The players would see Tommie Mulligan at their middle school games.

Even then, there was buzz about this group.

Even without an obvious superstar, the potential was clear.

And almost 10 years later, the message is still the same.

Mulligan "would tell us the two most important things we can do is stay positive and stay together as a team," said Bella Preziosi, senior guard for the Haddon Township girls' basketball team. "That's what we've done, and that's what we've always tried to do, and it's worked for us."

Last year, the Hawks won a sectional Group 1 title and advanced to the state championship game without a senior in their starting five.

The team featured four juniors and a sophomore - one of the least flashy groups you will ever see win a South Jersey crown. But every player was dangerous. They preached fundamentals, tough defense, and balance-every one of its starters was a capable scorer.

It was a recipe for success that became clearer as the year progressed.

Now, with all five starters back, it's a recipe the Hawks are trying to master.

"I think the biggest benefit of returning five starters is that they're seasoned right from the start, they know what it takes," said Mulligan, in his 22d year coaching the Hawks.

"We know the expectations are high, but we also know our limitations as individuals. Every piece to the puzzle is so important.

"The key is being team- absorbed, not self-absorbed. I've preached that to the girls, but that's what makes us a tough team."

Preziosi, senior guard Alayxiah Carr, senior center Sarah Getzinger, senior forward Katie Burns, and junior point guard Morgan Lenahan all return to the starting lineup for a team that finished 28-3 during its run to the state title game.

Preziosi and Lenahan both averaged 14 points per game. Carr averaged 10. Burns averaged five points and five rebounds. Getzinger averaged four points and five rebounds.

Balance made the team hard to defend late in the season. And as the team's confidence grew, so did its ability to hit big shots and win big games.

"We've all been playing together so long, but the way in which we've come together didn't happen overnight," Getzinger said. "We all have our own great qualities, and I would say toward the end of last season we really started to figure out how to make them work together."

The key to coming together and staying together, Getzinger said, is communication.

"We have meetings about literally everything," she said with a laugh. "When something's wrong the first thing we do is have a meeting, we won't let it linger. Everything, good and bad, we talk it out, we air it out. It just makes everything so much better. It's made all of us closer as a group."

On the heels of so much success, there is certainly a bulls' eye on the Hawks' backs this season - which they embrace.

"One of their greatest qualities is that they really respect every opponent," Mulligan said. "They never go in not thinking about giving it everything they have every night.

"I never have to worry about that with them, they just go out and play and compete."

One of the team's mottos this year is to "always build up, never tear down."

Just days before the start of the season, the team is clearly focused on just that, far from content with its past success.

"We've worked so hard for this season, we've been playing together most of our lives and we know this is the last chance we'll ever have to be on the same team," Preziosi said.

"Right now, the attitude is just let's go. Let's get started."

Contact Chris Melchiorre at rallysports@phillynews.com.