Winning season helps Round Lake overcome its biggest loss
In a season that has seen Round Lake girls basketball experience its most success in a decade, it still hurts Diane Flade.
Not her left foot, which the guard broke 13 months ago, causing her to miss half her junior season.
Not the more than 60 losses she's experienced on the court since her call-up to varsity as a freshman.
"I'm sorry if I start to cry," Flade said with a deep breath at practice this week.
Sometime after her sophomore year, Flade remembers running into Panthers head coach Howard Conkling, who had been responsible for pulling her up to varsity. He sat in a wheelchair, the wavy hair on his head completely gone, deeply ill, a shadow of his old, robust self.
"He was so skinny," Flade said with sad eyes. "He grabbed my shoulder and said that he'd be back.
"He never came back."
Conkling, who spent nearly his entire professional career as a teacher and coach at Round Lake and epitomized "Panther Pride," succumbed to cancer in June of 2017, two weeks shy of his 59th birthday.
"I don't think I would have been on varsity (as a freshman) if it wasn't for him," Flade said.
It still hurts Sam Nicoline too. And, no, not her right knee, which ended her junior season prematurely after she tore her ACL and meniscus in December of 2017. Thursday marked the anniversary of her surgery.
The senior, who was promoted to varsity a month into her sophomore campaign, had known Conkling for years because her older sister, Raven, played in the program, including three years on varsity.
"I was very close to him," Nicoline, whose grin tried masking a tear in her eye, said of Conkling. "His loss hit me hard."
The healing process is ongoing for the Panthers. Conkling loved his players unconditionally, and they knew that.
Now, though, there are smiles. They are a by-product of persevering and winning games.
Round Lake headed into Thursday night's contest at Antioch with an 11-8 record, including 4-3 in Northern Lake County Conference play. The Panthers, who still have potentially 10 more regular-season games, have not had double-digit wins in a season since 2008-09, when they won 23 times and played in the North Suburban Conference championship game. In the nine seasons following, they averaged fewer than 6 wins per season.
The Panthers won seven games in each of the last two seasons.
"It's very rewarding," said senior point guard Emily Etherington, who's also playing her third season on varsity. "I remember our freshman year we had a really good record (on freshman level), and then getting pulled up to varsity we weren't as good. This year, we've worked so hard to build ourselves up to be able to beat teams that we hadn't beaten in past years."
Head coach Molly Hennig took over this season from Doug Barnshaw, who guided the Panthers when Conkling, his good friend, was too sick to coach during the 2016-17 campaign. Hennig, a former Hampshire player and a niece of former Round Lake boys basketball coach Bob Ward, served as Barnshaw's varsity assistant the last two seasons.
She was the freshman coach three seasons ago for this year's seniors. It's a class that includes Flade, Nicoline, Etherington, Courtney Greenwood, Giselle Raygoza and Isaly Irizarry. They've been playing together since middle school.
"Just having all six of them able to play (not injured) has been really nice," said Hennig, whose team typically plays a zone and tries to create offense from its defense. "They've played so much basketball together, and the freshmen, Taylor Major and Amari (Cole), have been nice additions. They've filled the gaps."
Major, who missed 13 games with a knee injury, has shown an ability to drive to the basket and score. The 6-foot Cole has been a low-post presence.
Then there are the veterans. Flade, a lefty, has produced a trio of 20-point efforts, including a career-high 26 against Grant last week. She's scoring not only from the perimeter but on drives to the basket. Nicoline, who's only 5 feet 5 but plays center, "hustles harder than most 6-footers do," Hennig said. Etherington, who's ball-handling has improved drastically since Hennig would put her in Freshman B games to work on her dribbling, is "probably our best defender," Hennig said.
Raygoza, a great spot-up shooter, Greenwood and Irizarry have filled roles and also have been good leaders.
"It feels good that we're winning again," Nicoline said. "We knew this season was coming. We started strong freshman year, and we knew we always had the potential. We just needed the push to do it."
"I think our defense has been pretty big too because the best offense is a good defense," Etherington said. "I definitely like that we changed from man (last season) to zone because we don't have much height. Guarding teams that have one, two or three big, good posts just wasn't working for us. Because we're quick, our 1-2-2 zone defense helps."
Nicoline says her teammates are close. They talk throughout the day, always encourage each other and are never negative.
"We have so many group chats with each other," Nicoline said. "We all just genuinely love each other."
How proud would Howard Conkling have been coaching this team?
"He was always optimistic about everything," Nicoline said. "He was like, 'We'll get them next time.' "
"He was always excited, even if we lost," Flade said. "He was like, 'Yeah, Panthers!' He would scream. It was hilarious."
Go ahead and smile through the tears, girls.
"It's pretty amazing," Flade said. "Just everything we've been through. All the losses have been really hard on us. Other teams in the conference talked down on us. It really means a lot that we're doing as well as we are."
No apologies necessary.
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