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Running the Lady Bruins’ 500

Lady Bruins basketball started up with humble beginnings at St. Bede Academy in 1982-83. The only basketball experience any of the 14 girls had before was playing in the backyard with their brothers and watching the boys’ games.

They were fast-learners, winning nine games that very first year with only five defeats. They started a winning tradition which 30 years later has netted the Lady Bruins the 500th victory in the history of the program. That came Monday 40-32 over Dakota at the Byron MLK Invite.

“It’s nice to see that the 500th victory came during the 30th season of the program,” said former coach Don Carlson, the granddaddy of the Lady Bruins, who started up the program in the early ‘80s.

Tom McGunnigal, who’s been coaching Lady Bruins basketball since 1998 and has been responsible for 332 victories, said it’s been a special year at the Academy with the girls’ basketball program celebrating 30 years with a Alumni game slated for Feb. 16.

“To accomplish 500 wins with the alumni game coming up, it means a little more and allows all players to celebrate in it,” he said.

The early years

Carlson was the varsity boys basketball coach from 1978-82. His daughter, Dawn, was a senior at the Academy and asked her dad to start up a girls program. He said, why not. The girls needed the opportunity just like the boys. He also knew they needed time to learn the game before they could play it.

“I insisted that we not play a game until we had one month of practice. We started with the assumption that they knew the ball was round and went from there,” Carlson said. “They were all students of the game and were thrilled to get to play on a real team.  We had to put in everything from an offense/defense to how do you warm up for a game.

“They were like sponges in that they didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how things were done; they just wanted to know how to do them correctly.”

Carlson said the biggest challenge may have been to get them over the idea that perfection is a goal, not a reality.

“Most of them thought that a missed shot was a mistake; it took quite awhile to get them over that idea and have them understand that they should be surprised when they missed but not to let it deter them from shooting the next one,” he said.

The first season had a total of 14 girls in the program, including two seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and six freshmen. Three of the Lady Bruins — senior Dawn Carlson and juniors Joanne Renkosik and Stephanie Zeman — learned and played the game so well they went on to play college ball. Two of the freshman, Audra Bima and Lori Howarth started on the varsity.

The Lady Bruins played their first game on Jan. 6, 1983, against Princeton and lost. Four days later, on Jan. 10, 1983, they beat LaMoille 33-29 for their very first win.

By 1988 the Lady Bruins won their first regional championship, finishing 12-12. Carlson’s teams won three more regional crowns in the next four years.

The best was yet to come.

Standard of success

There’s no doubt the Lady Bruins have become the standard of area girls basketball, winning six regionals and one sectional since 1999-2000, averaging 23.4 wins a season the past 14 years.

The secret to St. Bede’s success? Maybe consistency, said McGunnigal, who took over the program in 1998-99 following one season with Barney Hydock as head coach.

“We have had great girls to work with ... top-notch people, students and athletes, and I think what I learned being at Saint Bede is that our teams have all developed a true caring and trusting attitude,” said McGunnigal, speaking for himself and former coaches, Carlson and Hydock.

“If you start anything with those two qualities, you can have success. No doubt there has been hard work and dedication, probably some luck, but truly it comes from the girls that have put on the uniform year in and year out and the kind of person each one of them has been.”

Biggest wins

With all the wins throughout the years, McGunnigal thinks back to his very first regional championship in 2000. The Lady Bruins beat Mendota 46-40 at the Academy in an atmosphere McGunnigal describes as “so electric,” with Angie Tomsha’s three-pointer shooting making the difference.

“I remember going home after that game, and my head was pounding ... we had all worked so hard that day, and I remember thinking, ‘This is what coaching against tough competition and putting your whole self into it feels like,’” McGunnigal said.

He also looks to the 2006 regional championship game when the Lady Bruins beat Seneca at Seneca, 57-54, a win he calls a “guts” game for his team. McGunnigal said he got a lot of “thanks” for that one for exorcising the demons from 2000 when Seneca beat the Lady Bruins in the Supersectional the year before they moved Supers to college sites.

Carlson jokes that all the wins were “big” back in the day. Ones that stick out are the program’s very first win over LaMoille, the first time they beat L-P (41-35, on March 1, 1986), their first regional championship over Lostant (29-28 on Feb. 11, 1988), the first sectional win over Peoria Heights (31-23 on Feb. 25, 1992) and their first win in the Corn Belt Conference over Bloomington Central Catholic (45-42 on Dec. 1, 1992)

The players

While it’s hard to pick a Top 5 team of all-time, here’s one look.

Katie Carls, guard (2003-06): All-time leading scorer with 1,471 points.

Maria Lorenzi, center (1990-94): Scored 1,453 career points, averaging 24.3 points and 12.8 rebounds her senior year.

Taleah Stanford, forward (2001-04): Became the program’s second 1,000-point scorer when she graduated, finishing with 1,132 points.

Audra Bima, forward (1982-86): Freshman starter on the first team in 1982-83, playing four seasons on the varsity and scoring 914 points. Son Damin Smith is a starter for the current Bruins squad.

Sarah Stariha G/F (2005-08) : A hard-nosed player who exemplified the Lady Bruins brand of basketball. Stands sixth all-time in scoring with 905 points.

Honorable mention: Karissa Dinges, Lauren Gidcumb, Lauren Hydock, Erin McGunnigal and Nicole Pozzi.

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