Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner hugs his players Julie Pecht and Abby Springer after the Cougars' Class 3A championship game appearance against Montini.
Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
NORMAL - This trip downstate for Vernon Hills girls basketball coach Paul Brettner and his players isn't quite like the team's trips of the past.
Wait, hold on here. You didn't know that Brettner and the Cougars had been to Redbird Arena before?
Ah, yes, you were under the impression that Vernon Hills has put together a magical run of firsts, that the Cougars recently won their first regional, sectional and supersectional titles in school history, and that they played in their first-ever state title game at Redbird Arena on Saturday.
Well, that's all correct.
But, technically, it's also correct that Brettner and the Cougars have been here before. Assistant coach Laura Nardini remembers the trip well.
"We drove down, we stayed in the team hotel," Nardini said. "It was a lot of fun."
Fun to dream.
Nardini wasn't a coach the last time she had high hopes at Redbird Arena. She was a player, just like fellow assistant coaches Rachael Blanton and Lauren Rucks.
Of course, the reason why that trip was just a wee bit different than this one is that the Cougars weren't at Redbird Arena back then to play. They were there to watch, along with all the rest of the fans in the stands.
Blanton, Nardini and Rucks all graduated from Vernon Hills in the mid-2000s and returned to the program to coach as soon as they completed college. Nardini says that when they were players Brettner took them to Redbird Arena so that they could picture what it would be like if they could actually get there themselves someday.
Unfortunately, it never happened for them as players. Not even close, which is why this current run has been so special for them. Blanton, Nardini and Rucks were part of some of the earliest teams at Vernon Hills, a school that is only 12 years old. They experienced the growing pains of getting a new program off the ground.
To be downstate now, even though it's not as players who get to actually play in the games, still feels gratifying.
"This totally makes up for not being able to go as a player," Rucks said with a laugh.
"I keep telling the girls how cool this is, how there are a lot of people, former players like me and (Nardini and Rucks) who would give anything to be here playing like they are," said Blanton, who graduated in 2004 and has been Brettner's varsity assistant for the last four years. "I was actually on the original team at Vernon Hills, our first team. We had only eight girls on that team. It was Coach Brettner's first year as a head coach. We were all kind of learning together, and to see all the ups and downs then and to see where we are now - I'm just so proud. It's really neat to be a part of this."
It's also neat for Blanton, Nardini, a 2006 grad, and Rucks, a 2007 grad, to be back together again, trying to win more basketball games for Vernon Hills.
"It's fun for us to reminisce about all the good times we had together," said Rucks, who is in her first season on the staff. She and Nardini are both underlevel coaches. "We went through some tough times on the court, but we had a lot of great times off the court. We had a close team and we had a lot of fun playing together."
Blanton, a four-year varsity player who went on to play college basketball at Aurora, was Miss Versatile at Vernon Hills. She played point guard, forward or center, whatever the coaches needed.
Like Blanton, Rucks was also a utility player and could play anywhere on the floor.
Meanwhile, Nardini was a shooting guard and three-point specialist for the Cougars, with toughness and quickness that also helped her become one of the top soccer players in the area. She played soccer at Winona for two years until the third knee injury of her career forced her to hang up her cleats early.
"It was such a no-brainer to come back here to coach," said Nardini, now in her second season on the staff. "I had such a great experience playing basketball for Coach Brettner. I always knew that he'd make it here to state. He's got such knowledge for the game, and he always has such great relationships with all of his players. Everyone loves playing for him."
So much so, in fact, that many of them apparently can't wait to come back and be a part of the staff. Now, a majority of Brettner's assistants are former players.
"I definitely think this situation is unique. I don't know how many programs have so many former players as coaches," Blanton said. "I think it's a testament to Coach Brettner. You're not going to want to come back and coach with someone you don't like. We (Blanton, Nardini and Rucks) all really like him and have so much respect for him and I think it's a cool perspective for the girls who are on the team now to see."
Cool indeed. Although, let's be honest here, it's probably not the coolest thing the surprising Cougars have seen this season.
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