Shorewood girls basketball coach Jeff Eimers has worked hard over the last several years to bring the program back to respectability from the bad old days of earlier this century when season-long losing streaks occurred on a too-regular basis.
So after a glorious recent run of three straight Woodland Conference East championships, one could forgive him for taking a deep breath and hoping for the best after a large graduating class, including three-time Now All-Suburban forward Jada Stackhouse, left for bright futures last spring.
But behind a new potential star in freshman guard Khamya McNeal, the Greyhounds found their way. Lessons learned in the first half of the season paid huge dividends in the second half of the campaign as the Greyhounds scored a couple of huge breakthroughs en route to a fine 16-9 record this winter.
It was the fourth straight season of 16 or more wins for Shorewood and fifth straight winning record for the team.
"Our development as a team was the most impressive part of this season," said Eimers. "We got better as we progressed. We got beat in the first half of the season by Greenfield, Whitnall and Cudahy, but we turned around and beat them all in the second half of the season. We also played (Woodland West and state power) Pewaukee pretty well, took out a solid Wisconsin Lutheran in a four-five (seed) regional game pretty well and then we beat Pius."
That last achievement came on the road and in a WIAA regional final and may have been the biggest win in Eimers' seven-year tenure with the Greyhounds because for all of their success with the divisional titles and a WIAA regional crown in 2015, Shorewood has had a hard time competing against the Woodland West powers like Pius, Pewaukee and New Berlin West and Eisenhower.
Furthermore, back on Dec. 6, Pius had drubbed Shorewood by an 82-45 count in the sixth game of the season, so that made the 49-40 D2 regional title victory on Feb. 25 all the more improbable.
"That may have been our most important win (in this recent run)," Eimers said.
The Greyhounds could not quite claim a fourth straight Woodland East title as that honor belonged to Cudahy. But Shorewood did manage to beat the eventual WIAA D2 state runner-up Packers in their second try, 40-34, on Jan. 20, just a week after a frustrating loss to Whitnall.
"I think that second with Cudahy was a real turning point," Eimers said."We switched to a 1-2-2 zone, and the girls were very focused. They knew all the games from there on out were 'do or die,' and they responded very well. Cudahy didn't lose again, so we couldn't get the division title again, but I was really pleased with our effort."
The Greyhounds did it with an all underclassmen lineup highlighted by the 20-point-per-game scorer McNeal, who could just take over games at times and whose occasionally amazing passes surprised even her teammates.
"She was always in control of the game," Eimers said.
McNeal got big help from 6-3 junior center Natalie Tomaszewski who averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds and who developed into a tremendous defensive force with an amazing 116 blocked shots.
The Greyhounds were never deep but got tremendous mileage out of junior Olivia Kessenich, sophomore Olivia Reilly, sophomore Makayla McMurry and senior Elizabeth Krioutchenkov.. Second half of the season games with Eisenhower and West were hampered when Kessenich missed some games with an ankle injury.
Eimsers siad he knew what he was getting with Reilly (5.8 ppg.) and Kessenich (6.7 ppg.) but noted the development of McMurry (5.8 points and 6.3 rebounds a game) was a very pleasant surprise.
"She had some great games down the stretch," said Eimers.
The season ended with a frustrating WIAA sectional semifinal loss to Tosa East, which subsequently lost to Cudahy in the sectional final. It was a game where the shots just didn't fall for the Greyhounds, but Eimers thinks the defeat could be a big motivator for the team.
"I think if we play that game 10 times, we go about 5-5 with them," Eimers said.
And the immediate future is bright for the Greyhounds as they return all five starters and will pick up a little depth from the underclassmen team.
"It was a fun year for us," Eimers said.