After a loss to Pewaukee in late December dropped his team to 3-4 on the season, New Berlin Eisenhower boys basketball coach Dave Scheidegger knew the potential for more was there.
So much so that he made the statement that he felt teams would not want to play the Lions later in the season.
It turns out he was right as Eisenhower lost just once from that point before the playoffs, winning 13 of its final 14 regular-season games before making a run to the WIAA Division 2 sectional final. The Lions reached 20 wins for the second consecutive season, finishing with a 20-6 overall record and a 12-4 mark in the Woodland West to take second place behind Pewaukee.
"Going into the season, we knew the kids were going to compete and fight and never give up," Scheidegger said. "Knowing that kind of gives you a comfort that you have the intangibles, now we just need to take care of the basketball stuff. You saw that develop during the season."
Eisenhower's early-season losses were not to slouches. The Lions fell to a 20-win Muskego team, fully healthy and state-ranked Whitnall, state-ranked Pius XI and state-ranked Pewaukee while also mixing in wins over state-ranked Milwaukee Washington and talented teams in Brown Deer and Wauwatosa West.
The Lions began their run with a 69-56 win over West Allis Hale at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Jan. 2. During the surge, Eisenhower earned victories over Brookfield East, Tosa West, Shorewood, Tosa East, Greenfield, Cudahy, South Milwaukee, state-ranked Pius XI, state-qualifier Waunakee and two wins over Greendale and New Berlin West.
After easily downing Milwaukee Bay View in its regional opener, Eisenhower beat Whitnall, 59-50, to win a regional championship. The Lions then got revenge over a Pewaukee team they lost to twice in the regular season by shooting the lights out in a 75-61 win in a sectional semifinal.
Eisenhower fell just short of its first trip to state since 2008 with a 52-43 loss to Milwaukee Washington in the sectional final.
"It's been amazing," senior forward Sullivan Kulju said. "It started off rough. We never gave up and there were no attitudes. People came to work every day and we made an incredible run. We only lost two games since Christmas. You can't ask for much better than that. The two games we lost were close, and I thought we played really well this year. I love these guys; I love coach Scheidegger and all our coaches. I had a great experience here."
Kulju was named first-team All-Woodland West after averaging 15.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Junior guard Bryce Miller earned second-team All-Woodland West after leading the Lions in scoring at 16.6 points per game.
Senior forward Matt Rolefson (10.7 points, 5.0 rebounds) and senior point guard Sam Hluchnik (2.7 points, 2.8 assists, 2.6 steals) were honorable mention.
"We definitely were playing at a high level at the end," Scheidegger said. "We came a long way. It was good basketball out there on offense and defense. We were caring for all the things we want to do. You hate to see it end because we were still growing, and the kids were eager every day and ready for new challenges.
"They just kept getting better and better individually and as a group. It was wonderful. You hate to see it end. But you get down to the last eight teams in the state; then it is any given day and any given location. There are so many factors. You just control what you can, and they did that."
In addition to Kulju, Rolefson and Hluchnik, Eisenhower will graduate seniors Bryce Wesling, Luke Duffin, Jake Prodoehl and Max Maier.
"We had a very heavy, senior-loaded group this year," Miller said. "It's going to be tough to lose all those guys. I love them with all my heart. I'd say we really matured as a group this year. Before Christmas, we might not have been altogether as one group, but you could really see our growth after Christmas ... we were really playing really good basketball."
Miller will return next season, but the Lions will have to replace four starters. Junior forward Joe Lang (4.7 points) is the only other consistent rotation member coming back.