In turning around the struggling Cedarburg boys basketball program, coach Tom Diener went back to the basics which have served him so well in his successful career.
"It was just a lot of hard work by a lot of people," Diener said about the Bulldogs' rise from five victories four years ago to 25 this season. "The kids worked hard and learned. There are some seniors who have been with me for all four years. This (turnaround) is from hard work, dedication and commitment."
Besides those qualities, the Bulldogs built upon some other staples of Diener's 32 years of coaching.
"My teams have played man-to-man defense for my entire career," he said. "Early in my career, when I was just out of college, I worked a camp with Bobby Knight. He and Dick Bennett and others made great impressions on me. These guys (at Cedarburg) bought into playing man.
"Toughness is something else we work on together. That usually comes with a good dose of hard work."
Excelled in playoffs
Behind these principles, the Bulldogs won the North Shore Conference at 14-0, pulled off a series of nail-biting victories over top teams in the WIAA Division 2 playoffs and came within a few seconds and a long 3-point field goal of claiming the state championship.
For these accomplishments, Diener is the 2016-17 Now Newspapers Coach of the Year.
Even the veteran Diener, who owns five state championships with Milwaukee Vincent, was impressed with his team's play in this season's playoffs. The Bulldogs topped Brown Deer, Beaver Dam and Kaukauna in games that went down to the final seconds, then tipped Milwaukee Washington in double overtime in the state semifinal contest.
"The team gained a lot of confidence as the season went on," Diener said. "They gained poise in the playoffs. Those games could have gone either way, and those (opponents) all could have been state champions."
Included in that run was the sectional title game against Kaukauna, when Cedarburg had to play without standout John Diener, who had fouled out.
The Bulldogs somehow held together under the greatest of pressure and pulled out the game even in the face of 11 points in the final minute by Kaukauna standout Jordan McCabe.
"Each one of our players had a specific role on the team and was good at playing it," Diener said. "When John was not in the game, I had great faith in the other guys."
Diener was a fine player himself at Fond du Lac High School, where he was conference player of the year as a senior, and at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he was team captain.
Turned to coaching
After completing his college career, he faced a question.
"When the air went out of the ball," he said, "I had to decide, how can I stay in this game? I just loved the game of basketball, and it was a passion of mine as a kid."
His answer was coaching.
He took his first high school coaching spot at age 24 and has since worked at six schools: Green Bay West, St. Mary's Springs in Fond du Lac, Muskego, Vincent, Milwaukee Hamilton and Cedarburg.
"I believe if you like what you are doing and work at it, things will work out for you," he said. "I enjoy working with and teaching kids."
As was proven again this season, he is definitely good at it.