By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Ask Elisa Backes, Brooke Carlson, Maegan Holt and Klaire Kirsch about their favorite memory from the past five years and you’ll get a similar response.
First a laugh. Then a pause. “Oh boy …”
There are too many from their time at the University of Nebraska at Kearney to choose just one.
The late-night trips to get ice cream as freshmen. The goofy photoshoots and social media videos. The team meals and movie nights.
“All of the moments were memorable and special,” Backes said. “That’s what made us keep coming back. Even the mundane practices, bus rides and film sessions, those were just as special as winning the big games.”
Each member of the UNK women’s basketball “super senior” class talks about the lifelong relationships they developed, the fun they had both on and off the court and the growth they experienced as athletes and young adults.
“This is a group of people that you know you can count on whenever you need anything,” Carlson said. “You can always call them and they’ll have your back. That’s something really cool to see. It’s not just about basketball – the points, the rebounds, the minutes played – it’s about the people and the friendships you made along the way.”
Backes, Carlson, Holt and Kirsch were complete strangers when they arrived on campus as part of head coach Carrie Eighmey’s 2018 recruiting class, which also includes Shiloh McCool, who plans to return next season using the extra year of eligibility she gained by taking a medical redshirt in 2019-20.
Although they came from four different states – Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – the group bonded very quickly while living together in an on-campus residence hall. Later, four of the five moved into the same rental house with two other teammates.
“They came in willing to totally buy into the culture that we were wanting to build,” said Eighmey, who was starting Year 4 of a program rebuild. “They just dove in headfirst and never really looked back.”
Coming off a 21-7 season, the Lopers returned just three players in 2018-19, and only one of them was an upperclassman, forcing the freshmen to grow up fast.
“I think I kind of forget about it sometimes, the grind of when we started and how much we didn’t know. We were definitely thrown into the fire,” Kirsch said with a chuckle. “At the end of the day, we grew a lot, and it’s fun to look back on now.”
That season featured its ups and downs – some tough losses and lessons learned along with some signature moments such as a 64-62 victory at Emporia State, the program’s first win there since 1989. Carlson, Holt, Kirsch and McCool played in all 29 games and Backes appeared in 28. They combined for 87 starts and represented five of the team’s top six scorers.
“We didn’t know at that point what would become of our five-year journey, but I always had a feeling this was something special,” Carlson said.
After finishing 15-14 in 2018-19, the Lopers put together their best four-year run in two decades, winning 101 games during that span and reaching the NCAA Division II Tournament three times. They won the MIAA tournament for the first time in program history in 2021, defeating rival Fort Hays State on the Tigers’ home court in the championship game, and took down Minnesota Duluth to claim the program’s first national tournament victory since 2008.
UNK tied a school record with 28 wins this season, including 15 straight at one point, and clinched sole possession of the MIAA regular-season title – also the first in program history – with a 64-48 victory over Fort Hays on Senior Day at the Health and Sports Center.
“To be able to go out that way on your home floor is about as perfect as it gets,” said Eighmey, who was named MIAA Coach of the Year.
The Lopers lost to Pittsburg State during Friday’s opening round of the NCAA Division II Tournament, putting an emotional end to the playing careers for Backes, Carlson, Holt and Kirsch.
“They left a legacy for sure,” Eighmey said of the four super seniors. “They made something that’s really, really difficult look pretty easy. To consistently be good in the MIAA is not an easy task. It requires a great amount of work, consistency and resiliency. I definitely think they played a significant role in transforming our program.”
The success of this “one-of-a-kind” group can be easily measured in statistics:
- 116-37 record, including four 20-win seasons
- 13,779 minutes played
- 5,113 points scored
- 605 games played – Carlson appeared in all 153 games the past five seasons, Backes and Holt played in 152 and Kirsch only missed five games because of an injury last season
- 16 MIAA Academic Honor Roll recognitions
- 13 All-MIAA honors
However, that’s not the first thing Eighmey mentions. She brings up their character, unselfishness and work ethic.
“It’s a really special thing that they’ve created,” Eighmey said, “and that isn’t just going to go away because they’re not around anymore. They’ve done a really good job of impacting their teammates and establishing a norm for how we do things.”
The closer they got off the court, the better they were on it.
“That’s a key reason why we’ve been able to be successful,” Holt said. “We built those relationships outside of basketball that allow us to trust each other, push each other, coach each other and hold each other accountable. We all had the same goals in mind, which is really important.”
When the NCAA granted a fifth year of eligibility to players who went through the 2020-21 pandemic season, there was no question among them. They were all staying.
“It’s very rare nowadays for a class to make it all four years, let alone five, so it’s really special that all of us stuck together this entire time,” Holt said. “It’s pretty incredible what we’ve been able to do together and there’s no other group I would have rather done it with.”
Holt finished her career with 958 points, ranking 28th in UNK history. She graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in social work and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in long-term care management through UNK Online.
“I’m really going to miss the connections we all had and spending every single day together. Obviously we’re still going to stay in touch and they’ll forever be my best friends, but just the time I had at Kearney, I’m so, so very thankful for that,” she said. “Coming to Kearney was the best decision I’ve ever made, that’s for sure.”
Carlson graduates in May with bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics. She plans to attend graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, studying mechanical engineering with a manufacturing emphasis. Carlson is sixth all-time in career blocks (103) and 12th in career points (1,410) at UNK.
Backes and Kirsch both earned bachelor’s degrees in communication disorders in May 2022 and are currently pursuing master’s degrees in speech-language pathology.
“It’s been such a blessing to be part of such a special program. Not only have we been successful on the court, but this is also a great group of girls off the court who are going to be successful in life as well,” said Backes, who ranks third in UNK history in career blocks (163), fifth in 3-pointers made (188) and seventh in points (1,565).
Kirsch is the school’s all-time leading rebounder (1,211) and she ranks third in career assists (369) and steals (229) and 21st in career points (1,180). Her 23 double-doubles are tied for the second most in program history.
She called her UNK career an “incredible journey.”
“When I was a 17-year-old getting recruited by the coaches, I never thought this would be exactly how it played out,” Kirsch said. “In high school, I always knew that my best basketball was ahead of me, but I didn’t realize that I’d be blessed like this to have an experience like I did. It’s been so much fun, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to experience something like this again.”