Roll camera…🎬🎬🎬 pic.twitter.com/WozFDzASTW
— UNK Women's Hoops (@UNKWBB) October 14, 2021
By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – After last weekend’s 57-54 home loss to Missouri Southern, the University of Nebraska at Kearney women’s basketball team shared a simple message on Twitter.
“Win together. Lose together. Stay together.”
Although the tweet was a response to a single game, those words can be used to summarize the Lopers’ past four seasons. Much of their success during that time can be attributed to the team chemistry and relationships they’ve developed both on and off the court.
“A lot of teams say they have good culture, but it’s real here,” forward Elisa Backes said. “These are my best friends. Being far away from home like a lot of us are, we are each other’s family.”
A graduate of Salina Central High School in Kansas, Backes was recruited by several MIAA schools. She picked UNK after visiting campus and meeting with coaches Carrie and Devin Eighmey.
“It was like a complete 180 from those other schools, the way they treated me and my family and their values,” Backes said. “It wasn’t just about basketball with them. It was about making me and the other players better people, and that was a big thing for me. That was probably the biggest reason why I chose UNK.”
Backes is one of seven players who joined the UNK women’s basketball program as freshmen in 2018. Five of them are still on the team – an increasingly rare occurrence in the age of the transfer portal.
Together, they helped turn UNK into a national championship contender again.
‘THROWN INTO THE FIRE’
When Backes, Brooke Carlson, Maegan Holt, Klaire Kirsch and Shiloh McCool arrived on campus, the Lopers were in Year 4 of a rebuild orchestrated by head coach Carrie Eighmey.
Although the team went 21-7 the prior season, there were just three returning players in 2018-19, and only one of them was an upperclassman.
“Our freshman year, we kind of got thrown into the fire,” Backes said with a smile. “We looked like deer in headlights most of the time, but that can be the best way to learn. I think that’s really shown these past couple years. Nothing really fazes us anymore because we saw it all when we were freshmen.”
Those five freshmen combined for 87 starts that season, with Carlson, Holt, Kirsch and McCool playing in all 29 games and Backes appearing in 28. They represented five of the team’s top six scorers.
UNK finished with a 15-14 record, but it was clearly the start of something bigger. As they grew together, the Lopers learned to win together.
They went 26-6 the following season, including a 14-5 record in the MIAA, but failed to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II tournament. The next season, a committee wasn’t going to decide their fate. The Lopers won the MIAA tournament for the first time in program history, earning the conference’s automatic bid, and defeated Minnesota Duluth to claim their first NCAA tournament victory since 2008. They finished 23-4 overall and 19-3 in the conference.
UNK (16-3, 11-2) is currently ranked No. 14 in the D2SIDA media poll and No. 17 in the WBCA coaches poll. The Lopers sit atop the MIAA standings, a half-game ahead of No. 6/7 Fort Hays State (16-2, 10-2), which visits the Health and Sports Center at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s pretty crazy,” McCool said of the team’s progress. “We put in a lot of work, and it’s been nice that we’ve all been able to accomplish this together.”
‘LIKE A FAMILY’
A forward from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, McCool describes her team as fun and focused.
They know when to be serious, and they know how to let loose.
“I think this group is really good at finding that balance,” said McCool, a somewhat shy person who appreciates her “jokester” teammates.
Those outgoing personalities are often needed to lighten up a long practice or road trip. They also make it much easier to form close connections.
When they’re not on a bus or in the gym together, the Lopers often gather at a two-story rental just east of campus that serves as the unofficial home of the women’s basketball team. Six players actually live there, but plenty of others show up to watch movies, play video games, eat dinner or just hang out.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing I like all these girls,” Backes said with a laugh. “We all get along really well.”
“I love it,” she said. “I think it’s good bonding time outside basketball.”
Both players believe strong personal relationships are key to their team chemistry.
“We trust each other on the floor because we can trust each other off the floor,” Backes said. “We hold each other accountable. We know we’re going to be working as hard as we can for each other.”
That’s a luxury for a college coach and something Eighmey doesn’t take for granted.
“We’re like a family, because we know each other so well,” she said. “That’s what’s neat and beautiful about it. We know each other so well that we can have hard conversations with each other and we can challenge each other because there’s such a good relationship there.”
‘SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL’
Eighmey admits the leadership provided by five fourth-year players makes her job “a little easier.”
They take ownership in the program and show their younger teammates the Loper way.
“Those players helped create what we are now and they have a lot of pride in making sure it continues on way beyond their time here, which I think is really special,” Eighmey said. “That’s exactly what you want in a college athletic program.”
Her players are unselfish – “I just want to win. Who cares who starts?” Backes says – and they don’t really pay attention to individual stats, although their names are sprinkled throughout the UNK record book.
Carlson and Backes both surpassed 1,000 career points this season, becoming the 26th and 27th players in program history to accomplish this feat. Backes also ranks fifth in school history with 102 career blocks, and Kirsch is just the fourth Loper all-time to record 800 career rebounds.
Remarkably, they all plan to be back next season. Backes, Carlson, Holt and Kirsch have another year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and McCool can play two more seasons after taking a medical redshirt in 2019-20.
“I think this year and next year we can be really good and do something really special,” McCool said. “I don’t want to miss out on that time with this group of people and this team. After college, you don’t know where all of us will be or how often we’ll get to see each other, so I want to make the most of the time we have now.”