It takes more than one star player to build a great basketball team.
Any cream-of-the-crop team must have depth, players who buy into the system and coaching that brings it all together.
All of those factors have been present as the Sun Prairie girls basketball team won 20 regular-season games, earned the outright Big Eight Conference title and rose to a No. 2 seeding heading into this week’s start of the WIAA postseason tournament. The Cardinals will play at 7 p.m. Friday, hosting either Beloit Memorial or Kenosha Bradford in a regional semifinal. The winner will play for the regional title on Saturday.
“They’ve just really gelled as a team, they play really well together under the leadership of our senior group,” Sun Prairie coach John Olson said. “It’s redundant, but everyone is all about the team here.”
The Cardinals have won the outright league title this year, after tying for the championship last year — which was their first Big Eight championship since 1996.
“We play in an extremely tough and competitive conference, so this was a big deal for us,” Olson said.
Up until last Thursday, Sun Prairie had been undefeated in the Big Eight. But the Cardinals wound up with a 17-1 conference record after falling to Verona on Thursday, then defeating Madison La Follette on Saturday.
“Our team has put in a lot of hard work and battled some adversity this season,” senior Jayda Jansen said. “But we have to keep going if we want to achieve our biggest goals.”
That adversity includes the loss of senior guard Carly Coulthart, who sustained a season-ending knee injury against Janesville Craig on Jan. 20.
“When Carly went down, the team was very much affected by that,” Olson said. “They’ve really rallied around her in the time that’s passed, and she has become a leader in a different way. That really shows that she’s 100 percent behind this team.”
A week after Coulthart tore her anterior cruciate ligament, the team had towels printed in her honor prior to a game at Middleton.
“When one was first handed to me, I just saw my name on it and assumed everyone got their own,” Coulthart said. “And then I saw they all said ‘Carly’ so that was really cool for them to do that.”
In addition, T-shirts — which the girls always wear during warmups — were inscribed with her name before the Cardinals played Madison East squad on Feb. 6. Sun Prairie beat the Purgolders 49-47.
“She was our key defensive player, but I think all of our individual defensive efforts have stepped up since she’s been out,” Jansen said. “That’s made all of the difference.”
It marked the second time in the past three years Coulthart has sustained this particular injury.
“I knew what had happened right away,” Coulthart said. “It’s incredibly hard, but everyone’s been really supportive — which makes it a lot easier to go through.”
Olson had no problem ticking off a list of players who have picked up the slack in Coulthart’s absence.
“Rachel Kostelnik and Macy Faust-Ziegler help to provide a presence down low, and juniors Elle Moore and Grace Hilber have stepped up offensively,” Olson said. “Alexis Baker is another player that is so overlooked — she’s just a go-getter. Kayla Haas is another who has seen an increase in playing time.”
“We’re kind of a position-less team. We don’t have that 6-foot-5 post player in the middle. We emphasize that when you come in, you aren’t a position player, you’re a defender. That’s one thing the girls have really bought into.”
The play and leadership of the talented Jansen has been pivotal for Sun Prairie.
“She just knows how to conduct herself, she leads by example,” Olson said. “She’s one of those players who can make something happen.”
That includes breaking the school’s career scoring record of 1,304 points this season. She is averaging more than 16 points per game and is at or near the top of the team leaderboard in assists, rebounds and steals.
“It’s cool and all, but I don’t play for points, I play to win,” Jansen said. “I like winning more than I like scoring.”
Said Olson: “Her demeanor as a person is never too high and it’s never too low, but she’s a competitor. She competes.
“I look at her as a player of the year in the state. She has led this team to a Big Eight championship while putting up all the stats as an all-around player.”