Though he spent more than a decade building an empire at Germantown, first-season Menomonee Falls boys basketball coach Steve Showalter was afforded a day-to-day opportunity with the Indian players and student body this year that he rarely had while with the Warhawks.
And he liked it it almost as much as the highly competitive 17-8 record the Indians turned in this winter.
"I really liked being in the school, being with the kids everyday," said Showalter, who works as an educational assistant at the building after a life-long career as Germantown police officer. "See how they interact with one another. See how the student leaders in sports and other activities are respected. Girls basketball, wrestling, football, other things. It's cool to see during the course of the day how certain kids step up and be leaders.
"It's just cool to see good kids doing good things. It gives me new hope for the youth of America."
That atmosphere energized Showalter as did an interestingly built Falls team that worked off speed and depth to compensate for an overall lack of height to become an entertaining, gym-packing unit. They battled injuries to their best outside shooter (junior guard Payton Malone) and to their one certified big man underneath (senior all-state football player Matt Henningsen), and went through a maddening run that saw seven of their eight losses come by a total of 23 points.
But Showalter knew that could be the case going in, as he had only a small handful of players taller than 6-foot-2 and so had to make a philosophical decision to ratchet up the speed and intensity of the game.
"We took a look at everything we had," he said, "and the best way we had a chance to compete being not very big was to play helter-skelter and run all over the place, using pressure defense and offense.
"At times, we second-guessed that approach, that maybe we needed to work harder on our half-court defense, but we needed to generate baskets, so from beginning to end we were in constant sprint mode just trying to generate as much offense as we could."
It was a formula that worked to the tune of 84.1 points per game, including four games of more than 100 points before the end of 2016 and five others with more than 90.
Falls' season recently ended with a 84-64 WIAA sectional semifinal loss to state-ranked Kimberly, where the Papermakers exposed the Indians lack of height. The point total matched the lowest score of the season for the Falls and largest margin of defeat. It followed a thrilling regional final victory over Fond du Lac where Cross Wilson hit a long 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was Falls' first regional title in seven years.
The Indians ran 10 deep, sometimes subbing four and five players in at a time to keep teams off-guard. In fact, first-team All-Greater Metro Conference forward Nate Schuster came off the bench to average 16.4 points per game. He hit 80 percent of his free throws (77-of-96) and 19 3-pointers.
"The most surprising thing about Nate is that through the game you don't notice him that much but then you look at the stat sheet and he has 15-16 points and nine or 10 rebounds," said Showalter. "That consistency was amazing. He could score inside and out, and had that ability to rebound even though he was more of a guard."
Falls had six players hit more than 10 3-pointers on the year as team MVP and senior guard Justin Gruber drained 41, Malone 37 and Wilson 22.
Henningsen, who missed four games because of injury, averaged 12.3 points per game. He had some great games, but because of his size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), he got noticed often by officials and had to spend too much time on the bench with foul trouble.
"He'd scarcely do anything and people would bounce right off him," said Showalter. Henningsen still earned second-team all-league honors.
Gruber averaged 12 points a game, Wilson 10.4, senior guard Jaden Champion 8.1, and Malone 7.9.
Henningsen, Wilson and Gruber were co-captains while senior forward Kris Walker was named most improved. Gruber and Wilson were honorable mention all-GMC.
"Our ability to go 10 deep was sometimes our only advantage," said Showalter. "You just look at those seven losses (outside of Kimberly), and we had shots to tie in at least four or five of them. We make just a couple of more shots and our record looks a whole lot better. Just all the little mistakes got magnified."
Included were a tough three-point loss to GMC champion and eventual state tournament qualifier Brookfield Central, a loss the Indians avenged with an impressive 82-65 victory in the regular season closer.
The seven close losses came by 3, 3, 4, 3, 5, 2 and 4 points, respectively.
"I was just very proud of the fact that no matter who was healthy and available, we just kept competing every game," Showalter said.
Seniors included Wilson, Gruber, Champion, Walker, Jalen Dixon and Henningsen.
Key returnees will include Schuster, Malone, junior forward Connor Allen and freshman guard Trevon Williams.
As noted, Showalter had a good time coming back to high school ball.
"It was a great group of kids," he said. "They couldn't have made my transition any easier. There was no complaining. They were friendly, nice, good to each other and very coachable."