KEARNEY, Neb. – Brooke Carlson, Elisa Backes, Maegan Holt, Klaire Kirsch and Shiloh McCool do almost everything together.
This includes movie nights and meals at the home shared by four of the five near the University of Nebraska-Kearney campus, organizing community projects, and academic excellence.
Oh, and they play basketball together. Lots and lots of basketball.
Carlson, Backes, Holt, and Kirsch are the top four active players in career games played in Division II. Carlson has played in all 138 games for the Lopers since 2018. Backes and Holt have each appeared in 137, and Kirsch, who missed five last year through injury, has played in 133. The four are taking advantage of the fifth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to players who weathered the 2020-21 pandemic season.
McCool would be right there in the games played if a knee injury hadn’t forced her to wear a medical redshirt in 2019-20. She has played in 106 games and plans to return next season.
For players from the same school to finish first through fourth in career games is an odd statistic, if not an anomaly, given that there are 294 teams in Division II women’s basketball.
For coach Carrie Eighmey, that’s a refreshing statistic.
“With all the talks about the transfer portal and the transfer and all that stuff,” She said, “The conversation has shifted (away from) the student-athletes staying where they are and making long-term investments in themselves and in the program they are in.”
None of the UNK players were aware of their award until last week.
“It’s cool,” said Karlson. “I don’t think there will ever be a circumstance like this again, just with COVID and an extra year of eligibility and all of our seniors coming back. It’s mind blowing, it’s amazing and it shows you how much loyalty there is to this program that we all came back to play for these coaches for another year.
Carlson, Backes, Holt, Kirsch and McCool were part of Eighmey’s 2018 recruiting class known as “Great Seven.” Two moved on, but the other five quickly became friends while living on the same dorm floor.
They come from four different states – Carlson from the Omaha suburb of Elkhorn; Backes from Salina, Kansas; Holt from Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kirsch from Rapid City, South Dakota; and McCool of Pleasant Hill, Iowa.
She was drawn to this central Nebraska city of 34,000 that is bidding to be the World Sandhill Crane Capital because it draws more than 40,000 visitors to the area each spring to watch the exotic bird migration. It is primarily a college town and one with a proud history in multiple sports dating back to the days of Kearney State College.
“We have a great basketball team and we like each other,” said Backes. “We love school. We love the coaching staff. You’re lucky to go to college and find something like that.”
The super seniors were building blocks for a program that started afresh in 2018-19. Only three players returned from Eighmey’s 21-win team last season.
McCool said there were times when all five newcomers were on the court at the same time, most playing out of position and having little idea what to do. The first team ended 15-14.
“Things have definitely changed” said McCool.
The Lopers followed with 26-, 22-, and 24-win seasons and two appearances in NCAA Division II tournaments. At 15-3, they are on their way to a fourth straight 20-win season.
McCool and Backes are the top two scorers this season and Kirsch is the all-time top rebounder in the program. Carlson and Holt come off the bench, having started in previous seasons; They say they had no problem accepting their new roles and never considered not returning for a fifth season.
“Yes, it humiliates me a little and makes me think about what other ways I can contribute to the team.” said Karlson. “Can I cheer louder on the bench, can I help people if I see something on the floor they can’t see? It’s about embracing the team mentality and shedding our personal pride for the good of the team and for something bigger than ourselves.”
Memories made off the pitch might be more important for this group. Each spoke fondly of their time together, whether it was watching movies or eating together, playing cornholes before soccer games, hitting the driving range to hit golf balls, rafting down the Kearney Canal, or those dreaded workouts out of season at 6am.
“We’ve been together for so long and been through so much” cherry said “If either of us decided not to come back, it would definitely feel like a missing piece.”