It was November 30, 2010, and Nicole Herkert had just played her first varsity game for the Oshkosh North Spartans.
In the annals of the program it will go down as a 42-35 win at the North Fieldhouse — a victory that snapped a 64-game losing streak for the Spartans. To Herkert, though, it was the launching point. The moment when what had been a floundering program was reborn.
And Herkert, currently a senior with on the Spartans’ squad, was proud to play a role in it.
“It felt like the start of something,” said Herkert, who had a team-high 14 points in the game. “We realized we can do it and we can beat other teams and I think that’s when we really turned it around. That was probably my favorite moment.”
Fast forward to today and the Spartans are no longer a non-factor in the talent-rich Fox Valley Association.
North stands in second place in the league heading into tonight’s regular-season finale against Oshkosh West and have reached a milestone with 16 wins already this season.
“It’s really exciting. I think we feel really good because we know it’s not going to end. The whole program is getting better so we know it’s going to continue when we’re gone,” Herkert said. “We’re really proud that we could have done it but we still want to go into the postseason and do things that North hasn’t done in awhile, too.”
At the crux of the Spartans’ turnaround has been the versatile Herkert — a co-captain on a team filled with leaders and the tone-setter that the talented North squad can follow on and off the court.
“When you ask someone who has that natural kind of heart, desire and work ethic, she’s just kind of a natural leader by example,” North coach Rachel Biertzer said. “I think Nicole is the type of kid who could care less about her boxscore as long as we get a ‘W’ and her teammates are around her in that. I think that’s her No. 1 focus all the time.”
The intangibles Herkert brings to the court are backed up by plenty of numbers.
She is the second-leading scorer for the Spartans at nearly 12 points per game and has scored at least eight points in all but two of the team’s 21 games this season.
On paper, she is a 5-foot-10 post player, but on the court she is equally adept at stepping out on the perimeter and knocking down a 3-pointer as she is going inside and scoring off an offensive rebound.
“She’s very versatile,” Biertzer said. “I think she’s one of, if not the most versatile posts in our conference in the sense that she can go in and out.”
For Herkert, her career has been simply about one thing — just playing basketball.
In her mind, that’s what helped the current group of Spartans generate the program’s rejuvenation. They have just gone out and done what they always have done.
“All we’ve done, since middle school was play basketball as a team,” Herkert said. “It didn’t change when we got to high school, we still wanted to do the same things. It is just a different setting.”
“Our freshman year, we won 16 games and that was unheard of by a freshman team in awhile. We thought then we had a chance to change it around.”
Herkert has seen plenty of big moments since hitting the varsity level as a sophomore.
There was the win over Hortonville to snap the long losing streak and then last’s year win over Menasha in the FVA opener, which was the first league victory in five seasons.
Then there was this year’s 5-0 start, earning a No. 1 seed in this year’s WIAA Tournament and a career-high 20 points against Neenah earlier this season.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and what it takes to be a good teammate,: Herkert said. “When I was playing in eighth grade, I was just playing to play basketball. But now, you’re playing for your teammates and your playing for each other and its really exciting experience.”
There have been painful times, too. Namely, the pain of a torn ACL.
Six games into her sophomore season and after reaching double figures in four of those games, Herkert injured her knee and would be lost for the season.
It was a tough time — the injury also kept her out of soccer that spring — but one that looking back she feels helped her grow.
“I think it was good for me. It was really tough but it made me realize how much I love basketball and how much I love soccer, too,” Herkert said. “Now I know when I step on the court, there’s a chance I might not step on the court again. So you play as hard as you can every time you step on the court.”
Herkert bounces between basketball and soccer being her favorite sport depending on what season she’s in, but is leaning toward the court as she looks to life after North.
That choice, though, will have to wait as Herkert and the Spartans have more pressing concerns. One of which happens tonight at Oshkosh West, where North is looking for its first win over the rival Wildcats since 2000.
“They’re really fun. They are also really tough, which makes it fun. Every time you play a rivalry game you get excited, but we just can’t get too excited,” Herkert said. “It’s just a lot of fun when you’re in the atmosphere of Oshkosh North versus Oshkosh West.”
A win in her last regular-season varsity game would be the perfect bookend to that night in 2010 when the Spartans beat Hortonville.
And would mark another milestone in the turnaround Herkert helped lead at North.
“We always knew there was a chance we could help turn the program around,” Herkert said. “I would rather go into a situation like this than a situation where the team is undefeated. It gives you a chance to change something and that was something that we were all really focused on.”