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Every once in a while, a team comes along that you just never forget.
In this case it's three teams.
Time may blur the memory a bit here and there and require searching the archives to be accurate, but what will never be forgotten is how special the Hampshire girls basketball teams of 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04 really were.
For three years running the Whip-Purs played on the final weekend of the season at Redbird Arena. The only other basketball program in the Daily Herald's Fox Valley coverage area to do that was the Elgin boys from 1943-45.
None of those Hampshire teams came home with a state championship, but what the Whip-Purs did, and they way they did it, provided as many thrills and dramatic moments as any state championship. From the not-so-memorable first trip to state in 2002, to hoisting the second-place trophy in 2004, from the storylines of some of their players becoming heroes on the same court their dads played on, to the heartwarming story of their longtime coach riding into the sunset with a win in his final game, to scintillating quarterfinal and semifinal wins by a combined 3 points in 2004, the three years of Hampshire to Normal were anything but normal around here.
Much of this week has been spent reliving those memories with the coaches and a few of the key players. And what a fun week it has been.
"The program was at its peak," said Sue Ellett, Milt Awe's assistant for several years who took over the program in 2003 after Awe retired. "It was near the end of Milt's career and he had put forth all of his knowledge in developing these three magical teams."
And magical they were.
2001-02 — Finally, a trip to state
Many thought the Whip-Purs had the horses to get to state in 2000-01, but the key players who would lead them downstate the next three years weren't a big part of the equation yet and even though they were 27-3 going into the sectional finals, future NIU star Stephanie Raymond and Rockford Lutheran thumped the Whips 59-42 in the sectional finals at Kirkland Hiawatha.
But then came 2002-03.
"What I remember the most about that year was beating Huntley in overtime in the regional final," said Awe, 384-108 in 17 years as Hampshire's girls coach. "I liked that team a lot because it was the first one to make it down there."
But once there, stage fright got the best of the Whips. In the last of the four quarterfinal games (remember this was the two-class system) they didn't score in the first quarter, shot 9-for-46 for the game and lost to Nashville 28-22.
"I haven't looked at that Nashville game since," said Awe, who still lives in Hampshire and still gets to his share of games when he's not traveling.
Still, the Whips had finally broken down the brick wall and made it to Redbird.
"It was by far one of the best experiences of my life," said Rachel Markham, the senior point guard of the 2001-02 team and a Daily Herald all-area captain who now works in health care administration. "I always felt like the year before everybody expected us to go downstate and the next year the fact we were able to accomplish it was something nobody had done. Probably the coolest thing was we had the whole town behind us. The whole feeling was irreplaceable."
2002-03 — Bringin' home some hardware
"In 02-03 everybody expected us to get back downstate," Awe said. "I had more pressure on me that year than any year I coached. We had lost Markham and you just don't replace a three-year point guard, but we did with Amanda Walker."
Walker, who went on to play at Western Illinois and another former Daily Herald all-area captain, was a sophomore that season. She completed a starting five that included senior Kerri Rackow, who now works in community relations for the Chicago Bears, seniors Kate Marchewka and Stephanie Lamkin and juniors Nicole Watzlawick and Jackie Heine.
The pieces were in place. Coming off a 28-4 sectional final run, and dominating every team that came into the Purple Palace on the way to a 63-game home winning streak, the only blemish on the regular-season record was a 53-46 loss to Bartlett and a some sophomore kid named Lindsay Schrader in the Geneva Thanksgiving tournament. After that, for the next 26 games, the closest anyone would come to beating Hampshire would be Byron (remember that name) in a game the Whips won 45-36 on Jan. 24.
Burlington Central gave the Whips a battle for a while in the regional title game before Hampshire prevailed 56-42. Nemesis Rockford Lutheran was disposed of, 66-49, in the sectional semifinals at Byron, Next up, the Byron Tigers in the sectional finals.
And it looked like that was it. Byron led for much of the game and Hampshire's "bigs" were being held in check. But then the Whips mounted a comeback and finally tied the game. They had possession but only 6 seconds to work with to avoid overtime. I can vision what happened next like it happened last night.
Walker brought the ball down the floor and for some reason Byron's defense gave her a clear path toward the basket. She pulled up from about 5 feet and dropped in the game-winner as the buzzer sounded, sending a sea of purple rushing onto the court. Sweet Sixteen again.
"It was like the Red Sea parted," said Awe, and that's exactly what it looked like.
"I knew we had to go 6 seconds (with) all we had and we had to get it in," said Walker seconds after the game. "We just had 6 seconds. I was going to weave through anybody I could at that point and then hopefully it would go in."
It did, and then came the supersectional at Rockford College. Hampshire, 29-1, against Prophetstown, also 29-1. They were hangin' from the rafters and not one second of that game disappointed anyone in the gym.
What Awe remembers most about that game wasn't what happened to win it in overtime, but what happened at the end of regulation to not lose it.
"Prophetstown had three shots at the basket in the final 10 seconds to win the game and they missed all three," he said. "I just kind of figured then we were destined to get downstate again."
They were. Heine made 2 free throws with 2:22 to play to put the Whips up for good. Walker finished with 20 points and another scene that we can remember like it was last night was Walker, with Hampshire ahead 58-55 and the clock winding down, weaving in and out of Prophetstown's attempts to steal the ball, then the horn sounding and yet another memorable sea of purple storming the court. On the way to Normal again.
"We were determined to get back there after we played so poorly the year before," Awe said after the supersectional win.
The Whip-Purs would not play poorly in Normal this time. They held off Decatur St. Teresa (remember that name too) 57-54 in the quarterfinals as Heine, Walker and Tori Awe, Milt's niece, all scored in double figures.
Then came a semifinal against a Chicago Hope team that won the state tournament, only to have to forfeit the trophy later for playing too many games. And had Hampshire had a couple more minutes, the Whips may have upended the talented Eagles. Hampshire fell behind 33-18 at halftime but charged back, only to fall short in the end, 63-58.
But they came home winners. Heine scored 19 points and the Whips beat Okawville 68-62 to finish the season 32-2 and bring home the first state basketball trophy of any kind to the Purple Palace. The homecoming celebration was one to remember and anyone who still has a working video of that day should cherish it forever. It was Awe's swan song. He was going into retirement and Ellett was taking over. And the expectations for 2003-04 were bigger than ever.
2003-04 — A magic carpet ride
Little will ever compare to the frenzy that surrounded Hampshire girls basketball in 2003-04. A fiery new head coach and a veteran team. Was there any reason not to make the Normal hotel reservations in November? Turns out those who did so didn't have to cancel.
"The cupboard was very full when I opened it up," said Ellett, who still teaches math at Hampshire but who now spends her free time watching her daughters, Taylor and Connie, play golf for Northern Illinois University. "The program was firing on all cylinders. We had every component you needed to be successful — supportive parents, talented kids and depth. Once we got over the hump, in 02-03 it was expected to go to state again and in 04 it was expected to get to the championship game. The kids met all of our expectations and fulfilled all of our goals."
Joliet Catholic beat Hampshire in the Geneva Thanksgiving tournament, and Rockford Boylan tripped up the Whips in the Harlem Christmas tournament final. Then came 11 wins in a row before Hampshire hit a bump along Route 72 somewhere between Hampshire and Stillman Valley and lost, 46-37.
"That was a reality check," Ellett said, knowing full well her team would likely see Stillman again, this time in a sectional semifinal the Whips won 50-43.
Then came a sectional final with comparable drama to the one the previous year. The site this time was Genoa-Kingston and another full house watched North Boone, undefeated coming in, shattering the dream. The Vikings led by as many as 13 late in the third quarter and Heine was on the bench with four fouls. But the Whips regrouped, Abby Young hit a 3-pointer to put them ahead with 2:46 to play and a remarkable 59-56 comeback win staved off heartbreak.
"That was definitely the turning point of the postseason," Ellett said. "Nicole, Amanda and Jackie threw us on their back and found a way to win."
They dominated Lanark Eastland in the supersectional and then became Cardiac Kids in Normal, beating Riverton 38-37 in the quarterfinals and Carthage 48-46 in the semis. A matchup with Decatur St. Teresa for the championship was set. But as talented as the Whips were, St. Teresa was as well, and Hampshire went down, 59-50, in the title game, ending a three-year run that will live on in the memory of many for a long long time.
"I felt like I was at the top of Mount Everest, stuck the flag in, measured it and fell just short of the peak," Ellett said. "We had climbed the mountain and it was a magical year."
The memories, aah, the memories
Yes, there are many; far more than we can share in what little space there's left here today. So we close by hearing from three of the players who were so central to the success of Hampshire girls basketball 10 years ago — Watzlawick, Heine and Walker. And we hope they all enjoy their memories and tell many stories when they gather for a reunion at Ellett's house on Feb. 9.
"It'll be fun," said Awe. "I think of those kids a lot. They were such great kids. It was even fun for me the year after I left to follow them all the way. It was a fun run."
•"I can't believe it's been 10 years already," said Watzlawick, who went to play at Wisconsin-Parkside and who now teaches and coaches at Bradford High in Kenosha. "It's crazy how time flies. I'd have to say my favorite memory was playing in the state championship game and working so hard to get there and having so much support behind us. I feel so honored to be part of the three teams that went to state. It feels like it was just the other day. I loved that we accomplished our goal to get there the first year and just got better from there. It was awesome to experience, something to accomplish with good friends and great coaches I still talk to."
"There are so many memories, but seeing how proud my dad was really sticks out," said Heine, whose dad, Don, a former standout three-sport athlete at Hampshire, passed away recently. "That just stands out so much more now.
"It was a lifestyle," said Heine, who is completing her Master's in education at Saint Xavier University, where she played and is also an assistant women's basketball coach, helping mentor her younger sister Chrissy. "We were like a family. We were all on the same page. The fact we never lost at the Purple Palace. How many people can say they never lost a home game? One of the most exciting games was the third-place game because it was coach Awe's last game."
"I would go back to high school in a heartbeat," said Walker, who is now married to Andrew Jones, expecting their first child soon, and teaching and coaching at St. Charles Borremeo School in Hampshire. "Obviously state was the cherry on the top but we were more of a family and a team than anything I ever experienced in college. We weren't all best friends but we were good friends and we hung out together all the time. The games all kind of flood together, but the fans, the parents sneaking out at night to decorate, the beads and the poms and the bus rides ... we had so much fun."
Yes, the bus rides. Old Yellow, Awe called it. Which brings us full circle.
"My own kids were 10 and 8 then and what I remember so well is that when Jackie and Nicole and Amanda were being goofy teenagers in the back of the bus, they were nice enough to cover my kids' ears," said Ellett. "Taylor just said the other day that on the 9th, they won't have to cover hers or Connie's ears."
And the stories they will tell.