It was back in November of 1998 when Brad Meyer and Bob Spence first played together on the Winona C.A.B. Club fifth grade basketball team.
A year later, Mike Thull joined them. The trio of Winona Senior High School players has been pretty much inseparable ever since.
Along with the three years of playing C.A.B. ball together, Meyer, Spence and Thull have played on a spring AAU team that won a state title in eighth grade. They've also competed in summer leagues at St. T's Tennis & Sports, La Crosse and Saint Mary's University, as well as a fall league in Minnetonka.
They've played enough basketball together to know each other's strengths and tendencies, and they've become best of friends along the way.
"We know where everyone is going to be," said Thull, a 6-foot-2 forward who averages 11 points and six rebounds a game for the Winhawks, who were 6-2 entering Friday's game at Albert Lea. "I know Brad will be posting up. They know I'll be looking for a three. We know each other."
Added Meyer: "We kind of have a sense of where someone will be. Bob always plays around the ball. Thull always gets open for a jump shot. I try to be more like a garbage player. I always like to see if something needs to get done. I can be the go-to player too."
Meyer, a 6-4 returning All-Big Nine Conference player for coach Rocky Peterson, leads Winona High in scoring at 18 points per game. Thull is the team's long-range shooter, nailing 14 of his 27 3-pointers this year. The 5-10 Spence runs the show at point guard for the Winhawks. He's averaging 6.5 points, along with three assists and three steals a game.
"Bob has really grown into his role at point guard," Peterson said. "He's shooting 52 percent from the field and 91 percent from the line. He's doing everything you can ask a point guard to do. He runs the show.
"Mike has really worked hard the last year at taking his game to a new level. He's worked on his strength and rebounding. He's more than just a shooter. Brad wants the basketball and wants to make the play. He's a kid we can play either inside our outside and he's equally effective."
Success has followed Meyer, Spence and Thull, along with fellow seniors Jeff Peckover, Brandon Stanek, Mike Bestul and Brent Spencer, all the way up the ranks. They went 17-3 two years ago on B-squad, and Meyer played on varsity most of that season.
The Winhawks were 11-13 last year, which was the first losing season for most of this year's senior class.
"Last year was a learning situation," Spence said. "It was something we weren't used to - not winning."
Meyer, who's being recruited by Winona State for both football and basketball, sees a special bond with this year's team.
"The biggest difference from the past teams is we all get along," Meyer said. "There have been teams with more skill and athleticism, but we all get along. Bob sees things we don't see and we listen to him. We see things Bob doesn't see and he listens to us. It might look like we're yelling, but everyone feeds off each other."
There are also some high expectations for this year's WSHS team. There are no dominant teams in either the Big Nine or Section 1AAA. Winona has already beaten Mankato East, which was ranked fifth in the state in Class 3A, and defending Big Nine champion Mankato West.
"We expect a lot," said Thull. "We want to try and play for the conference title and win our section. That's our ultimate goal as a team."
For Spence, the goal is even bigger.
"I think making state is our goal," he said. "It's been a while since Winona has gone to state (1979). That would leave a mark."
And with even bigger goals is Meyer.
"We want a state championship," he said. "That's what we've been working at forever. We just have to have fun playing basketball. Our first goal is getting the conference championship. Then we want to get through section and make state."
Peterson began watching this group of seniors when they were in eighth grade. He liked the size of those players, the good shooters and the players that could jump well. And his expectations are about the same as his players.
"They want to make the trip to state and make a run at the state title," Peterson said. "We're playing as good as any team in the state in our class. If we keep working hard and improving, we can make a run at it."
It would be the perfect ending to a long relationship for this year's seniors, especially Meyer, Spence and Thull.
"I've known Bob since kindergarten in Goodview," Thull said. "Brad and I met in third grade when I started going to Madison School. That's when we started playing, along with Jeff Peckover, at the Madison playground. It's been a lot of fun. We've had a lot of success and a lot of fun doing it."