Gibsonburg is 11-1, but many of this year's seniors - from left, Nathan Kirwen, Clyde Ickes, Kyle Nehls, Derek Wasserman, Trevor Williamson, Brent Hiser, Wyatt Kiser and Brent Ernsthausen - played on the 2-19 varsity team their freshman year.
GIBSONBURG - A 2-19 season doesn't sound like much of a building block toward a championship season.
But the Gibsonburg boys basketball team feels the seeds of its current success were planted during a dismal 2-19 season in 2002-03.
That year Brent Liskai was in his first year as coach of his alma mater, and his roster included several freshmen who saw extensive varsity action.
The results weren't pretty.
"We weren't just 2-19 - we lost our first 15 games," Liskai said. "It's hard to lose your first 15 games in your hometown. But so many people stuck behind me. They said, 'Coach, you're doing the right things.'
"At times it's easy to doubt ourselves, but I knew we did the right thing and we'd be OK."
The group of freshmen that year were talented, having won the Suburban Lakes Leagues' eighth-grade title one year earlier. But having freshmen play against seniors turned out to be a mismatch.
"Playing varsity my freshman year was totally different than it is now," said senior Derek Wasserman. "Freshman year, it seemed everything we tried to do, we struggled. We couldn't get anything to go."
But those freshmen had faith in Liskai, who as a player helped lead the Golden Bears to SLL titles in 1988 and '89, as well as a district title in '88.
"He's a great coach who knows what he's doing, and he was a good player when he was younger," senior Brent Ernsthausen said of Liskai. "We hear some of his stories, but he wants us to hang a banner of our own up in here."
Senior Nathan Kirwen agreed, adding, "Through those times when we were struggling, [coach] kept reminding us that things would get better. He had tough years when he was young, and as they got older they went to the regional. He told us to be patient."
Liskai also told his team to work hard. And they did, surviving double practices during the Christmas break that season, and occasionally mixing in three practices in one day.
"We really put in a work ethic that season," Liskai said. "Sometimes I feel bad that we worked them so hard, but it has paid off in the long run. And that tells you what kind of kids we have. It's not fun when you're losing, but to work that hard when you're losing says something about all of those kids."
The results of that patience and hard work were slow but steady. One of Gibsonburg's wins that season came against Otsego, one of the league leaders that season. Two years ago the Golden Bears inched toward .500 before improving to 13-8 last season.
This year the Bears have blossomed. With eight seniors, most of whom boast extensive varsity experience, Gibsonburg enters tonight's contest with Woodmore at 11-1 overall and alone atop the SLL standings with a 7-1 record.
While the team's first-place status has been satisfying, Liskai said it is even more satisfying to see the players' work ethic remain the same.
"These kids worked as hard when they were 2-19 as they do now," he said. "We do the same things. There have been some good players who taught these guys how to work, and these guys took it and ran with it."
As a result the Golden Bears, who were the hunters as freshmen, have become the hunted.
"It was much easier being the hunter, going out each night thinking you can spoil someone's season by beating them," Kirwen said. "Now the roles have changed. We have a big target on our forehead, and teams are out to beat us. We have to get used to playing hard each night because we never know what we're going to see."
Liskai feels that's a good problem to have.
"[Tuesday] we got an outstanding effort from Otsego, and I told [our guys], 'You are a lot of people's championship game,'●" he said. "You have to play hard and stay focused."
"But these kids don't change - they're as goofy now as they were [as freshmen]. But knowing the other end of [winning and losing] helps us appreciate where we are now."
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