MAPLE PARK – Former Kaneland girls basketball coach Rick Schairer doesn’t like to use the word “dominant” when talking about his teams, but there probably isn’t a better way to describe the 1982 state champion Lady Knights.
Schairer’s 32-1 squad was so good that they needed more competition than their opponents, so they started a friendly rivalry with the Kaneland boys team.
Both teams went downstate, but only the girls came back victorious. Although they obviously wanted the best for their classmates, Lea Ann Brei (née Machias), a senior guard on the team, remembers teasing them with the phrase, “The boys went down, but the girls got the crown.”
Rarely is an appearance in the state finals not the main story, but that’s how it was at Kaneland that year. With the football team struggling, basketball got the attention.
AN ESTABLISHED FOUNDATION
The Lady Knights were coming off of two regional titles in the past three years, and expectations couldn’t have been higher. Schairer says he’ll never forget when Melissa Olmstead, a senior on the title team, claimed after her sophomore year, “Coach, when we’re seniors, we’re going to win the whole thing.”
With the talent on the team, it didn’t seem too far-fetched. Brei was a star guard who went on to play at Mississippi College and Bradley University, and Lesley Hudgins was a 6-foot-4 center who headed downstate after graduation to play for the University of Illinois. But more importantly, Schairer says that every player knew her role and executed it.
“Since they’d been playing together for such a long period of time, the team order had kind of been established,” he says. “The kids who could score scored, and the kids who had to play defense played defense. Every kid was important and that was down to the statistician.”
When the season started, the Knights rolled to the finals of a holiday tournament in Hinsdale. But after five consecutive wins to open the season, they were upset by Joliet East.
It could have been a moment that defined the team, but the players used it as a springboard. Expectations were high, but it wouldn’t deter them.
“We were just rising to the occasion,” says Nancy Turk (née Feddersen), another senior on the 1982 team. “The standard was set, and we tried to reach it. There wasn’t any extra stress. We just did the best we could.”
And so began a dominating run of basketball. When the Lady Knights headed into Little Seven Conference play, they won by an average of more than twenty points a game.
Despite their singular focus, the Knights still had fun. One day, the team came out to watch the sophomore game before theirs, and Turk was sporting a huge, bright-orange afro. Schairer says he nearly had a heart attack before realizing it was a wig.
“She just understood, a lot of tension, a lot of pressure, let’s keep things loose,” Schairer said.
And it worked. Kaneland didn’t lose another game until the state tournament. They weren’t playing their best basketball, Schairer says, but it was enough to win.
They’d need to do a little better against Quincy Notre Dame, whom they met in the state semifinals. The Lady Raiders were led by Caren Kemner, who would go on to win a bronze medal with the U.S. Olympic volleyball team in 1992. Notre Dame had finished second the year before and would capture back-to-back titles afterward.
But not that year. The Kane County bank president passed out shirts to all the fans, making Assembly Hall in Champaign “a sea of orange,” and the team didn’t disappoint. The Knights won their 26th game in a row, just one away from their longtime goal.
Standing in the way was Massac County, who raced out to a halftime lead in the championship game, leaving Kaneland in an unfamiliar position. Schairer left them to ponder their motto, “You gotta want it,” and the players knew what they had to do.
“We weren’t going to let it slip away,” Brei says, “so we came out a lot more energized and a lot more intense. We realized that it was an all-or-nothing time.”
Kaneland turned up the pressure and grabbed the lead, never to relinquish it again. And when the buzzer sounded, the Knights had done what they set out to do.
“We had this moment of reflection where we said, ‘Wow, this is real. This is happening,’” Turk said. “It was a little larger than life for a while.”
The excitement wouldn’t slow down for a while. The team’s hotel held a party for them the next day, and the trip home took a lot longer than expected. The streets were lined with people from Yorkville to Maple Park, and the Lady Knights stopped in each community to celebrate with their fans.
That parade showed that the 1982 team didn’t just shoulder the weight of their own expectations. They played with the expectations of a whole community, and they fulfilled them. All the pieces fell into place that year, and a humble Coach Schairer says he was just happy to be a part of it.
“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime teams,” Schairer said. “I just didn’t want to screw anything up.”