There was only one returning starter for the WIAA state qualifying Oak Creek girls basketball team this season, and in the eyes of veteran coach Steve Hluchnik, it was the right one.
Because the Knights would not have gotten anywhere near their fifth straight Southeast Conference title and 21-5 WIAA sectional finalist record without junior point guard Haley Zylka.
"She just kept getting better and better," said Hluchnik, "especially as a leader. She had a very good rapport with the kids, and they looked to her for leadership. She could shoot more, but she distributes the ball so well and has gotten so much better as an on the ball defender."
How much respect does she command?
Just ask Tony Kathrens, coach of archrival Franklin, whose team dropped two Zylka-orchestrated contests to the Knights this season.
"She just controls everything about the game,"said Kathrens. "They've had some great floor generals in the past (Jenna Santi and Morgan Kokta), but I can't say enough about her. When I think of Oak Creek, she's the one I worry about."
Because of the machinations of a very interesting Southeast Conference all-conference meeting, the Knights' fine junior forward Lea Finn earned a well-deserved first team all-league berth, but Zylka could only earn a second-team slot.
Zylka's leadership could be described as a "first among equals" sort of ethos that drove the Knights, who graduated seven seniors off that powerhouse team of a year ago and had to do everything together in order to succeed.
They didn't have the greatest of starts, getting drubbed right out of the gate by nonconference power Arrowhead and later losing to eventual state qualifier Rufus King. They were 6-3 after a discouraging loss to Brookfield East in the semifinals of their own tournament on Dec. 29.
Hluchnik didn't like the attitude or the intensity the team that day showed and told them so.
The Knights rallied for a 45-43 win over always tough Pius XI in the consolation game the next day, and that started a nine-game winning streak that put them in firm control of the Southeast race yet again.
"It (the East game) was one where we didn't shoot well, and those are going to happen," Hluchnik said, "but what we really didn't like was that we weren't playing good defense. You can have bad shooting nights, those are hard to control, but you can always play good defense, and we told the kids that if we're going to succeed, we have to play good defense all the time."
Oak Creek did just that. After their third straight win, where they gave up 60 to Racine Case, the Knights gave up just 31, 29, 44, 43, 25 and 26 in the remaining part of the run. The highlight was a 58-25 throttling of rival Franklin (16-8), a win that put the Knights in the driver's seat towards the league title.
"That was probably our best all-around game," said Hluchnik.
A rare hiccup to nonconference power Kimberly broke the streak, but then Oak Creek was right back on track overwhelming three straight Southeast Conference opponents to run their league winning streak to 70 games and clinch another outright title, a remarkable feat.
Hluchnik and his staff were able to do this by adapting. Well-accustomed to one 6-footer after another coming into the program, the Knights were smallish this year (tallest starter 5-11) and would often work with an open post swinging the ball rapidly and efficiently with Zylka the fulcrum.
Depth was the key as 10 players averaged 10 or more minutes a game, and only Finn (10.4 ppg.) was over 10 points a game. Junior shooting guard Kassandra Bartek averaged 9.9 (and topped the team in 3-pointers with 47), and sophomore guard Maddie Gard tossed in 8.3 a contest. Gard and her twin, Katie Gard, offered instant speed and intensity off the bench and could frequently jump-start the Knights if they were in a funk offensively.
Five other players scored four or more points a game.
Zylka led the team in assists (136) and steals (35) while senior forwards Katie West (five per game) and Jessica McIntosh (4.3) topped the team in rebounding. A telling stat about how equal and even this team was was that 11 players had 10 or more assists.
"We played differently this year, sometimes with five guards," said Hluchnik. "We still ran all the sets that we used to, but we did open up the offense a little. But with only two seniors (McIntosh and West) and four new starters, it took a little while to figure things out, but all these kids, West, Maddie and Katie Gard, Zylka, Kassandra (Bartek), all the others, they all stepped up."
A strong WIAA tournament run was highlighted by a solid sectional semifinal win over a very good Brookfield Central team before a second loss to King in the sectional finals, a game in which Hluchnik felt the Knights had their chances, ended the fine season.
The returnee list is long, so another strong year is imminent for the Knights. The underclassmen teams were good again, too, and Hluchnik indicated he may keep up to 16 players next year.
"It was a good year," Hluchnik said. "Maybe better than we expected."