In a city known for its basketball, the eighth-grade girls team from Collinsville Middle School has earned a place in the history books.
CMS won the Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association (SIJSHAA) Class L state tournament, held Jan. 19, 23 and 26 at Rend Lake College.
The Blazers are the first Collinsville basketball team of any kind to win a state championship since 1965, when the Collinsville High School boys won the second of two titles under coach Vergil Fletcher.
“The girls were undefeated last year as seventh-graders and during the summer, they all worked really hard,” CMS coach Greg Craft said. “We went to Carbondale, Greenville, Effingham and Woodlawn (for tournaments) and went to a lot of team camps and did really well. The girls just jelled as a team.”
The Blazers opened the state tournament with a 43-23 win over Massac County, then defeated Carmi 45-29 in the semifinals. In the championship game, CMS posted a 52-41 victory over West Frankfort.
“Morgan Griffith from West Frankfort is one of the best players in the state and she scored all but about 10 of their points, but we were still able to win,” Craft said. “Defense and the fast break are the keys for us. This team moves without the ball like no other team I’ve had in 30 years. They have good court sense and they can shut down any team they come up against.”
CMS was 21-7 overall, including Craft’s 500th career win, which came in December against North Junior High at Fulton Junior High in O’Fallon.
“The competition is a lot better up here than it is in the south, so it really prepared us for the state tournament,” Craft said.
“At the start of the season, we thought about (a state title), but we had to get through the season first,” said Dayle McEwen, one of the team’s top players. “For us to be the first (girls) team from Collinsville to win a championship, that’s pretty cool.”
A two-sport athlete, McEwen also plays soccer.
“I feel like I’m better at soccer, but I like basketball a little more,” McEwen said.
Another eighth-grader, Claire Schuessler, is the primary post player for the Blazers.
“We’ve all played together for a long time, so we know each other really well,” Schuessler said. “We can tell what everyone else is going to do before they do it.
“We had a really good season last year and it made us realize that winning state was possible. For the most part, we were pretty calm for the championship game. I think we were more nervous for the first game.”
Schuessler, who also plays softball, knows her role on the floor.
“When I’m in there, I have to rebound,” Schuessler said. “I feel like this was a really good year for everybody, not just me.”
Like Schuessler, teammate Danielle Knutson cites the team’s experience as a factor in its success.
“We’ve all been working together since fourth or fifth grade and we’re always trying to make everything better,” Knutson said. “The coaches look for hustlers and people who will do what they tell them to do.
“Our schedule made a big difference for us. Playing that kind of competition made us a better team.”
In addition to basketball, Knutson competes in soccer, softball and track.
“I’m probably best at basketball or soccer,” Knutson said. “I think I’ll go farther with basketball (in high school), but I’ll still do soccer.”
Andrea Frerker, daughter of Collinsville High School boys and girls cross country and boys track coach Darryl Frerker, was the point guard for CMS.
“Andrea and Danielle were the ones that kept the team on an even keel,” Craft said. “If somebody got rattled, those two were a nice calming influence. They both have tremendous leadership skills.
“Andrea knows the offense so well – she shoots well and she plays defense extremely hard.”
Having so many talented teammates made Frerker’s job easier.
“Playing with kids that are so athletic, it takes a lot of the pressure off,” Frerker said. “If something is going wrong, there’s always someone to pick you up.”
Frerker also competes in cross country, track and soccer.
“I’d like to do all four in high school, but I’ll see how far I can go with them,” Frerker said. “I think soccer and basketball are my top two.”
Other members of the team are Allyson Arban, Kassidy Ashmann, Jamese Beverly, Kaitlyn Fischer, Zharya Hammock, Lauren Lee, Ayona Tharps, Katie Mitchell, Savannah Roe and Hayleigh Kellison.