Geneva's Kat Yelle is the Honorary Captain of the Tri-Cities All-Area team.
Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer
Lucky seven? You bet, and let's count the ways.
But before we get to that, let's make one thing clear. There's no luck involved in Kat Yelle becoming the basketball player she is, this year's Tri-Cities All-Area Captain. The junior point guard, already committed to a Division I college career at Ohio University, led Geneva to a second straight undefeated regular season and plenty more plaques and nets for the trophy case in the postseason.
The Vikings finished 31-1, losing only to Hersey in Monday night's Class 4A Streamwood supersectional, and Yelle was front and center all season. She led the Vikings in scoring (14.1), assists (3.6) and steals (3.1), numbers that don't do justice to the way this Western Sun Conference MVP and honorable mention all-stater controlled games on both ends of the court.
"Kat really took her game to the next level this year," Geneva coach Gina Nolan said. "She worked incredibly hard in the off-season to get to that level. That showed in her scoring average obviously but also in the impact she had on our team on the floor. She directed us on offense and set the tone on defense."
While bitterly disappointed to fall one game short of state, Yelle certainly was proud of what she and the Vikings accomplished. She added 5 points to her scoring average while improving her other numbers across the board.
"I think all areas I picked up from last year," Yelle said. "Last year I hardly took any shots but this year I felt more comfortable taking the shots and next year I will feel even more comfortable with my outside game taking shots."
Now back to the lucky seven. It starts with Yelle herself, the youngest of John and DeLaine Yelle's seven children.
The spunk you see from Kat? That comes from DeLaine, a basketball and track athlete. And the high basketball IQ? Credit in large part to John, a hockey player at Air Force who coached Kat's travel basketball team until she was in eighth grade.
And she's certainly lucky to get such an early start in competitive sports, something that has helped fuel her success.
One of DeLaine's favorite stories happened when Yelle was four years old playing on a 6-year-old boys soccer team coached by John. After Kat had scored 7 goals, John pulled her off the field and into goal where she allowed what John thought was an easy goal. He "mildly scolded" her, and Kat burst into tears and told her mom she didn't want her dad to coach her anymore.
"To this day I have not been able to live that down," laughed John.
Of course John did keep coaching his daughter for several more years, starting as a 7-year-old on her sister Myra's 9-year-old travel basketball team, the Enid (Okla.) Bulldogs. With Cliff Porter joining John Yelle as coaches, Enid made the 2005 national AAU tournament in Dayton, Ohio when Kat was 11 playing point guard for the U-13 team. Kat made such an impression that Missouri's coach stopped by one of her seventh-grade games the following season.
"I liked it a lot," Yelle said of playing for her dad. "It was fun. He and coach Porter were two of the best coaches I've ever had."
Our list continues with how lucky Kat felt to grow up with six older siblings who were all active in sports.
In addition to Myra and John, both seniors at Geneva this year, there was her oldest sister Morgan who played high school soccer and was a cross country runner. Her oldest brother David played football at Southwest Oklahoma State University.
Kat's brother Ryan was an all-state cross country runner, track state qualifier and soccer player. Her sister Dani was an accomplished gymnast, soccer player and swimmer.
"We'd always play pickup games in the driveway," Yelle said. "If it wasn't basketball I'd be playing football or something like that. We had a big enough family we could play. They were really tough on me and I think that's helped me where I am now."
Lucky seven also includes fans of the Geneva basketball program. Who knows if there would have been a state team to cheer last season if the Yelles hadn't moved to Geneva before Kat's eighth grade year?
Her dad spent 22 years in the Air Force after graduation and retired in 2006 as a Lieutenant Colonel. His last base of assignment was Vance AFB in Enid, Okla. He now flies for Southwest Airlines.
Nolan got her first word on just what an impact Yelle could make from then Geneva boys coach Tim Pease, who saw Kat playing on the same Geneva middle school team with Pease's daughter Kelsey.
"He told me you won't have to worry about being pressed for four years," Nolan said. "He was definitely on track with that statement."
Kat certainly feels lucky to have her older sister Myra as a teammate at Geneva the past three years.
Before that they grew up playing travel basketball together. It's believed by the family that Mrya has had the most positive influence on Kat's development - a best friend, confidante, mentor, training partner and teammate.
While not always easy at first to watch her older sister's role take off with Geneva, Myra has remained a rock of support. She'll graduate this year and head to Iowa State in the fall to study engineering.
"She's always been there for me, always believed in me," Kat said. "Some people ask her about me and it's been hard for in the beginning but she's really happy for me. I don't think I could do it without Myra. She has always wanted me to achieve great things."
Likewise, Yelle feels lucky to have Taylor Whitley as a teammate her first two years.
Yelle played in Whitley's shadow to some extent, averaging 9.3 points and 2.9 assists last year while earning a spot on the All-Area team. But it wasn't hard to see Yelle's talent, especially when the games got tougher in Geneva's run to its first state berth.
She scored 20 and 25 points in Geneva's two sectional wins, and the Vikings might have lost by twice as many points at state against Young and Wheeling without the way Yelle was able to handle their constant full-court pressure.
With Whitley off to Indiana State this year, Yelle stepped into those shoes as the team's go-to player, finishing first in sprints at practice just like she'd lead the team on the court in games.
"Just a great teammate, great competitor," Nolan said. "You don't see it on the court because she is so intense but she definitely has a lighthearted side."
As she did as a sophomore, Yelle played some of her best games against the best opponents. She started the year winning MVP at Geneva's Thanksgiving tournament. The victories there included Oswego, who like the Hillcrest team Geneva defeated at the McDonald's Shootout both are at this weekend's Class 3A state tournament. With their season on the line in a regional final against St. Charles North, Yelle drove, drew a double team and found Lauren Wicinski for the game-winning basket.
As much fun as Yelle had winning all those games she equally enjoyed the bond she felt with her teammates.
"The season was the most fun I've played on," Yelle said. "I've played on a lot of teams but this was my favorite team. No one was left out of whatever we were doing."
Geneva's super close-nit team certainly felt lucky to have a leader like Yelle. Take Ashley Santos, the Bartlett transfer who felt at home thanks to teammates like Yelle.
"She made it so easy for me," Santos said. "She's such a great person and I'm so glad I came here and met her. She made it a great transition for me."
This might be the final thing anyone would ever find to be a bright spot, but perhaps it could end up being lucky that Hersey handed Geneva what Yelle called the hardest loss she's ever taken Monday.
How's that possible?
Just wait until you see Yelle's senior season.
Nobody took Monday's loss harder than Yelle, who was almost inconsolable afterward.
A day later she was still down but looking ahead to her Illinois Hustle travel games, to all the shooting she has scheduled on her own time and to the weightlifting and other training to make her senior season at Geneva somehow better than their 63-3 record the past two years.
"I'm just going to try to build off that (loss) and work harder and come back next year," said Yelle, who declined to participate in this year's 3-point contest because she didn't want anything to distract her from her normal pre-game routine.
"All season everything I did was toward state, to make it back to state because it was such a fun experience last year. I'm going to be more hungry next year, really take the team as far as I can. I don't want to leave next year feeling how I did this year. I just want to take the team to state. (The Hersey loss) made me more hungry to work harder than I ever have."
Lucky for all of us to see what happens when talent combines with family support combines with a relentless work ethic - the result a high character, team leader, phenomenal basketball player who never stops striving to get better.
1998: Molly Jones, St. Charles
1999: Katy Issel, Batavia
2000: Karen Bauer, Geneva
2001: Nicole Manny, St. Charles East
2002: Lindsey Koehn, Geneva
2003: Jill Krivacek, Rosary
2004: Claire Sheehan, St. Charles East
2005: Claire Sheehan, St. Charles East
2006: Bailey Hansen, Geneva
2007: Taylor Whitley, Geneva
2008: Kelsey Smith, St. Charles North
2009: Taylor Whitley, Geneva
Geneva High School
Conference: Upstate Eight River
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