For as long as David Kohnen can remember, Mater Dei High School in Breese has been one of the cornerstones of his life.
A lifelong resident of Clinton County, Kohnen was a standout basketball player for the Knights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was there when girls basketball was introduced as a varsity sport at Mater Dei in the 1980s and for the past 24 years, Kohnen has been the unquestioned leader of a Mater Dei girls basketball program which is among the state’s best.
On May 2, Kohnen will take his place among the top coaches in state history when he is inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame at Illinois State University in Bloomington/Normal.
In his 25th season as the Knights coach, Kohnen, 61, has a career record of 508-176 (.743 winning percentage).
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In that time, Mater Dei has won nine regional titles, four sectional championships and advanced to the state finals once.
His state tournament appearance came in the 1990-91 season, his first as coach when Mater Dei defeated West Frankfort in the super-sectional, then lost to Elgin St. Edward in the Class A state quarterfinals.
“That was when they still had the two class system in the state tournament series and St. Edward had a girl who had moved in from out east someplace and I think they beat us by eight or 10 points,” Kohnen said. “We’ve had a few chances to get to the state finals since then. We’ve just come up short. Lost a couple of heartbreakers along the way.
“I’ve been truly blessed to coach a lot of great kids and work with many wonderful assistant coaches and people at Mater Dei. I love the kids and I love the school. It’s a great place.”
Among Kohnen’s assistants is Gary Pollmann, who has been with the Knights for the past 19 years.
Kohnen said he was notified that he had been selected to the Hall of Fame about a month ago.
“I’m not sure what the process is. I don’t know if you’re nominated or what,” Kohnen said. “I do know that I am truly honored to be going in. But it’s not just about me. I believe that it’s a reflection of the type of kids we have at Mater Dei.
“I believe it’s a reflection of the coaches I’ve worked with. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had great players and successful teams at Mater Dei. But we’ve done it together.”
A 1971 graduate of Mater Dei, Kohnen went on to attend Blackburn College in Carlinville, where he played college basketball for four years.
It also was at Blackburn where he met his wife and No. 1 scout, Deb. The Kohnens will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary later this year and have three daughters, Andrea, Melissa and Stephanie, all of whom played basketball for their father.
“Deb was a basketball player at Blackburn, too. She’s been to a lot of basketball games in the last 40 years and she has truly been my No. 1 scout. She really knows the game,” Kohnen said. “Coaching my daughters has been one of the highlights of my career. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them sometimes though.”
After graduating from Blackburn in 1975, Kohnen returned to the Clinton County area where he coached at several levels. Kohnen said he learned from several exceptional coaches, including former Mater Dei coaches Mike Abegg, Scott Fuhrhop and Andy Stremlau.
But since 1990-91, it has been Kohnen who has been the man in charge of the Knights girls basketball program.
Few coaches around the state can match Mater Dei’s success in the past 25 years. Under Kohnen, Mater has had just one losing season — in 1999-2000 when it finished 12-16. On the positive side, Mater Dei has won 20 or more games 14 times and recorded 19 wins on two other occasions.
“When I started coaching my plan was to do it for three or four years then find something else to do. I stayed a little longer,” Kohnen said, laughing. “I went back and got my teaching certificate and the rest is history. The years have gone by very quickly.”
An intense competitor, Kohnen’s coaching expertise isn’t limited to the basketball court. He has also been highly successful for many years as the Knights girls cross country coach and track and field coach.
“We added it up and I think there have been a total of 68 seasons altogether,” Kohnen said. “There are times in the spring when I get a little tired. But after a few days I’m back into it again. Do I still have the fire and the passion? Yes. I still love working with kids and seeing them achieve. I still love going to practice.
“As a basketball coach I think I’ve maybe calmed down a little bit. When I was younger, there were times when I wouldn’t have to say anything to my players to get a message across. They would just get ‘the look.’”
So how many more basketball seasons will there be at Mater Dei for Kohnen?
“I’m not sure. Like I said, I still love working with the kids. I’ve always stressed playing with strong fundamentals,” Kohnen said. “I’ve also wanted my teams to play the right way, play fair and play hard. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”