Nicole Brinker makes her way from her classroom at Eastland High School to the cafeteria. Along the way, various students, each addressing her as “Brinker,” as opposed to a seemingly more respectful “Miss Brinker,” bring up a host of topics.
One student shows her a drawing he’s working on. She says it’s looking good so far, but wants to see the finished product the following week.
Another student says something about Snickers bars. Nobody mentions anything about the history class she teaches, grades, or anything remotely stressful.
She’s just “Brinker,” there to share a smile and/or a laugh, be a sounding board, or just about anything else an Eastland student who approaches her might need.
It’s a place Brinker is at ease – and also a place she said she would never come back to.
Brinker, 40, is a 1995 Eastland graduate, and one of the school’s most decorated athletes. She led the volleyball team to the Sweet 16 as a senior, and earned various player of the year awards. In basketball, she was third-team all-state, and her coach, IBCA Hall of Famer Colleen Henze, called Brinker the smartest player she ever coached.
In softball, she was “merely” an all-conference performer.
Brinker played those three sports at Highland Community College, then went on to play 2 years of basketball at Illinois-Springfield.
She helped her team qualify for the NAIA national tournament as a junior. When she stayed at Illinois-Springfield for an additional year, to get her teaching certificate, she played 1 more year of volleyball.
In the fall of 2000, armed with a degree, an athletic background, and an itch to coach, Brinker hit the job market. She was only sure where she didn’t want to go – back to Eastland.
“I guess when you come out of college, you kind of have that high school stigma of who you were,” Brinker said. “I said I was never coming back.”
It turned out Brinker planted her flag at one of Eastland’s NUIC rivals – Forreston. She taught history, first at the junior high, and then the high school.
And she coached, seemingly just about everything. There was junior high boys and girls basketball and volleyball. At the high-school level, she was the fresh-soph volleyball coach from 2000-2015, and also did stints with the fresh-soph baseball team (2 years) and fresh-soph softball team (4 years). She also helped with the fresh-soph boys basketball team for 1 year – a group that later advanced to the state tournament.
Her main coaching gig at Forreston, however, was as the varsity girls basketball coach, from the 2003-04 season through 2010-11. It was a banner stretch for the Cardinals.
Brinker’s eight Forreston teams posted a combined record of 219-83, won at least 20 games seven times, and won regional and sectional championships in back-to-back seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07).
The year-round grind of coaching multiple sports, however, was starting to wear on her.
“You do that as a young kid because you want to keep a job, and you know that the more you do, the better – and I have a hard time saying no,” Brinker said. “It got to the point where I was not looking forward to practice.”
The one Brinker finally did say no to was being Forreston’s varsity girls basketball coach. She resigned after guiding the Cardinals to a 21-8 record in 2010-11.
“All of a sudden, going to practice wasn’t fun, it was work,” Brinker said, “and basketball has never been work for me. It’s always been, ‘I get to go to basketball.’ I got to the point feeling I have to go to basketball. It wasn’t fair to the kids that my heart wasn’t totally in it.”
For four winters, Brinker mostly stayed away from girls basketball. She’d maybe attend a game or two, usually in the postseason, or perhaps work the scoreboard or keep the book at a junior high game. That was about it.
Toward the end of 2014-15 school year, it was time for another change. Brinker decided to move on from Forreston altogether, and as fate would have it, there was an opening for a history teacher at Eastland. By then her feelings toward never going back to her alma mater had softened, and she interviewed for the job and got it.
“Something needed to change in my life,” Brinker said, “and at that point in time, I felt like I needed to change. I had to go with whatever my heart told me, and at that point, it was to come back.”
Initially, she was going back strictly as a teacher. That changed when Henze, who posted a 484-214 record in 24 seasons at Eastland, decided to step down after the 2014-15 season.
That opened up a spot for a possible return to the sideline for Brinker. Her first move was to convene a meeting with Henze and longtime fresh-soph coach Jane Martz, who had begun her coaching career at Eastland when Brinker was an eighth grader.
“She wanted to make sure she wasn’t stepping on anybody’s toes,” Henze said. “That’s the way Nicole is.”
Brinker was prepared for whatever was coming her way, whether it be coaching or not coaching.
“We talked about what Coach Henze was thinking,” Brinker said, “and I thought maybe she would do another year. She kind of surprised me with resigning when she did. We had assured her the program would be in good hands, and that Coach Martz and I would both be involved in some manner.”
It turned out Brinker got the head coaching job for the 2015-16 season, with Martz remaining at the fresh-soph level.
“Being that Jane was so good at what she was doing, and Nicole had been so successful at Forreston,” Henze said, “it seemed like an easy and smooth transition.”
It was. The Cougars posted a 20-11 record in Brinker’s first year back at Eastland, losing in the Erie Regional final to the host Cardinals when Rachel Cobert scored at the buzzer. That was also the day Brinker closed on two houses – the one she sold in Forreston and the one she bought in Lanark.
“That was a quite a day – one I’ll never forget,” she said.
The 2016-17 Eastland girls basketball season, initially, was a great unknown. There was athletic talent to work with, based on the volleyball team’s second-place finish at state, but how much of that would translate over to the hardwood?
The only returning player who played major minutes in the 2015-16 season was senior forward Makenzie Fink. There was help on the way, however, in the form of two talented freshman guards – Lydia Coatney and Erin Henze, who made the jump from the junior high level to the varsity.
“Over the summer, things were rusty because obviously we had never played together,” Fink said, “but toward the end of summer I knew we would be something pretty good.”
With Fink and Katie Krogman, another volleyball player who evolved into a solid inside performer, and two emerging freshmen in Coatney and Henze, the pieces were there for success.
“We knew we had young talent coming, but the gains those young kids made were huge,” Brinker said. “And then the seniors did a really good job of being leaders, showing them what they needed to do in the offseason, and pushing them in practice. It just kind of all came together.”
By the time the postseason came around, the Cougars were a well-oiled machine. They defeated Newman in a regional semifinal, avenging a regular-season loss to the Comets.
In the regional final, Eastland handled East Dubuque – a team the Cougars had lost twice to in the regular season – for their 22nd win; they finished the season 24-9.
“Once the postseason came, they had a different swagger about them,” Brinker said. “They came into practice very focused. We cut practices down to an hour and a half, and they came in and they were focused, and did what they needed to do. They were very businesslike about it.”
Alas, the season came to an end in the sectional final with a loss to Galena. The postseason, however, provided another example of Brinker’s ability to connect with her players.
She had told them if they won a regional title, the players could do her hair. A sectional title, and it was hair and makeup. A trip to state, and Brinker would wear a dress to Redbird Arena, something Fink described as “definitely not her personality.”
“We just straightened it,” Fink said of Brinker’s hair. “We didn’t do anything weird. We could have been mean, but we thought we should be nice.”
“Nice” is a good word to describe the relationship between Brinker and her players. Brinker describes herself as a teacher in practice, and not a yeller when something is done incorrectly.
“If they do something wrong in practice, I usually try to stop them right then and there and say, ‘What did you miss’ or ‘What did you do wrong,’ to test them,” Brinker said.
“Her mentality isn’t to yell and scream at us,” Fink said. “It’s to say, ‘You’ve got this. You’ll get it the next time.’ I think that’s what really helped our team grow – her helping us with that kind of stuff.”
Brinker credits her two high school coaches, Martz and Henze, with inspiring her to get into coaching. Under Martz, it was about learning the fundamentals and doing things the right way. That was reinforced under Henze, with whom Brinker would often go to the gym during study halls for games of 21.
“I don’t think I would be a coach if it weren’t for Coach Martz or Coach Henze,” Brinker said. “They taught me how to love the game.”
That love was further strengthened in college under Illinois-Springfield coach Jan Bowers, the third main basketball coaching influence on Brinker.
“I got so much better mentally at the game of basketball when I played for her,” Brinker said of Bowers. “She was a point guard at ISU. She was pretty hard on me, but I definitely learned the mental part of the game, how to break down offenses and things like that. I feel like I really grew, as far as thinking through the game, with her. The people that have coached me have had a huge impact on me.”
When Brinker wants to get away from teaching and coaching, she has a house that needs tending to, and likes to read. She also spends a lot of time with her parents, Harvey and Marge Brinker, who live just a few blocks away in Lanark, and catches up with two siblings, Jennifer Everson of Davenport and James Brinker of Arlington Heights, whenever possible.
Harvey and Marge are fixtures at most Eastland games.
“They’re my biggest supporters,” Brinker said.
Brinker’s best friends are the entire Diduch family – Forreston football coach Denny Diduch, his wife, Jessie; and their children, twins Cadence and Autumn, 10; Rudy, 8; and Treyden, 6.
Denny Diduch has allowed Brinker an inside look at how he runs the Forreston football program, and has designed workouts to be used by Eastland hoopsters. Jessie Diduch attends at least one Eastland girls basketball game per week, with kids in tow.
When the Diduch kids are naughty, Jessie Diduch sends Brinker a text message, explaining that it’s Brinker’s kids who are acting up.
“They are truly an extension of my family,” Brinker said. “They’re not friends, they’re actually family.”
With a home in Lanark, and family and friends close by, Brinker doesn’t anticipate moving anytime soon. She has a teaching job she loves, and is in charge of basketball program that doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
The way she sees it, however, her coaching job is more than simply winning basketball games.
“I’m not making basketball players,” Brinker said. “I’m making, hopefully, good young women. That’s what my role really is. I hope that through their experience with me, basketball aside, they’re going to go on to be exceptional adults, which I know they’re going to be. I hope that I have some sort of role in that.”
High school: Eastland, 1995
College: Highland, 1997; Illinois-Springfield, 2000; Rockford University (master’s degree), 2007
FYI: 3-sport (volleyball, basketball, volleyball) athlete at Eastland and Highland; 2-sport (basketball and volleyball) at Illinois-Springfield; Teacher and coach at Forreston from 2000-2015; Teacher and coach at Eastland 2015-present; Led Cougar girls basketball team to 24-9 record and sectional finals this past season