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Local

Attitude, work ethic help Fink make most of talent

humble standout

If Makenzie Fink had her way, she’d always be looked at as part of a team. She’d just be able to go out and have fun with her friends on the court or diamond, and not have the spotlight shine on her as an individual.

But when you see the recent Eastland graduate perform, you quickly realize that’s not really an option for her.

In a school where many big names have left their marks over the past two decades,
Fink has put her own stamp on Cougar athletics.

The three-sport standout can’t help but stand out: at 6-foot-1, she catches your eye almost immediately. Then, it’s hard to look away when she displays her natural athleticism and determination at all times throughout a game.

The only girl to earn SVM all-area first-team honors in three sports seasons this school year, Fink – who has a pair of state volleyball trophies and scored 1,000 points in her basketball career – is SVM’s Female Athlete of the Year.

•••

To understand what makes Makenzie Fink such a good teammate, you first have to understand what makes her tick – and that’s not always easy. Never one to talk about or draw attention to herself, it’s hard to get a read on Fink sometimes.

But talk to those close to her, and you see why.

“She’s the most humble kid that you can find, and her humility is key,” Eastland girls basketball coach Nicole Brinker said. “She was never too big for her britches, and the kids responded to that; it’s not like they were intimidated by her. She’s just the hardest worker, and if she didn’t do something right, she’s the first one to take responsibility instead of pointing a finger at somebody else.”

“And that’s not an act,” added former Eastland volleyball coach Kristy Pierce, who retired after Fink helped lead the Cougars to the Class 1A state championship in 2015. “That’s just completely how she is. But don’t let her fool you; she has a very keen sense of humor, dry and quiet. She broke up a lot of tight moments in the huddle. She’s an interesting kid, and a great kid.”

It’s not just her coaches that notice these things. Her teammates sing her praises as a friend and a leader, and the word respect gets thrown around a lot when the subject is Fink.

“She really could be, ‘Look at me, I could go anywhere to college, I’m so great,’” said former teammate Bubby Doubler. “But she’s really humble about it, and that’s so important in an athlete.

“Once you see them getting all cocky, you lose respect for them,” Doubler added. “You’ll never lose your respect for Fink, because she’s a very respectable player.”

If actions speak louder than words, Fink is yelling at the top of her lungs. While she’s reserved and thoughtful outside the lines, her decibel level rises exponentially when she’s competing.

“You want to be the best version of yourself that you can be to match her intensity and determination,” said rising senior Katie Krogman, Fink’s teammate in volleyball and basketball. “She’ll push you to do your best, and she brought out a lot in all of us. We wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did in either sport without her.”

How far did the Cougars get? A year after graduating all but two main pieces from that state-title volleyball team, Fink and classmate Ashley Beyers led Eastland to a runner-up finish at the 1A state tournament this past fall. And in basketball, she led a Cougar squad boasting two freshman starters to a regional championship.

“Her determination and intelligence shows on the court, and she brings everyone together to play better,” Beyers said. “She would step out of her own shoes to try something, and then she’d want you to try. If you’re not willing to do that yourself, how can you ask someone else to do it? She was so great about that.”

•••

To understand what makes Makenzie Fink such a good player, you have to look deeper than her natural all-around athleticism.

Sure, at 6-foot-1, it’s easier to dominate at the volleyball net and in the basketball low post. But it’s the other facets of her game that make her the player and competitor she is.

“I’ve always been pretty competitive. I love basketball and softball. Volleyball is my favorite, but I still have huge passion for the other sports, and I love working hard and coming in everyday to get better,” Fink said. “Going from volleyball to basketball, I felt, ‘Oh, I love basketball now that I’m in basketball.’ And in softball season, I love softball. It’s awesome to be able to have three sports that I love to play.”

Brinker has seen this firsthand. After volleyball season ran until the very last day possible for the second straight year, Fink didn’t miss a beat. After just one basketball practice, she helped the Cougars win four games to claim the Forreston tournament title the first week of the season.

“She doesn’t want to lose in anything,” Brinker said. “She just wants to work, she just wants to play, and she wants to be the best at whatever she’s doing. I think if you decided you were going to go out and play tiddlywinks, she’s going to win because she’s just such a competitor.

“Good enough isn’t good enough for her. She’s never OK with where she’s at; she’s always looking for the next thing to see what she can do to make herself better – and make her teammates better.”

That was on full display her entire senior year. With herself and Beyers as the only experienced returning players on the volleyball court, the leadership mantle they had thrust upon them never seemed to be too much for Fink.

Then she found herself on another young team during basketball season, and again came through with flying colors. By the time softball season rolled around, it was just second nature for Fink to be the senior leader for another group of young varsity teammates.

“It’s just kind of natural; she was always there when she needed to be there,” Beyers said. “We both had to step up a lot, and she was phenomenal and filled the role very well. She brought what she needed to bring, always striving to exceed expectations.”

Not only was that leadership role one she wore well, it was also one she grew to like very much.

“I personally liked the challenge of being a leader, and I really enjoyed it because of just … being in charge,” Fink said. “Not being in charge to boss people around, but having people look up to you and rely on you, and you know you need to set a good example for what they need to do.”

•••

Image can be everything to a teenager, and Makenzie Fink is no exception. However, the image she’s more concerned with has less to do with being popular and more to do with being responsible.

“I know people are always watching, so I’ve got to set a good example,” she said. “There’s little kids sitting in the stands, so you’ve just got to be a good role model.

“And that’s something I was always taught, by all my coaches and my parents, is to be that way all the time. How you look on the court is how you need to look off the court, because there are people watching you walk the streets just as much as they’re watching you on the court, so you have to be a good person all the time.”

Fink said that’s not something she dwells on when she’s on the court or diamond, though. It’s just a natural state of being for her, and the leadership just blossomed out of that with no extra prodding.

“She takes charge, and she knows when to have fun and when it’s time to work,” said Doubler, who’s a year older than Fink and played volleyball at Highland College last fall. “She’s just amazing. She’s the one I went to for everything, so much fun to be around, and I really appreciate her so much more after a year of not having her out there with me on the volleyball court.”

Pierce, who coached Fink in club volleyball and at the varsity level for so many years up until this past season, knows that image all too well. But seeing it from an outside perspective gave her an even larger appreciation of just what her hard-working hitter is all about.

“She prefers to be that quiet, just-do-her-thing kind of player, but when she had to, she took the reins – and did a great job with it,” Pierce said. “She and Ashley literally willed the rest of those kids to be better and rise up to their level, and I found it so amazing from the outside looking in – which was very odd for me – that it made me almost want to cry.”

But don’t think for a second that Fink or Beyers spent a lot of time being proud of themselves. As you’d expect, a leader as humble and generous as Fink was happier with the growth she saw in her young teammates.

“They totally stepped up and grew, and they were just awesome to play with,” Fink said, citing the younger players in all three sports. “This whole year, I just told myself and my teammates that we were going to make the most of everything. We knew that they were young players, so we didn’t know what we would get out of the year. Hopefully we would end the year pretty well, but we just wanted to have a positive mindset, and lift up our teammates.

“Seeing what we were able to accomplish together, how they were able to grow, was so rewarding. I couldn’t have done any of this without my teammates.”

•••

While Makenzie Fink’s story at Eastland has come to a close, there are still more chapters for her to write. She will attend Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, and play volleyball. It’s the farthest away she’s been from home for an extended period of time, and she’s not sure what to expect.

“I’m looking forward to it, but I’m a little nervous too,” she said. “I’m excited to meet new people and play at the next level, but it’s going to be a lot of new experiences all at once.”

The biggest adjustment might be giving up two sports which she loves. After spending her life moving from volleyball to basketball to softball every year, Fink will have to get used to narrowing her focus.

“I think it’s going to be weird, because obviously I’ve never had a break through high school, and now I’m going to have a semester just to work on volleyball and go to class, and not have a full-time sport every season,” she said. “But I think I’m excited to really concentrate on volleyball and make myself a lot better in that one sport.”

She’s also excited to have found the perfect fit for her at Northwestern College. While there were probably some eyebrows raised that she isn’t going to a bigger school, it is of no concern to a girl who knows who she is and what she wants out of her athletic career.

“There were people wondering why I wasn’t going to a bigger school,” Fink said. “But I like the community feel of the smaller school; there’s only 1,000 students or something like that, and that’s something that I wanted. I didn’t want to go play at a huge school and wait until my senior year to even be able to play. I just want to go play at the next level and have fun.”

•••

As Makenzie Fink’s story continues to be written, the start of it is so similarly to a lot of star athletes. With her parents’ height, she knew from an early age that she was going to be tall as well. She also knew that sports were going to be a big part of her life, with her mom being a middle school basketball coach and her father and brother big into sports, too.

“My mom was my basketball coach in fifth grade, and she has just been an awesome role model to me,” Fink said. “She told me to try basketball, and I did, and also to try out volleyball and softball – and since then, I’ve always played all three.”

Volleyball came to the forefront thanks to Doubler and her classmates.

“I feel like my freshman or sophomore year, the older girls just pulled me in and I just felt like we just fit in so well,” Fink said. “So I thought, ‘I love volleyball,’ and it just grew from there. They were just so awesome, and we just bonded really well.”

“It seemed like she was meant to be in my class,” Doubler said. “Sure she’s a great athlete, but she was so much fun to be around, it was easy to pull her in. We loved having her with us, and we wouldn’t have traded her for anything.”

It was also from an early age that Fink was instilled with the work ethic that helped her take full advantage of her athleticism and talent. Her parents played a big role in that, as have her coaches along the way.

“You’re never good enough to stop working and getting better,” Fink said. “Coach Pierce has always told me, ‘If you do have the talent – which you do – you just need to keep pushing yourself even harder to get better.’ 

“And it’s always been taught to me to believe in yourself, and if you set your mind to something, and go out and try your hardest and work hard for it, then good things will come.”

Those good things are numerous, and a lot of them are quantifiable. As Fink posed for a photo, the IHSA hardware piled around her was physical proof of the career she’s had at Eastland.

“Too bad you never accomplished anything here,” Brinker teased. “Just look at that haul!”

It’s something Fink never really thought too much about when she was younger. Instead, she idolized girls like Courtney Blair and Hope Linker, who etched their names in the Cougars’ record books.

She dreamed about wearing the same uniform as them. She never dreamed she’d join them in the annals of Eastland sports lore.

“I remember looking up to Courtney and Hope playing at state volleyball, and seeing that 1,000-point club in basketball,” said Fink. “It was so cool to watch, and obviously everyone wants to be in that position, so you keep working hard for it and people will look up to you the same way.

“But it’s weird to think that now I’m somebody people will be looking up to. I’m not really too comfortable when I think about that; I just hope I set a good example for them.”

Fink file

High school: Eastland (class of 2017)

College plans: Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa) to major in business management & play volleyball

Family: Parents Rod & Renee, brother Marshall (21)

Sports: Basketball, softball, volleyball

Basketball FYI: Averaged 14.2 points (7th in area), 7.2 rebounbds (9th in area), 3.3 assists (12th in area) & 1.6 steals per game last season, helping Cougars win regional title. … Passed the 1,000-point mark for her career. … SVM All-Area first-team selection last season, after being a third-team pick in 2016. … 3-year varsity player, & was called up in postseason of 2013-14 run to 3rd at 1A state tournament.

Softball FYI: Hit .500, with a .534 OBP & .833 SLG, scored 34 runs, had 6 home runs & 29 RBIs this season, & struck out 26 in 49 innings with a 3.71 ERA in the circle. … SVM All-Area first-team selection. … 4-year varsity player.

Volleyball FYI: Led area with 676 kills, and also had 236 digs, 59 assists & 23 blocks. … Led Cougars to runner-up finish at 1A state tournament. … Set IHSA records for kills in a state tournament match (27 in semifinal) & kills in a state championship match (24). … Also led area in kills (469) in 2015, when Eastland won 1A state title. … SVM All-Area first-team selection last 2 years. … 4-year varsity player.

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