There were plenty of opportunities for the players of the fledgling Lincolnwood girls basketball program to quit going into the 2020-21 season.
While all the players were athletic, some excelling at other sports like volleyball and softball, few had ever played basketball competitively. The team went 0-21 in 2019-20, with no game closer than 15 points.
Adding in the delayed start due to COVID-19 and it would have been easy for the Lady Lancers to fold up shop before the program ever really had a chance to get rolling.
They didn’t though, as all 11 players from last year’s varsity team came back for year two of the new era of Lincolnwood girls basketball. On Saturday, Feb. 13, their dedication was rewarded.
For the first time since the program’s resurrection after it was cut in 1985, the Lincolnwood girls basketball team was victorious, posting a 49-40 victory over their neighbors from Pawnee.
“It was unbelievable. You’ve never seen kids so happy,” said Head Coach Justin Millburg, still soaked from an impromptu water bottle celebration following the game courtesy of the Lincolnwood boys basketball coach, Matt Millburg. “They said that you could hear them celebrating from the locker room on the stream.”
And Millburg’s crew had plenty to celebrate. They not only picked up the program’s first win, but they did so by battling through adversity on the court.
Pawnee, who was one of three teams to host Lincolnwood players in a girls basketball co-op over the last 30 years along with Nokomis and Litchfield, scored first, but neither team was able to pull away in the first quarter as the score stood at 8-8 after eight minutes.
The back-and-forth play of the game continued in the second frame, with the two teams trading points as the score stood at 14-14 with three minutes left.
Pawnee would find an extra gear in the waning moments of the quarter as they peeled off eight straight points to take a 22-14 lead.
Still, Millburg was confident that the Lancers’ game plan was working, even with the hiccup at the end of the quarter.
“I told them at halftime to stay the course. Our plan going in was to keep pressing,” Millburg said. “You just have to believe in what we do. We’re going to get turnovers and our easy baskets. And we did and got right back in the game.”
The Lincolnwood press caught the Indians off guard, and for good reason as Millburg said that the team hadn’t even worked on it in practice until a week and a half ago. The Lancers were quick learners though and stormed back in the third quarter, outscoring Pawnee 19-7 to take a 33-29 lead.
“For them to successfully come out in the second half and run it perfectly, to the point where we got six or seven turnovers right away with out fouling, was huge for us,” said Millburg, who got ten points from Cassie Krager and eight from Maggie McClelland in the quarter.
Eventually, Pawnee would start to find a way to break the press and surged back in the fourth quarter to pull within one point with just under four minutes to play.
The momentum shift was brief though, as Avery Pope knocked down a three-pointer in the next possession, then scored four more points off a pair of free throws and a field goal for an eight point swing.
Pope would finish with 14 points, but her scoring was just one part of her success on the court according to her coach.
“I told them in the last time out, whoever makes the free throws at the end of the game and takes care of the ball will win this game. And they did for the most part,” Millburg said. “How many sophomores who have played basketball a year and two weeks can not turn the ball over at the end of the game and handle the pressure? She (Pope) did an unbelievably good job.”
Cassie Krager would also hit two big charity tosses down the stretch, giving her 20 points for the game. That total surpassed her career best of 17 from Lincolnwood’s last game against North Greene and made her the first Lancer in the new era to reach the 20-point plateau.
Krager’s free throws gave Lincolnwood a 47-39 advantage with 98 seconds to play. Pawnee would manage just one more point in the remainder of the game as the Lancers sewed up win number one.
“I could tell last year it bothered them so much not to get one. We had some pretty severe injuries down the stretch and if we would have had some kids then, we might have snuck one out last year,” Millburg said. “Today they were all here and they all played hard.”
In addition to Krager and Pope, Lincolnwood got eight points from Maggie McClelland, five from Haelee Damm and two from Brittany Slightom. McClelland, Slightom, Krager and fellow senior starters Katelyn Payne and Sophie Rainwater were honored before the varsity game during the Lancers’ senior night festivities, making the win all the more special.
“They worked so hard and we pushed them hard. We wanted them to be successful. I really wanted them to get a win before they got out because they deserved it,” Millburg said of his seniors, four of which have played both years. “They put the time in. They’ve done everything I asked them to do. They deserved to win and I’m proud that they got it.”
While the win was good for the current crop of Lancers, Millburg sees it as even more valuable for the future of the program.
“It’s a big step in the right direction for us,” he said. “The younger kids see the excitement and it makes them want to be a part of it. That’s what we need to be a successful program.”
A 20-win season may still be a few years away for the Lady Lancers, but Saturday’s game was definitely a step forward for the club. Another opportunity for a step comes on Wednesday, Feb. 17, as they travel to Nokomis to take on the Lady Redskins.
February 13 at Raymond
Pawnee 8 14 7 11 40
Lincolnwood 8 6 19 16 49
Pawnee (40) - Olson 15, Langheim 10, Schutt 8, Specht 4, Rodriquez 3. Totals: 15 10-26 40.
Lincolnwood (49) - Cassie Krager 20, Avery Pope 14, Maggie McClelland 8, Haelee Damm 5, Brittany Slightom 2. Totals: 16 13-22 49.
Three-point field goals: Pawnee 0; Lincolnwood 4 (Cassie Krager 2, Avery Pope 1, Haelee Damm 1.
Record: Lincolnwood (1-2).