To the untrained eye, the Mercer boys basketball team may not have appeared to make major progress last year.
After all, the Tigers went 6–17.
But during the previous five years, Mercer posted a combined record of 5–93.
The significance of those numbers comes into slightly clearer focus when you consider that Mercer has just 32 students in its entire student body. That total makes it one of the smallest schools in the state, and ensures that the Tigers regularly play against teams from schools several times Mercer's size.
The participation numbers this year might feel paltry at some other schools, but they're nearly record-setting for the Tigers.
"This is the first season—I looked back—in many, many years that we've had 10 people," said Mercer head coach Adam Miller.
In total, only 16 boys attend Mercer High School.
"Last year, I think we had seven kids go out," Miller said.
"It's been rough, since we've only had so many boys in the high school," said senior James Reichard. "It's easy to have people join, but it's hard for people to grasp the game so fast."
Freshmen, sophomores, and everyone else plays for the varsity here. There's no JV team.
"It's kind of scary, going against some really big schools," Miller said. "All of a sudden, they're putting up 40 points in the first half."
"Going into it, you know they've got more guys. They've got a bench where they can swap in five at a time if they want to," senior Kyle Lukes said. "You know you're going to have to pick up and run constantly for the whole game."
Miller makes his players run fairly constantly in practice, too. Conditioning is less of an option than a necessity for the Tigers.
Like staff members at many small Northwoods schools, Miller has more than just one title.
"I'm the athletic director, basketball coach, soon to be the baseball coach," he said.
He left out his roles as the phy-ed teacher, health teacher, and potential football coach.
The six wins Miller guided the Tigers to last year represented big progress for Mercer. It's a program with more modest goals than other, bigger basketball programs in the Northwoods.
"Five hundred [winning percentage, or] above five hundred is one thing that would really make, pretty sure, our whole school [happy]," Reichard said.
"A winning season would be unbelievable," Miller agreed. "A conference championship here in Mercer —that would definitely be like winning the state tournament."
On Friday, Mercer takes on Bayfield, a school with four times as many students. A whopping 129 kids go to Bayfield High School.
"It doesn't even matter our size, or how we do," Reichard said. "Everyone has a little bit of passion for everything."
"We may be the underdog, but we work just as hard as everybody else," Miller said.