How fitting that, after this season, Mary Fendley will be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Assocation Hall of Fame.
Despite graduating four all-area players from last year's Mid-Suburban League championship team, the 20-year Hersey girls basketball coach guided her Huskies to a repeat victory in league's 46th showcase event on Wednesday night in Palatine.
Senior Maesyn Benjamin had a game-high 13 points and classmate Katie McGrath recorded a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds as the visiting Mid-Suburban East champs defeated West champion Palatine 43-31.
It was the third conference title for Fendley, who won her first in 2005 against the same Palatine program.
"It's amazing what we accomplished, it's a great feeling," said Benjamin (7 rebounds, 5 steals), whose 17-footer to start the game got Hersey off to a 9-0 start. "Coming into the game, we knew if we played as well as we can, we could win the game. It was a great team win for all of us. We got all of the seniors in, and won a conference championship."
Benjamin was part of last year's title team as a top reserve. Katie McGrath also came off the bench while her triplet Erin (8 points) was the only returning starter.
"Winning this game two years in a row is very exciting," said Katie McGrath. "We knew we had it in us. We had a rough start losing our first game (to Grayslake Central) but we knew we would reach our potential."
"It's such a statement for not just what they accomplished from a year ago, but even from the start of this season when we were not a high-caliber team," said Fendley, whose team is 15-12. "The turning point was the Montini tournament (at Christmas). We played top teams in the state, beating one (Benet) and playing the others tough, and that was the confidence we needed."
Even after a 4-point play by Jenny Myslinski (5 rebounds), Kendra Lindell's 17-footer and Sydney Rzepka's 3-point play got the Pirates ahead 17-14, the Huskies' confidence was not shaken.
Hersey managed to grab an 18-17 lead at half, thanks to Benjamin's steal and layup with 5:15 left in the second. Neither team scored the rest of the half.
Palatine (21-7) had 1 point with 1:17 left in the first quarter and then had 17 with 6:14 left in the second quarter following the 3-point play by Rzepka (8 points, 8 rebounds).
"They were doing a good job taking away our motion offense away," said Pirates coach Mark Johnson. "We were running specials and getting a bunch of good looks. We scored 17 points in like two and a half minutes.
"But we were dry before that, and we came out dry in the second half. The fouls on Kacie (Filian, all-conference guard who fouled with 1:25 left in the game) really hurt us because she makes a lot plays for us."
Filian had a team-high 10 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. And she had Palatine's only two baskets in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer which got the hosts to within 37-31 with 1:37 left.
But Hersey made 6 of 8 free throws -- three from Mary Kate Fahey, two from Emily Collins and one from Erin McGrath -- the rest of the way to cap off Hersey's fourth MSL crown in school history and third under Fendley.
"We just didn't have it tonight," Johnson added. "But this was a great learning experience for us. We had not been here in 13 years. They (Hersey) are the defending champions. It's their culture, and that's what they do. I'm very happy for them.
"This was tremendous for us. And the game we won against Fremd (on a buzzer-beater by Lindell) was really a stepping zone for us to win the division. Fremd did an awesome job this season as well."
The job Fendley did this season ws one of her most satisfying.
"We couldn't even break the press, so we got demolished by teams early on. But these girls' ability to adjust and watch game films and learn from them was great," she said. "You know the expression -- you either win or learn. Well, we really did learn from the losses.
"We learned that if we can't handle pressure against good teams, we can't win. And coincidentally, it was a freshman point guard (Fahey) who was running the show for us."
Johnson was well aware of the 5-foot-4 point guard.
"When you are watching film, it's like you want to put pressure on her," Johnson said. "But it looked like that worked to our disadvantage. I thought she handled herself very well, She wasn't necessarily scoring a lot of baskets but just controlling what was going on out there. She remained poised and composed. Hats off to her and Hersey."
It was a Hersey team that has had seven different leading scorers this winter.
"I've coached for 20 years and never had a kid lead us in points, rebounds and assists, and Erin McGrath is doing that," said Fendley, who will be inducted into the hall of fame on May 5 in Normal. "I can't say enough about what a tremendous player she's been.
"And you add players like Maesyn. I thought defensively she couldn't have done any better. Offensively, she hits key shots. Katie McGarth had a double-double. Emily Collins had been our leading scorer in three of our four games before this one.
"So the fact that these kids adjust and are able to find what is working in a particular game helped us be successful in the second half of the season."
Fahey learned from a standout on last year's team, Claire Gritt.
"I learned a lot from her," Fahey said. "She was my feeder coach. She taught me so much, prepared me for varsity basketball. We did one-on-one games all the time, and she pushed me in practice to be the best I can be. That's why I'm here today.
"I'm actually pretty anxious most of the time, but Maesyn, Claire Rogowski, Erin (McGrath) and Katie (McGrath) do such a good job getting open. They are always there for me to pass to."
And Hersey has now passed it MSL championship exam two years in row for the first time in program history.