Girls basketball: Cougars achieve lifelong dream of going out on top

Perfect ending for senior sisterhood

Eastland’s Dani Rush smiles as she hugs fellow senior Meredith Janssen (2) as the Cougars celebrate their 1A state championship Saturday at Redbird Arena.
Eastland’s Dani Rush smiles as she hugs fellow senior Meredith Janssen (2) as the Cougars celebrate their 1A state championship Saturday at Redbird Arena.

On November 17, 2016, the Eastland girls basketball team opened a new season against Rochelle at the Forreston Tournament with a roster than was full of players who had just been part of a state runner-up volleyball team a few weeks earlier, and a state-championship volleyball team the year before.

One of those veteran volleyball players, Makenzie Fink, led the way with 20 points that night, and another, Katie Krogman, added 12, but it was a pair of freshmen making their high school debuts who introduced themselves to the basketball world in style. Lydia Coatney scored 19, and Erin Henze added eight.

That was their first high school game. Their last ended with them hoisting the Class 1A state championship trophy.

“There’s no way to describe this,” Coatney said. “You’ve got to experience it.”

Along the way, Coatney and Henze were joined by the rest of their class. The Cougars’ title-winning 17-person roster includes nine seniors: Coatney, Henze, Meredith Janssen, Dani Rush, Anna Wilhelm, Calista Smith, Jenna Green, Kaitlyn Wilczynski and Kaylee Hammer. In 4 years, that group went 115-23 – including 18-3 in the postseason, winning four regional titles, two sectional titles, two supersectionals, and finishing second and first at state.

“They have been the heart and soul of Eastland for the last 4 years,” Cougars coach Nicole Brinker said. “To go out with a win, and to go out with a state championship, it’s what they dreamed of when they were little. This is their career. It’s been so perfect, and this is the perfect way to send them out.”

Though it was Coatney who had the bigger debut back in 2016, it was Henze who leaves Eastland and the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer after she broke the program record previously held by her coach at Boylan’s Reindeer Games in December.

But amongst the seniors, it was nothing but support no matter who was doing the scoring.

“We were as close as it could possibly get all these years,” Coatney said. “There’s no drama. It’s just complete sisterhood.”

Janssen and Rush joined Coatney and Henze on the varsity roster as sophomores in the 2017-18 season. Janssen developed a habit of making the little grind-it-out plays that may not show up on a stat sheet but help the team. Rush developed a habit of playing big in big games.

Redbird Arena seemed a fitting place for Rush to end her high school career, since she seemed to play her best basketball on that floor.

In the 2019 semifinal win over Tri-County, her was her late rebound and free throws pushing the Cougars to a one-point win. Friday in the semifinal rematch, she had seven points, two steals and two rebounds, though one of her rebounds was essentially a steal. A Tri-County player got her hands on what would have been an offensive board in the first quarter, but Rush reached out and took the ball away from her.

Saturday in Eastland’s state-title clinching win, Rush had 12 points, including a key fourth-quarter 3-pointer to put the Cougars up by four.

“It’s nothing about the gym, nothing about the arena; it’s all the fans,” she said. “We live pretty far away, so everyone comes down and supports, between our fans, our parents, our student section. The confidence in my teammates, there’s just no bigger feel. Yeah, the court is awesome, the bright lights, but it’s all about the support you have that comes down to watch you. Looking up in the stands and seeing so much blue and orange, it’s just insane.”

That was her second 3-pointer of the game. The first came in the first quarter, accounting for Eastland’s first points of the game.

“No one was respecting me outside the line, so my coach always tells me that if they’re not going to respect you, make them respect you, so they left me open and I took my shot,” she said.

The impact of the senior class has made an impression on the team’s non-seniors.

“They meant the absolute world,” said junior post player Karlie Krogman, Katie's younger sister. “We would not be here. We would not have two state medals if they were not here. I owe almost all of my basketball career to them. They push me to be better. They made me into the player I am today.”

Krogman, Coatney and Henze never left the floor on Saturday, playing all 32 minutes of the win. Rush and Janssen barely left the floor, despite foul trouble for both.

At the end of those 32 minutes, as Janssen inbounded the ball to Coatney with 8 seconds on the clock, Coatney turned and saw Lewistown wasn’t going to foul to keep the game going. The high school career which began with a 19-point night in the Forreston Tournament back in 2016 ended with Coatney launching the ball straight up into the air in celebration before being mobbed by teammates.

“We’ve been dreaming about coming to state since we were little. We’ve been playing together for just as long,” Henze said. “Going out with a win, being state champs, there’s no better way to do it.”

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