ended their season with a WIAA regional semifinal loss to Milwaukee Hamilton. It was a quiet and disappointing end to the season that had begun with hopes of contending for a Southeast Conference title behind new all-time leading scorer, co-Conference Player of the Year and WBCA honorable mention all-state selection guard Harrison Cleary.
Behind the 6-1 NCAA DII Minnesota-Crookston recruit Cleary, the Knights shook off a 2-3 start, which included a tough 57-52 home loss to eventual conference champ Racine Park, to be at the two-thirds mark of the season with a 10-5 overall mark, including a 6-2 league mark, which still gave them a fighting chance for at least a share of the league crown with six contests to go.
But in the space of eight days, the season spun out of control, as another loss to Park was followed by upset defeats at the hands of rival Franklin and Kenosha Tremper. The Knights eventually had to just fight for a winning record in league play, which they succeeded in doing with victories over Racine Case and Kenosha Indian Trail.
'That mini-slump really hurt us,' Jossie said.
The Knights got a nice nonconference win over Waukesha North but then dropped a league heartbreaker to Racine Horlick before the wins over Case and Indian Trail and prior to the five-point tourney defeat to Hamilton.
'This is still the most wins we've had in quite some time, and it's maybe in the top five all-time,' said Jossie, trying to put a positive spin on things. 'There are a lot of teams (in the past) that would have loved to have this record.
'But if you look at it very close, close losses were the story of our season. In all six of our conference losses, we had leads. In four of them, we had a 10-point lead in the second half. Going forward, we'll learn to overcome this. We know that if we had sacrificed and worked hard, we would have had better outcomes in those end-of-game situations.'
Jossie couldn't say enough about Cleary, who did put in a lot of work and did sacrifice to make himself and the team better. In the end, he broke Oak Creek legend Tony Butler's all-time scoring mark with 1,311 total points.
'I hope everyone saw how hard he worked,' Jossie said. '... He really set an example.'
Other seniors on the team included Mitch Magyar, Dean Spyres, Macen Leonardi and Alex Djuric. Among the team awards given out were the Knight Award, which went to Cleary, Leonardi and Magyar; the Most Improved, which went to junior guard Joey Zietlow; and the Team Dedication award, which went to Cleary.
On an encouraging note, the freshmen team was 14-7 and the junior varsity was 12-9, which marked the first time in years that all three levels recorded winning records in the same season.
Jossie is hopeful that players like junior forward Drew Yetka and Zietlow can serve as leaders next year. The junior group is large, he noted.
'Hopefully they can step up and lead,' he said. 'They're very committed to basketball.'