When Central High School junior Kendra Wilken looks back she has many good memories of what the Cougars accomplished during the 2014-15 basketball season.
There were the 31 wins and an undefeated Cahokia Conference season. There were regular-season tournament championships at O’Fallon and Mascoutah and of course there was the Cougars’ epic postseason run which saw them come four points short of a Class 2A state championship on a snowy February night at Illinois State University in Normal.
Then there were the off-court memories.
“What do I remember about the state tournament? I remember we were all nervous before the state title game and so to make everybody relax, we all danced in the locker room and laughed a little bit,” Wilken recalled. “I remember all the fun we had at the hotel and how we bonded.
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“And of course, I remember playing for the state title when we led for more than half of the game and the disappointment we all felt when we came up short in the fourth quarter. But we got there.”
And the 6-foot-2 Wilken was a major reason why Central had the season it did.
A first team all-state selection, Wilken averaged 20 points and nearly 12 rebounds a game for Central, which finished 31-4 and earned its second state tournament trophy in four years. The Cougars also placed second at the 2012 Class 2A state tournament.
Nominated for Illinois’ Miss Basketball award Wilken was the unanimous choice of metro-east coaches as the Belleville News-Democrat Class 1A-2A Player of the Year.
A few weeks removed from her junior season, Wilken is spending a little extra time on her academics and working out for her spring and summer season. She plays with an Indiana-based traveling team which competes in tournaments throughout the Midwest.
“We have a tournament coming up in April and so I’m just trying to stay in shape for that so that I’m not dead tired when we’re playing three games a day,” Wilken said. “During the summer, we’ll have open gyms for both volleyball and basketball, so I’ll also be getting in shape then.”
One thing Wilken doesn’t have to worry about is where she’ll be going to college in about 16 months.
Wilken gave a verbal commitment earlier in the 2014-15 school year to play basketball at DePaul University in Chicago and will sign with the Blue Demons next fall. But before then, Wilken will be working on handling the basketball, getting stronger and, perhaps most importantly, working on her perimeter shot.
“I’ve got to work on my defense as well because DePaul is known for playing great defense,” Wilken said. “They have a No. 4 (power forward) who made the switch from a No. 5 (center) and I asked (former Mate Dei player and DePaul sophomore) Brooke (Schulte) to find out how what she did to make the switch. It was that she worked on her perimeter shot. So this summer I’m going to work on my shot a lot.
“(Central) coach (Nathan) Rueter had me come out on the perimeter a little more this season. But I know I’ve got to be able to shoot from the perimeter or be able to shoot the 15-foot jumpers at the next level.”
Ranked second on the Cougars’ all-time scoring list with 1,663 points and first in rebounds with 837, Wilken also has a tremendous work ethic and is a highly motivated athlete according to Rueter.
“I think winning is the biggest thing that motivates her. I think she also is motivated to perform at a high level, because she knows how important she is to our team and that we depend a lot on what she is able to do for us. There really aren’t too many players out there that can go get you 20 (points)/20 (rebounds) on any given night,” Rueter said. “Kendra is a big, athletic kid, but she is more than that. She is very skilled and has worked hard to develop into the player that she has become.”
“She really has improved a lot since her freshman year. A lot of that is because of work that she has put in on her own in the driveway at home. She certainly hasn’t solely relied on her God-given talents.”
The Cougars will return four of their five starters next season, losing only point guard Sophie Rickhoff to graduation. But if it stays the course, Cental should be one of the top Class 2A teams in the state again next season
“Getting to state was exciting and while we were upset we lost in the state championship game, it kind of fuels the fire for next season. We have everybody coming back except for Sophie (Rickhoff),” Wilken said. “I mean losing Sophie will be huge with her being our point guard and our leader. But we lost a lot from a year ago too and we made it to the state title game. We have a couple of girls coming in, but it will be difficult to replace Sophie.”