DeKALB – Colleen Finn-Henze has been at this coaching thing for quite some time – 23 seasons, to be exact – and has seen some pretty darn good teams come down the Eastland pipeline.
The motto she wants her team to live by has never changed in all that time: Be happy for somebody else.
What it means is, be unselfish enough as a team to share the basketball, and take joy from a teammate making a great play or having a big game instead of focusing on yourself.
Well, following Monday night's Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional win over Hinckley-Big Rock, the Cougar girls basketball team joins the pantheon of other Eastland programs to make the trek to the state tournament.
And Finn-Henze's players couldn't be happier … for their coach.
"This is amazing, but I think we're all happier for Coach Henze more than we are for us," senior guard Courtney Walker said. "If people had any idea what she does for this team, they'd feel the same way. She works so hard, I bet she doesn't sleep hardly at all during the season, and we're prepared for every game because of the time and energy she puts in."
When told that her players felt that way, Finn-Henze teared up and paused for a moment during our postgame interview to compose herself. As one would expect, the veteran coach was just as quick to deflect the credit back to her players.
"This is so wonderful, and it's because these girls work hard, work together, and never give in," she said. "This was a golden opportunity for us to finally get to state, and I'm glad we didn't let it slip through our fingers."
Yes, the Cougars have had their chances through the years to make it to Normal for the state tournament, but they always seem to run into a buzz saw in some form or another.
But in the third-time's-a-charm department, Eastland's girls earned their first Final 4 berth after the program's third sectional crown.
And they became the latest team to add their name to the growing list of state berths won by the Cougars, joining the boys basketball (2010, '13), softball (1999, 2006), baseball (2009, '11) and volleyball (2003, '08, '09) teams.
"I'm sure there will be a little bragging now for us girls," junior center Lexis Macomber said with a sly smile. "It's been great to be a Cougar the past few years, and now we can tell people that we're one of those state teams."
The state berth may be especially sweet for the Cougars who may now have bragging rights in their own households, thanks to matching siblings' state tournament experiences.
Macomber is one of those, as is senior forward Miranda Grisham. Having watched a brother and sister, respectively, receive the adulation and love of Lanark and the surrounding communities for state tournament berths, the two now get to bask in the glow themselves.
"I'm so excited, and I can't believe we made it," Grisham said. "But most of all, it's Coach Henze who deserves this most of all. To finally give her the chance to go to state, to feel what that's like … she put us in this position, and we're really happy that we put her in that position."