Lambrigtsen developed into star at Mount Morris Coliseum
Foundation for success
Plaques hang on the wall next to both sets of doors leading into the gymnasium at the Mount Morris Coliseum, commemorating the donation of the backboards and goals in the name of John Ghibellini.
Inscribed on each plaque is the statement: "For future Mount Morris athletes."
Since their installation, the plaques have witnessed the growth of those very athletes. Hundreds of stories with various plots and climaxes, to the background score of sneakers slapping off the hardwood and voices echoing in the rafters.
Maybe of all the stories, the coliseum knows one best of all.
It starts with a 4-year-old girl named Sam skipping into the gym with her mother, Wendy, following close behind. Sam probably wore a ponytail and a smile – even now, she confesses to not having a serious face.
Sam's arms are thin and short, and they hug the round orange orb like she would a teddy bear.
Most likely, it started with dribbling – the natural inclination being to slap at the bouncing ball rather than letting it come to her hands.
Thousands of times it bounded off the floorboards, growing with purpose each time.
The first shots tickled the bottom of the net without reaching the rim. That changed too ... boy, did it ever.
Roughly 14 years after Sam Lambrigtsen first stepped into the coliseum, she returned to talk about basketball, the future, and her life.
Lambrigtsen, the all-time leading scorer in the Oregon girls basketball program, is Sauk Valley Media's player of the year for the second straight season.
Home away from home
Lambrigtsen arrives at the coliseum wearing a red Oregon Lady Hawks jacket that zips up in the front, a pair of jeans, and brown boots. She brings a basketball and the keys to the coliseum.
Her mother is the president of the coliseum board. Access to the court, which is just a couple blocks away from the Lambrigtsen home, is easy for Sam.
"I'm not here that much during the season," Lambrigtsen said. "But in the summer, if I ever start getting bored, then I just come down here and start shooting. I've spent a lot of time here, ever since I was like 4 years old."
The gym is where Lambrigtsen developed the skills that would lead to 2,044 points in a 4-year varisty career for the Hawks. It's one of nine girls basketball records she holds at Oregon.
Most of her visits to the coliseum were supervised by her mother, a former basketball coach at Oregon, or her father Boyd, an avid athlete and Sam's constant foe in ping-pong on the dining room table.
"They almost always wanted to come along," Lambrigtsen said. "They'd be there to give me tips and push me."
Her parents were always there, even during Wendy's battle with breast cancer that first reared its head during her sophomore year and continued throughout her junior season.
"She never missed a game," Lambrigtsen said. "I told her that she could, but she wouldn't do it."
The left-handed sharpshooter will continue to visit the gym in the coming weeks and months as she prepares for the next step in her playing life: college.
She hasn't decided where that life will take place yet, but she's keeping her options open as she looks for the right fit.
Oregon coach Kristy Eckardt has encouraged her to take her time in the decision, even if that has meant countless hours on the phone for the coach.
"I think I've taken 1,000 calls from all over about her," Eckardt said in a phone interview. "I get a call from some school in Wyoming one day, and one from the other side of the country the next day.
"I've told her it's something she needs to be sure about. It has to be a fit not just for basketball, but in every other way, because that's where she'll have to be the next 4 years."
Growing into it
The next level will bring new challenges. Lambrigtsen has a list of skills she wants to work on, including becoming more proficient with her right hand and improving on defense.
It's nothing new for her to evolve with the circumstances. As a freshman at Oregon, she played on a varsity team that had two seniors.
She could score from the get-go, and the points piled up against unsuspecting foes.
"Her maturity has really been something to watch," Eckardt said. "She came up as a freshman, and she scored a lot because teams weren't expecting it. She was able to force so many turnovers and score on the other end.
"The impressive thing was that once teams learned about her, they took that away ... and she still was able to find ways to score and be a force."
Playing in the Big Northern West with high-caliber teams from Byron, Mendota and Rockford Lutheran meant the Hawks were going to be challenged most every night.
As the team evolved, so did its makeup. In her final year, Lambrigtsen was surrounded by eight other seniors. She and McKaylee Beeter both had played varsity since their freshman season.
"It sort of was bittersweet," Lambrigtsen said. "This was the group that McKaylee and I started with in third grade, and we all dreamed of state. This was really the first year where we were able to play together since some of us were moved up."
The dynamic of the team changed as well, as there were games when Lambrigtsen was forced into the post against towers like Byron's Ellie Lehne. It was a challenge to give up 4 or 5 inches to players.
"When my mom coached us when we were younger, she made all of us learn how to defend the post," Lambrigtsen said. "So, we all knew how to do it. It's not easy against really good players, but I think we made up for not having a lot of size."
The Hawks ended 19-12 overall, and 7-5 in the BNC West. They advanced to the sectional semifinal before falling to Prophetstown, the eventual state runner-up in Class 2A.
"I think about that game a lot," Lambrigtsen said. "It helps to know that we lost to Prophetstown, which was a really good team that went on to get second.
"We wanted to go farther, but winning the regional is something we were determined to do. We wanted another piece of net, and we did it."
The bricks at the Mount Morris Coliseum will echo for a long time from Lambrigtsen's impact. The record book at Oregon is dominated by her name.
But her imprint is deeper than that. She's worked with younger players at camps at Oregon and Mount Morris. Her play has inspired the next generation at the school, and in the village of 3,100 residents.
"She's always been really good with the younger girls," Eckardt said. "She helps with camps, and the girls get excited to work with her. They come to the games, and they leave wanting to play like her."
As for coaching, Lambrigtsen expects there will be some of that in her future. It's in her blood, after all, as the daughter of a coach.
"Oh, definitely, when my kids get into it," Lambrigtsen said. "And they definitely will be into it."
It's possible in several years that the scene will play out again. The old coliseum will see Sam again – this time with her own young boy or girl to guide.
Because while Sam's high school playing days are over, buildings like the coliseum go on, always there for the future athletes who dream big, even in small towns.