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First-year Nicolet girls basketball coach Megan Lund is a busy young woman, teaching physical education along with wellness and health along with working as an assistant coach with the girls volleyball and girls softball teams.

"One of those (coaching) things has to give," she said with a laugh.

Lund laughs a lot, she cheers players on enthusiastically and she encourages them to try to do better at all times.

She's also smart enough to know when she needs help.

John Gustavson is a busier-than-he-looks first-year retiree. His history includes 19 years of coaching girls basketball at Nicolet, including 14 as a head coach and many grand championship-level days with the storied sister duo of Corey and Lindsay Bronson, who are coaching hoops.

He spent the last 13 years of his career as athletic director at Whitefish Bay. He still helps out, such as taking on game manager duties and helping new Bay AD Jason Kasmarick handle the overflow crowd at the WIAA Division 3 boys sectional final on March 11.

Gustavson is analytical, thoughtful and nearly unflappable with a dry, timely sense of humor.

With all that carefully in mind, Lund asked Gustavson to be her assistant shortly after she was hired last summer, and the pair, as it turned out, were a match made in hoops heaven.

They needed to be as painfully young and inexperienced Knights worked its way through an often difficult 2-21 season. Both coaches were encouraged by the progress the team made and were thrilled beyond belief that both wins came in the same week right before the end of the season, showing that the players were still engaged, still learning.

If this were a romantic comedy, you could have said that the pair "met cute" as Gustavson said he was ready to get back into coaching but only if the situation was right.

"She reached out to me," Gustavson said, "and we met in Estabrook Park (in Shorewood). We sort of interviewed each other. As someone who's interviewed and hired eight varsity basketball coaches, I could tell right away that she was going to be an excellent coach.

"Megan does something that not all coaches do. She really connects with the players, in a fun way but not just fun. She makes them want to go the extra mile for her. Because of her, the team was able to maintain an air of positivity despite all the losses. You couldn't do that after 20 games without great leadership.

"She really kept it together."

But Lund said she couldn't have done it without Gustavson's help. She worked under Rick DeKeyser and Dan Gibbon as an assistant for the Nicolet girls the last three years and absorbed much in that time.

She recognized she would need help in this major rebuilding project as an already struggling program graduated eight seniors last season.

"I had talked to Dan (Gibbon) about bringing Gus (Gustavson) on board to be a mentor and an assistant," she said. "I was aware of the history of the program and of Gus's history with it, and I caught myself thinking of it as 'The John Gustavson, the man, the myth.'

"But when we sat down to talk and get to know one another, we started talking basketball, and it became easier. He wanted my philosophy on this aspect of it and that. In turn I got to know his philosophy, too. I really admired his commitment. He's so creative, very analytical. He brings the energy, and he brings the brains."

First time for everything

Interestingly enough, even with his 19 years of coaching experience at Nicolet, this was Gustavson's first turn as purely an assistant. He had always been either a freshmen, junior varsity or varsity head coach.

"It took me a little time to adjust," he said, "but Megan made it easy, always asking questions, always involving me. I felt valued and energized being back in the gym."

Gustavson said he was careful not to step out of line and try to go back into head coach mode simply because of who he was. Lund appreciated that and, as noted, kept Gustavson fully in the loop.

"We're talking about next level intensity with him," she said. "It's why we made such a good coaching team this year, because I trusted him and he trusted me. He would ask,  'Can I suggest this?' With his experience, I would have been foolish not to accept his help. We both brought different strengths to the table."

Some of Gustavson's former players were curious about the situation and came to a couple of games to witness it first-hand.

Lund said they left confused.

"They came up to Gus afterwards and asked him, "Why are you so quiet?'" Lund asked.

The girls on the team even got used to Gustavson's occasionally blunt sense of humor and could even joke with him about being, uh, well "follically challenged."

In short, the melding of coaching strengths and personalities worked, not always in tangible results, as Lund noted the team literally had to pluck three players off of last year's eighth-grade team and put them in the starting lineup.

It was a tough transition at times.

"We were patient and tried to be supportive," Lund said. "There was no point in yelling at them constantly. They understood they had to get better, and we tried to help them get there."

Gustavson said, "There were some growing issues. There was one game where (North Shore champion) Germantown put up over 100 points on us, but the girls came back the next day to practice and said 'Let's go!'"

New schedule helps

Which made the week of Feb. 13-16 all the more rewarding.

The schedule was reworked prior to the season. "We needed to find someone we could beat," Gustavson said simply.

That came about on Feb. 13, when the Knights beat Bradley Tech, 46-28. Even better was Feb. 16 in the North Shore season closer against Milwaukee Lutheran. The Knights had lost to them by 15 on Jan. 13, but Lund and Gustavson knew their team was better.

The Knights were. They fought gamely and worked past lousy foul shooting (9-of-23) to record a thrilling 52-51 win.

Senior Laura Keyser, who, along with fellow senior Alexis Haupert, "absolutely held us together this season,"  according to Lund, scored 23 points while Haupert and Lauren Soyke had 10 each.

That the Knights lost their first-round WIAA playoff game less than a week later mattered little; progress had been made.

As a reward, a good chunk of the team went up to Green Bay for the girls state tournament. Gustavson said different signs of progress were shown there.

"We had 11 girls with us, and you could actually hear them talking basketball, saying this team did that wrong, or the execution on that play was really good," Gustavson said. "I don't think that conversation could have happened in November."

There will likely be more such conversations next year as it is Gustavson's intent to come back and help Lund again.

"We embraced the word 'adversity' this season," Lund said, "and the seniors kept a positive influence on things. One of them even said despite the losses that it was her favorite season in basketball.

"That kind of attitude is contagious. They want to work, and we know we still have a long ways to go. We'll (her and Gustavson) continue pushing them because we have some big goals in store for them."

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