Twenty-three years ago, Colleen Finn came to Eastland High School on an internship to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave for the school year.
As it turns out, the maternity leave lasted longer than expected, and so did Finn's stay in Lanark. She took over the girls basketball program, she met her husband – Karl Henze, an Eastland graduate – and began a family.
It didn't take long before coaching Eastland girls basketball was as much a part of the routine for the Finn-Henzes as washing the dishes and taking out the trash.
"It truly takes such a big support group to be a coach," Finn-Henze said. "I couldn't do it without my husband and my mother-in-law. It's not an easy thing on a family.
"My children have grown up spending their afternoons in the gym. Some people might not like that, but I think there could be a lot worse things. That's the fact though, my kids were raised in a gym."
Fourteen years before Finn arrived in Lanark, and about 40 miles to the southeast, Don Robinson started coaching at Prophetstown High School.
Unlike Finn-Henze, Robinson grew up in Thomson – not far from his future teaching gig in Tampico and coaching stop in Prophetstown.
He married his high-school sweetheart, Deb, and the two realized that there wasn't much the outside world could offer better than starting and raising a family so close to their own roots.
Deb keeps the book for all the games. His 85-year-old father makes it to all of them too – including the sectional in Aurora, where his only option was to ride the team bus.
"I won't lie, there have been a few opportunities over the years," Robinson said. "For me, I always kept the old Jim Valvano quote in my mind: 'Don't mess with happy.'"
That's the lesson of these two coaches who have combined for 60 seasons at Eastland and Prophetstown.
To put that in perspective, the other 15 Sauk Valley girls basketball coaches have combined for 67 seasons at their respective schools.
The happiest part of this story is that the 2014 season – one where the two will share SVM's coach of the year honors – ended with a trip to the state tournament, a first for both icons.
Separate but equal
The feel-good portion of this story starts last summer, when Prophetstown's enrollment, combined with the new IHSA class divisions, moved the Prophets from Class 1A to 2A.
The last 2 years, the Prophets had advanced to the sectional round before falling to eventual 1A state champion Aquin, which was led by Arizona State standout Sophie Brunner.
"Even in those games, we started to see how this team could compete," Robinson said.
"I never said a word to the girls about being moved up to 2A. I didn't feel like saying something would accomplish anything but make the girls feel bad. We just took each game as it came."
Moving up also meant that the Prophets and the Cougars would not meet in the postseason.
"I am glad they moved up," Finn-Henze said, laughing. "I'm joking, but I'm really not. They were an amazing team."
For Finn-Henze, 2014's success grew from the ashes of a 2013 season that ended with center Lexis Macomber on the bench nursing an injury, and an unexpected loss in their first regional game.
"It's was such a disappointing, frustrating way to end the season," Finn-Henze said. "It's easy to say that Lexis was hurt, and that's why it happened. But, we were still a better team than that, and we just didn't play well."
The hurt proved to be a lesson, and the lesson turned into the most defining characteristic about her team: there wasn't much that could keep them down.
The classic example was the 1A state semifinal loss to Annawan. The Bravettes blitzed the Cougars for a four-class state tournament record in turnovers, and Eastland ended up on the wrong end of a 71-45 score.
Many teams would have been crushed by the loss. So much so, that the next day's third-place game would have been more of an afterthought than an aspiration.
Instead, the Cougars refocused and gutted out a 55-50 win.
"We saw early on in the season that this was a resilient group," Finn-Henze said. "You look how they got thumped against Annawan, but didn't let that stop them. They came back and played a good game and got third."
The bounceback caught the eye of Robinson, who was prepping the Prophets for the 2A title game.
"That says more about those girls, and how Colleen has coached them, than anything else," Robinson said. "She has always run a program where the teams play with so much energy, and you know that at some point they are going to turn it on."
Robinson can point to games throughout the last 2 or 3 years where girls on his roster stepped up and made an impact in unexpected spots.
He can tell you about Karlie Stafford's ascension from a defensive stopper to an offensive threat. He'll tell you about the games Heather Strike or Shelby Adams won coming off the bench.
He'll point to players like Corrie Reiley and Clare Kramer getting impromptu starts in the sectional 2 years ago as building blocks to a state run.
His favorite thing about it all was the practices on Saturday morning.
"I think I love Saturday morning practices most of all," Robinson said. "We really work them there. It's all levels of the program going as hard as possible.
"We have a saying that if you are early, you are on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you're left behind. Not one of those girls was ever late, and all of them were 15 minutes early every time."
Through it all, he did it with the same positive attitude that makes him singularly unique on the sideline.
"He is seriously the most classy coach I've ever been around," Finn-Henze said. "I mean, he is positive to everyone. He never says a bad word to his players. He praises the referees. He is kind to the opposing players and coaches. I don't know how he does it, but it is something that is truly special."
Messing with happy
The imperfect world beckons, and both coaches know that their time on the bench is drawing close to an end.
For Finn-Henze, the call of family is pulling at her to hang up the whistle. Her oldest son, Kaden, is 13 and will soon start high school. He plans on playing basketball, and Colleen would like to be in the stands to watch his games.
"It's going to be a tough decision," Finn-Henze said. "I don't know if I could stand giving it up. Basketball season is such a long season, and there are going to be times when both teams are playing. It'll be tough."
She has two more children coming up the pipeline in her 11-year-old daughter, Erin, and 9-year-old son, Kellen.
Robinson's children are already through school, but he is approaching another milestone. He plans on retiring from teaching after next school year, and he has not made a decision if that will be an end to his days on the Prophetstown girls sideline.
"It's something that I'll evaluate when I get there," Robinson said. "I am a very active person. I love to bike and swim and fish. I love to read, and I get so much of what I use in coaching from reading. I don't know right now. I'd be perfectly happy coaching the junior high teams. We will see."
So, for the coaches who have combined for over 1,135 wins – and now two wins at the state tournament – a special season has come to an end.
The future is uncertain, but the past is unparalleled.