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One of the coolest things about covering girls basketball in the Fox Valley for as long as I have is being able to watch former standout players return to the game as coaches.
So, walking into Elgin Academy's quaint gymnasium Thursday afternoon to watch the Hampshire vs. Kirkland Hiawatha game, I knew I was going to see one former Daily Herald All-Area honorary captain coaching.
But the look on my face when I saw a second former all-area captain running a team had to have been priceless.
Former Hampshire standout Jackie Heine was the one I knew I'd see. After a stellar career at Saint Xavier University and then four years as a graduate assistant coach for the Cougars, Heine is back home and is first-year Whip-Purs' coach Mike Featherly's assistant.
That much I knew, and I arrived early enough to catch Jackie grading math papers in the bleachers, so we were able to chat and catch up. While doing so, she pointed over to the Kirkland Hiawatha bench where the Hawks' head coach had her back turned to us.
"Is that Jenna Real?" Jackie asked me.
Startled, my response was a dumbfounded, "huh?"
"I think that's Jenna Real," Jackie said. "It sure looks like it anyway."
We looked in the program and, sure enough, the Hiawatha head coach's name is Jenna Araujo, which Jenna Real became last year when she married Allan Araujo, the Chicago Fire's assistant equipment manager.
Just then, Jenna turned around and our suspicions were confirmed, and suddenly it became like old home week.
It's cool enough to be able to go to a game and catch up with one former great player I had so much fun writing about and watching play, but two in the same night, and coaching in the same game? I almost felt like I should stop at the Grand Victoria after the game to see if the lucky streak would continue.
Instead I stayed after the game long enough to chat a little more with Heine, then was able to sit and catch up with Araujo (sorry, Jenna, it's awkward not just typing Real after Jenna instead of Araujo). She didn't have to ride the bus back to Kirkland as she lives in Elgin, and as we discovered, about six blocks away from me. The small world got a little smaller when I learned that one.
Jenna's path to Kirkland went through Burlington Central, her alma mater and the place where she is still the leading basketball scorer, boys or girls, the school has ever had. The 2003 Central grad scored 1,647 career points before going on to a fine career at Loyola University in Chicago. She came back to Central as the Rockets' head coach until her teaching position was eliminated by the dreaded reduction in force that has claimed the jobs of so many young teachers the past several years.
But she landed on her feet at Hiawatha, where she is now in her second year as "the" art teacher for Kirkland students. She was the assistant coach last season and took over the girls' program this year.
"After I got RIF'd at Central, I needed a full-time job," she said. "Hiawatha had an art opening and I got hired. It's a small school and a tiny district and they needed coaches. It's a really good community and the kids are fighters. It's been a lot of fun for me. The kids are trusting me and they're buying into what I'm teaching.
"At Central we had the Blast program and kids started playing in second grade. At Hiawatha they don't start playing until at least the sixth grade so they're developmentally behind compared to the teams we play."
That was evident Thursday when Hampshire handed Araujo's Hawks a 60-18 loss, but the score didn't keep Jenna's girls from playing hard the entire game and it didn't keep her from coaching -- and teaching -- right until the final whistle.
"These kids have shown me so much heart," she said. "It's going to take some time but I can shape them into the players I want them to become."
The job at Hiawatha doesn't come without challenges. The high school has just 120 students and the facilities are, to put it mildly, limited.
"We're K-12 in one district and we have one gym," she said. "That's one gym for all the teams, the choir, the band, everything. We couldn't practice the last two days and now we have three games in a row. But we do the best we can. Patience and basics. We're a real young team. We have no returning seniors and we have two foreign exchange students. No matter where I am, though, I'm a teacher first."
So while Hiawatha's girls have the advantage of being taught by a former Division I player, Hampshire's girls are now getting basketball knowledge from one of the most tenacious players to ever wear the purple and white, one who played in three state tournaments. Heine's days at Hampshire were the girls basketball program's finest, ones that ended with a third-place finish in Class A her junior year and then a state runner-up trophy in 2004, her senior year. She scored 1,191 career points, meaning there were almost 3,000 career high school points on the benches at Elgin Academy Thursday.
"I just know the game, I love being around it and I love teaching it," said Heine, who is a first-year math teacher at Hampshire. "It's exciting to see players get it, to see them do something right and to get that basketball knowledge."
Heine first got involved in coaching with her dad, Don, who passed away Sept. 22, 2012, when Don coached Jackie's younger sister Missy in Hampshire Park District basketball. She knew from that point on she wanted to be a coach. When Ed Haugens stepped down as Hampshire's varsity coach after last season and Featherly got the job, it was a no-brainer to him to bring Jackie on staff when she was hired as a teacher at Hampshire.
"The girls really trust Jackie more and more as time goes on and they see that hard work pays off," he said. "She's a great influence on the girls."
Having seen these two grow from great high school players into the fine young women and educators they are today, I can attest to this much -- the girls at Hiawatha and Hampshire are very lucky young ladies.