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Basketball

Girls basketball: Henze, Brinker team up to take Eastland to title

LEGENDS OF LANARK

It’s a little before 3 p.m. on February 29 at Redbird Arena. The most prolific scorer in Eastland basketball history is on the court celebrating as the players from Aurora Christian, Tri-County and Lewistown get their medals and trophies for their finishes at state.

Next to her is the person who was the most prolific scorer in Eastland girls basketball history up until December.

Since returning to the school where she scored 1,613 points in her own stellar career, Nicole Brinker has coached a string of regional champions and made a pair of trips to state. A huge part of that was the player who eventually knocked her out of the top spot on Eastland’s scoring list, senior guard Erin Henze.

Henze capped off her playing career by leading the Cougars to the Class 1A state championship, and with it a second straight nod as Sauk Valley Media’s Player of the Year. Brinker is SVM’s Coach of the Year for the second time.

“Standing there with the championship trophy, I was just thinking back on all the years of basketball I’ve played with the girls, and the passion I have for the game and the Eastland fan base,” Henze said. “It was really just kind of surreal moment, soaking it all in.”

Getting that championship trophy instead of the second-place trophy for the second year in a row came down in large part to Brinker, reminding her players at halftime of the state title game when Eastland trailed Lewistown 36-26 that they were about to play the final 16 minutes together as a team, and to Henze, who scored 20 points in the final as the Cougars rallied for a 62-57 win.

It also came down to one aspect of her game that Brinker felt was lacking earlier in Henze's career: defense.

“When I was a freshman, Brinker hounded my defense pretty much every day in practice,” Henze said. “She yelled at me every day, sophomore year pretty much, too. I kept thinking ‘Why is she yelling at me, I don’t think my defense is that bad.’ But then when you go back and watch film, yeah, it was pretty bad.”

“She has a nose for the ball, but sometimes she reaches and gets herself out of position,” Brinker said. “Or she’s watching what’s going on and she wants the steal, but she forgets she’s got to guard her player. She made leaps and bounds between her freshman year and senior year, and this year led us in steals. She still got yelled at this year because she’d be out of position defensively, and I’d get an eye-roll out of her.”

With 7:35 left in the third quarter of the state title game, moments after a Meredith Janssen jumper had cut the deficit to eight, Henze picked up a steal and immediately drew a foul from Lewistown’s Libby Hopkins. Henze hit a pair of free throws, getting the Cougars back within striking distance.

Henze came away with four steals in the state championship game. That came on the heels of three steals in the semifinal win over Tri-County.

“Those state games, she did one heck of a job,” Brinker said. “She played the defense she needed to play and stuck to the player she was supposed to be on. She learned how to play the defense.”

••••

It’s a little before 1 p.m. on February 29 at Redbird Arena. The custodial crew is sweeping the floor following the girls Class 1A third-place game between Tri-County and Aurora Christian. Standing in the tunnel at one end of the floor are the Eastland Cougars, waiting to take the floor for the state championship game.

At the front of the pack of Cougars, Henze waits to lead her team out on the floor, a basketball tucked under her arm. Next to her, with an arm around Henze’s shoulders, stands a player who has stood side-by-side with her on basketball courts for years.

In December, after Henze surpassed Brinker’s program scoring record, Brinker said she always knew one of those two players would break her record at some point, she just wasn’t sure which one: Henze or Lydia Coatney.

“You have to tell yourself, don’t hold anything back because there is nothing to save your energy for, these are your last two games with your best friends,” Henze said.

If Eastland’s success on the basketball court over the past 4 years was the product of a highly successful partnership between player and coach with Henze and Brinker, it was also the product of a highly successful partnership between the two guards.

“Her 3-point shooting ability is the best in the world, in my opinion,” Coatney said. “Nobody can stop that. You leave her open, and you’ll be paying for that mistake.”

Teams at Redbird Arena certainly did. In the semifinal against Tri-County, Henze knocked down seven 3-pointers, outscoring the Titans on her own, 29-28. The following day, she hit four more in that 20-point game against Lewistown. Meanwhile, Coatney combined her drives to the basket with a slew of pull-up jumpers to score 15 points.

“She’s one of the greatest athletes that I’ve played with or against, and her ability to drive into the lane is second-to-none – and she gets shots off and does all this funky stuff,” Henze said. “I’m also out there on the 3-point line, ready for her to pass it out to me.”

That connection dates back to elementary school. They were playing in a co-ed league through the YMCA when they were young.

“Erin looks at a picture of that [team] and looks at a little girl and says ‘Who’s that,’ and I said ‘Erin, that’s you!’” Coatney said. “Back then, we were lucky to be able to dribble the ball down the court, so we were not aware of each others’ skills, but obviously we were still laughing through it and crying through it all. It was good times.”

In Coatney, Henze saw a player not afraid to go out and guard the other team’s best player, someone who was going all-out, no matter what.

“She’s always been a little spitfire,” Henze said. “Always giving 110%, and that has continued throughout her entire life; no matter what she does, she gives 110%. Every day in practice you see her working hard, and I think that’s what sets her apart from other athletes. Normal teenage girls want to throw in the towel when it gets too tough or when you get to sweating. That’s never been Lydia. That’s not how she rolls.”

••••

It’s February 2016.

Brinker has just capped off her first season at the helm of the Eastland girls basketball team, a decent season in which the Cougars won 20 games behind senior guard Bubby Doubler, but fell short in the regional championship game when Erie’s Rachel Cobert hit a layup at the buzzer to knock the Cougars out of the postseason, 42-40.

So Brinker is off to a junior high game, just to see what kind of talent she might have coming in.

“I watched these guys play, and it was one of those things that it made you feel a little bit better knowing that you were going to have them for the next 4 years,” Brinker said. “It started with Erin bringing the ball down the floor. I don’t know how many steals she had. Then she throws a pass to Lydia, who just jumps up and tips it in as an eighth grader. Right then, you knew you had something special.”

In Coatney and Henze, Brinker saw a pair of players that could contribute immediately on the varsity roster as freshmen, even on a roster laden with older, more experienced talent like Katie Krogman and Makenzie Fink.

Coatney and Henze would be able to contribute but, Brinker said, they would have to learn to play a bit more structured basketball first.

“In junior high, they would get steals in the press and just be a two-man game with a quick three-on-two or three-on-one,” Brinker said. “They had to learn how to play structured basketball. One of the hardest things for them was to run a play and understand what we were trying to get out of it. We’re not doing it to be slow, we’re doing it to get somebody a shot.”

Coatney and Henze were going to be contributing to the varsity squad as freshmen. Making that transition far easier was Brinker.

“Our transition into high school was starting off with her, which gave us an advantage because we got to funnel in with her the whole time, there was no transition process,” Coatney said.

In their very first varsity game, a 61-47 win over Rochelle at the Forreston Tournament, Coatney scored 19 points. Henze added eight.

“We were definitely nervous and a little more apprehensive because we had just come from junior high and we didn’t really know what to expect,” Henze said. “In junior high, you’re all on the same level. You’re playing with people the same age as you. But then when you come into varsity as a freshman, you don’t really know what you’re getting into, playing with older girls and playing against older girls. We really just had to listen to what Brinker told us every day in practice, and stop trying to do our own thing like we were doing in junior high.”

Coatney was the more prolific scorer of the two that season, averaging 13.7 points per game to Henze’s 9.4 for a team on its way to a regional title.

Coatney said that as a freshman, Henze was "going to come out guns-a-blazing." Henze did more of that later in her career, adding pull-up 3-pointers in transition to her already loaded skill-set.

That was just the beginning, as the two would be mainstays in the Eastland lineup for 4 years, other than a brief stint last season when Coatney was battling illness and was out of the lineup, and together they won four regional titles.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to have the ability to play 4 years of varsity,” Henze said. “Starting you out right as a freshman is difficult, and there’s a lot of hiccups and steps to overcome, but really that 4 years of varsity experience allows you to become a much more developed player your junior and senior years.”

••••

It’s the afternoon of March 3 in the weight room at Eastland High.

The basketball season has been over for a few days, but Henze is still in the weight room, getting in some work on dips.

Eastland strength and conditioning keeps a leaderboard for the top marks in vertical jump, broad jump, pull-ups, squat, bench press and dead lift. The board is covered in names of girls basketball players.

Coatney has the top vertical jump at 24.5 inches, edging out teammates Talena Rogers and Dani Rush, a vertical jump that came in handy in the state semifinal when she had three blocked shots. One of those was a denial in the lane of Tri-County’s 5-11 junior forward Kaylenn Hunt. Hunt has some leaping ability of her own, having taken seventh in high jump at last May’s state track meet.

Getting in some work in the weight room is something the Cougars take seriously, whether it’s lifting or some crossfit work.

“Everybody’s always in the weight room, and even people from other teams, coaches will say, 'We can never seem to get a jump ball against your girls’ or ‘They always seem so strong,’” Henze said. “I think that does speak for itself. I think we have a better lifting program than a lot of schools in the area that allows us to get rebounds or get jump balls or get loose balls and just muscle up in there even though some of us aren’t that big.”

••••

It’s the evening of January 21 in the gym at Lanark.

In a battle of two state-ranked teams, Amboy has come out on top, beating Eastland 68-61 in a game where Henze was held scoreless until the final seconds. It is the Clippers’ second win over Eastland in as many weeks, but the Cougars have a pretty good idea that they’ll get another shot at Amboy in the sectional final.

“In both games, afterward when we were reflecting on the loss, we kind of just had to have the mindset that we lost that one but we’ll get them the next time,” Henze said. “We have to come to practice and prepare ourselves so that the next time we come out on the winning end.”

In the end, Eastland did come out on top in that one, a 59-58 sectional final win that saw Coatney sink a game-winning 3-pointer with 5 seconds left.

It wasn’t the first time the Cougars had suffered a loss in Henze’s and Coatney’s playing career – and it wasn't the first time that loss fueled the team moving ahead.

In the 2019 Class 1A state title game, Eastland lost to a loaded Danville Schlarman team. Far from getting down about that loss, the Cougars used it as motivation to get back to Redbird Arena.

“Motivating these guys was never an issue,” Brinker said. “Coming into practice, you knew you were going to get 100%, and if you didn’t get 100%, I didn’t have to do a lot of correcting, because the senior group across the board, from the kids that played a ton to the kids who didn’t get in a lot, knew what their job was and they knew they wanted to push each other. So if they had a lackluster practice, they called each other out.”

Eastland and Amboy met three times during the 2019-20 season, playing three epic games in crowded gyms. For the game in Amboy, fans started to show up during a boys basketball practice hours before tip-off. For the game in Lanark, cars were parked blocks away, and even along Highway 52 in front of the school.

Even when Eastland faced Burlington Central at Boylan’s Reindeer Games tournament in December, that game was put in the auxiliary gym, with hardly enough room for all the people who wanted to see it.

“Small-school basketball up here in northern Illinois is amazing,” Henze said. “The crowds that you get are incredible. It does prepare you for the big-court games like down at state when we have such a great following throughout the year, and we have one of the best fan bases around.”

•••••

It’s the morning of February 28 at Redbird Arena.

The Class 1A state semifinal was never in doubt. Eastland jumped out to 19-4 lead against Tri-County, then outscored the Titans 17-1 in the second quarter.

That game saw IHSA records fall for fewest points allowed in a state game in a half, fewest points allowed in a state game in a quarter, and largest margin of victory in a state series game.

At one point in the second half, Henze, the 5-4 guard whose forays into the lane usually consist of her flashing through it on the way to an open look at a 3-pointer from the corner, posts up.

She scores. Next trip down the floor, she does it again, and scores again.

That wasn’t a play Brinker called. Henze was the one who called that.

“On Friday at state, I’m pretty sure I was just there for adult supervision,” Brinker said. “At one point, Erin says ‘Hey, I think I can post this girl up, can we run that play?’ and I’m like ‘Yep, go ahead.’ Sure enough, she scores on two straight possessions. And then she wants to run the out of bounds plays.”

Normally, Eastland assistant coach – and Erin’s mom – Colleen Finn-Henze is the one that calls the out-of-bounds plays.

“She takes too long,” Erin said.

So the senior would take over. Sometimes that has led to player and coach calling out different plays. But it would still work out.

“So we would have three inbounds plays going, and, let’s be honest, they all listen to Erin, they don’t listen to the other two of us,” Brinker said. “I think I was just there for adult supervision because it was Erin running the show and calling the shots, and making the shots as well.”

•••••

It’s the afternoon of March 10 in the hallway at Eastland.

Brinker is carrying the state championship trophy, with the net from Redbird Arena draped over it, when a student pops his head out of the weight room.

“Where are you going to put that?” he asked.

Brinker has no idea. Walking past the trophy cases in the hallway, they are packed to the brim with all of the trophies from Eastland teams in one sport after another.

In the four seasons Brinker has been able to coach Erin Henze, as Henze broke first her girls basketball scoring mark, then passed Dalton Shaner for the overall school scoring title on her way to 2,090 career points, the Cougars have added four regional trophies, two sectional trophies, two supersectional trophies, a state runner-up trophy and a state championship trophy to the collection.

There just isn’t any more room.

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