Izy Todd calls her Eastland Cougar teammates her "second family." Fellow senior Megan Janssen used those same words, and went a step further.
"You hear about some teams who yell at each other and don't get along at all," Janssen said. "We definitely don't have that problem."
It has become almost cliché to call any type of sports team a family. But in the case of this year's Eastland girls basketball team, there's really no other way to describe their relationship.
"They don't want to play basketball, so much as they want to play it together," said veteran coach Colleen Finn-Henze, who is taking the Cougars to the state tournament for the first time in her 23 seasons at the helm. "In P.E. class, in open gyms, they always want to stay together, almost exclusively.
"It's a special group with a special connection … it really is like a family. They'll fight like sisters, but if anybody else says anything bad about them, you better look out, because they've always got each others' backs."
It's been that way since as far back as these girls can remember. Senior Breah Bookman said third grade was the first time this group came together on the basketball court, and even then, they felt something was different.
"We grew up together, really, and it's a deeper bond than most other teams could even imagine," Bookman said. "Even in junior high and as freshmen, we just knew something big was ahead of us – we didn't really know what – but we knew we'd make something happen."
That wait for that certain something is finally over. With their hard-fought, defensive-minded 36-33 victory over Hinckley-Big Rock in Monday night's Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional, the Cougars cemented their spot in program history as the first to earn a berth in the state tournament.
But even on the brink of a trip to Redbird Arena in Normal for the varsity Final Four, Finn-Henze and her players are well aware of the role the lower divisions of Eastland basketball player in these girls' trek.
"We have coaches at the junior high, and in fifth and sixth grade, that take their jobs seriously," Finn-Henze said. "They ask us what we're doing, and what they should be doing to get the girls prepared for it."
Prepared not just physically by learning the game, but mentally by not settling for anything less than their best.
"These girls are so smart, just really intelligent, and harder on themselves than any group I've coached," Finn-Henze said. "Sometimes you'll have players think they played well when they really didn't, but these girls are the opposite. Even when they play OK, they'll think at times they played terrible and strive to get better.
"They're not complacent at all, and that comes with their love for the game and each other."
One of those coaches is Izy Todd's father, Kyle. He coached this group of players in seventh grade, and to a girl, each of them credit him and former eighth-grade coach Jen Sturtevant for making them the players – and team – they are today.
"I still ask Jen about basketball sometimes when things come up that I don't know," Bookman said. "She and Coach Todd are so supportive, were always there for us – and still are – and they're the ones who built us up before we got to high school."
"Coach Todd is still one of our biggest fans," Janssen chimed in, "and we still do some of the same drills they did, and use what they taught us to this day."
Izy Todd has been learning those lessons even longer than her teammates. With a junior high coach as her father, the game of basketball has always been a part of her life.
In fact, basketball is still a much-discussed topic in the Todd household … whether Izy initiates it or not.
"Sometimes I'll get home from games now, and Dad will say, 'You did great here, but this is what you need to work on here,'" she said with a laugh. "I just say, 'All right, Dad, that's enough.'
"It was a lot of fun playing for him, and I liked that experience a lot. He pushed me hard, but I was fine with it because I knew it was making me a better player and person."
Izy says she felt no different than her teammates when it came to practices and games, and Bookman and Janssen agree that there was never any favoritism, and Coach Todd treated everyone equally and fairly.
That only helped the notion that these girls were all part of the same second family, and helped them embrace it – all the way to the state tournament.
"We just know each other so well, we can tell what each other is thinking without saying anything," Izy Todd said. "You know if somebody's feeling mad by their expression, and you know who to talk to and who to leave alone, what to say to her and when to say it."
"It's been an amazing ride so far," Janssen added, "and there's nobody that any of us would rather be taking it with."
Well-worn path to state
Spring 1999 – Softball team places 2nd
Fall 2003 – Volleyball team places 4th
Spring 2006 – Softball team loses in Elite 8
Fall 2008 – Volleyball team wins 1A state title
Spring 2009 – Baseball team places 4th
Fall 2009 – Volleyball team wins 1A state title
Winter 2010 – Boys basketball team places 4th
Spring 2011 – Baseball team places 2nd
Winter 2013 – Boys basketball team places 4th
Winter 2014 – Girls basketball team plays in Final Four