There was a bit of joyful noise coming from the locker of the Menomonee Falls boys basketball team at Concordia University the night of Dec. 28 following the Indians' tough, entertaining loss to Bowman Academy of Gary, Ind., 67-65.
And the seemingly positive atmosphere that followed Falls' third straight loss, one that dropped them to 5-6 overall, was not incongruous with the upbeat spin that coach Ben Siebert put on the defeat.
He saw something in this game that he hadn't seen much in the previous two discouraging defeats to Germantown and Brookfield Central: consistent, impassioned effort.
That's something that may get some of the copious number of naysayers off of the high-profile team's back. Right or wrong, when one has a player of the caliber of J.P. Tokoto on the roster, much is expected of both the team and the coach.
The Indians are 3-2 in Greater Metro Conference play, but that figure paints only a portion of the wide-ranging landscape that has been the Falls' crushingly difficult schedule this winter. It has included losses to at the time Wisconsin Division 1 state top 10 teams Germantown, Milwaukee Washington, Milwaukee Hamilton and Marquette, as well as this latest defeat to Bowman in the WBBY Yearbook Shootout.
That kind of schedule would be a hard road to walk, even with an experienced and deep team, which the Indians are not.
Aside from the 6-6 Tokoto, who's on the recruiting hot sheet of almost every high-caliber NCAA Division I program in the country, the only other returnees are senior point guard Jalen Ramey and junior shooting guard C.J. Malone, both reserves on the 21-4 circus that was the 2009-10 Indian squad.
Six seniors off the fabled Falls' class of 2010 are gone and Siebert and Falls have been left scrambling to find depth, additional scoring and rebounding this winter. And as the high-profile losses have piled up, so has the commentary.
It has been stunning in its intensity and in its occasional vitriol for a high school basketball team that was not on anyone's map three years ago. Take, for instance, the Indians worst loss of the year, a flat and uninspired 68-46 failure to Central on Dec. 21, during which the Indians were outscored 22-4 in the first quarter.
Falls was just three days off its bedlam-inducing, emotional loss to rival Germantown, and could have been caught off guard by the intensity Central brought to the game.
Understandable, given that the Germantown-Falls contest was moved to Wisconsin Lutheran College for the size of the crowd it drew.
The Journal Sentinel sent a reporter to the Central game, and the story was posted online. Siebert was quoted about his great concern over a lack of passion and intensity on the part of the team, and that ended up being an issue that caused him to call for a frank and open discussion with his players about a number of issues the very next day.
But other forces were already at work.
In a matter of just a day or so, there were close to 50 reader comments on the Central game story, most of them taking apart Tokoto (21.6 ppg.) for his seeming deficiencies (there aren't many) and Siebert and his staff for their lack of adjustments and imagination.
Some of the commentary was valid, but a lot of it was either just plain ignorant or flat-out stupid, suggesting that Tokoto should transfer to another school and that Falls should seek out a better coach - just ugly stuff.
This wasn't a story about the Brewers or the Packers or the Marquette or Wisconsin men's basketball programs, but about high school kids doing something that's supposed to be fun for them.
But it has become the norm for the Falls team because of Tokoto.
However, if it is bothering Siebert or the team, they are not letting on.
"Hey, no matter what, we're expecting to compete in all those games," said Siebert. "We just haven't gotten over the hump yet. And no, I don't think the kids are reading that stuff. It shouldn't matter to them. Those people (who write the comments) have no idea what we're going through day-to-day."
"Most people who understand the game know all of our losses (even the one to Central) have come to quality teams. People just look at the record and don't look at what's behind it.
"It's a difficult grind. Would we have liked to have beaten those teams? Of course, but we're getting everyone's best shot (because of Tokoto). And J.P.'s doing fine. He's had his struggles like the rest of the team has, but I believe what you saw the other night (against Bowman) was more of what you're going to see from him and the rest of us the remainder of the season. We took a lot of positives from it."
And that they should. The Indians were 14 down early in the second half against Bowman, but fought back behind Tokoto (28 points, 12 rebounds and five steals), Malone (12 points) and Ramey (10). The only thing standing between Falls and victory was the ever-present free-throw problem (11 of 24 for the game) and a few rebounds at the end that eluded their clutches.
"The kids never thought the game was over, and right now, all I care about is what those 13 kids (on the team) think," Siebert said. "Outside of that, it doesn't matter to me. We hit a low that previous week (with the loss to Central), but we had a good meeting and the kids have really come forward.
"They performed like we knew they could."
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