At the recent Knights of Columbus Free Throw Contest Regional Finals in Remsen, I had the pleasure of visiting at length with a dad who's two daughters play basketball in the Lakes Conference.
He was telling me how happy all the other Lakes Conference teams and players will be when Cherokee seniors Autumn Bartel, Katie Ebel, and Beth Leonard graduate this spring.
"Man, we're getting tired of watching them beat us," laughed the dad. "It seems like they've been there forever!"
With the exception of Leonard missing several games last season with an injury, those three talented athletes have been varsity regulars since their freshman year, forming a nucleus that has led Cherokee to a 67-9 record the past three seasons, including a state tourament berth two years ago.
As we all know, that trio, along with skilled junior starters Kayla Henke and Jess Hunecke, and frequent substitutes sophomore Kylie Dilla, and seniors Emily Perrin and Nicole Schuett, have led the undefeated Washington High girls back to the state tournament this year.
Cherokee, now a glittering 26-0 this season, won its opener Tuesday at state over Carroll Kuemper, and meets top-ranked Grundy Center today for the right to play in the Class 2A championship game Friday night in Des Moines.
While the Lakes Conference dad was talking about the Cherokee seniors, he then transitioned into talking about the whole team and coach Curt Klaahsen and the remarkable job working together they've done the past few years.
"Beyond their obvious abilities, you should know about the extreme respect we all have for the Cherokee girls and their program," volunteered the dad. "We wish we could play like that."
Throughout our visit, I heard of the unabashed admiration he and his wife, his daughters, their coaches, and many others in the Lakes Conference have for this batch of WHS girls.
"Everyone knows how good of players they are, but we also know how good of kids they are off the court. I've never heard anyone say anything bad about them before, during or after the games. And, they're all such good sports. This is a tribute to the players, coaches, your school and community."
He went on to talk about the sportsmanship the Cherokee girls always display, how hard they play, how they work so well together, how unselfish they are, and how difficult it is to play against them.
"Man, you shut down Bartel or Henke, and Ebel will kill you. You stretch out your perimeter defense, and Hunecke and Henke will kill you inside. And you can't leave Leonard open or she'll kill you," said the dad.
A well-decorated rival coach for a non-conference team Cherokee plays every year, told me early this year how much he thought of the WHS girls and how he rooted for them in all their games except when he had to play them.
"They are a special group and such wonderful kids," said the coach. "Who wouldn't want to coach a team like that? I just love to watch them play. People (in other parts of the state) have no idea how good Cherokee is and how talented Autumn Bartel and the rest of them are."
The veteran coach of a team Cherokee beat in this year's district tourney said Cherokee was the best team he'd seen this season, and one of the best he'd ever seen! And he plays in one tough conference.
At Tuesday's game in Des Moines, I had the pleasure of sitting in Press Row in front of several Grundy Center fans. They cheered for Carroll Kuemper throughout the first half, obviously preferring to play the 14-10 Knights than face 26-0 Cherokee in the semifinals.
At halftime, with Cherokee dominating, they sat in silence.
"Geez, are they ever good," said one man to his wife. "If they play like this all the time, who can beat them? Why haven't we heard about that Bartel girl before? She is tremendous!"
"I don't know who could beat them!" exclaimed the wife.
There also were hundreds of Kuemper fans in front and behind me. One grandpa-type kept hollering at the Kuemper girls, "Quit throwing the ball away! Stop traveling! Shoot the ball! Aw, don't do that! Come on, girls, play your game! What's wrong with you?"
A fellow Kuemper fan behind him tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Archie, it's not what we're doing, it's what THEY'RE (Cherokee) doing. That team is just too good!"
I could go on, but you get the message.
Not only are these Cherokee girls writing history as it goes, they have attracted a wide following of fans from all corners, while unknowingly serving as an inspiration and role model to other players and coaches. We knew they were special all along, and now, obviously, the word's finally getting out.
All you younger players out there (girls or boys), watch them play and learn what it takes to succeed on and off the court, and then go do it when your time comes.
There are some serious shoes to fill here. Really big ones.