Bartelso native Kendra Wilken was among the best Class 2A high school basketball players in the state during her final two years at Breese Central High School
A two-time first team all-state selection, the 6-foot-2 Wilken led the Cougars to four straight Cahokia Conference titles, three trips to the Class 2A super-sectional and a second place finish in the 2015 Class 2A State Tournament.
Her 2,258 points are the most scored by any player, girl or boy, in school history as she led Central to a four-year 117-14 record.
A year later, the 2016 Central graduate, felt like she was starting from scratch.
A freshman on the roster of coach Lisa Stone’s St. Louis University Billikens program, Wilken was learning to be an NCAA Division I student-athlete with the responsibilities of being away from home for the first time. And for the first time in several years, Wilken wasn’t an impact player.
Instead, of playing nearly every minute of every game, Wilken was a role player who came off the bench. During her freshman season in 2016-17, Wilken played in only 19 games and scored a season high five points twice, against George Mason and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
“It was an adjustment going from high school to college.,’’ Wilken said recently. “You have to realize that everybody has a certain role. Whether its working hard in practice to make the starting five better or whatever it is. Once you have an opportunity to play you just have to make sure you give it your all..
“During your freshmen and sophomore years they (coaches) pretty much tell you that you have to be a good teammate and do your best when you get a chance.’’
Now Wilken is a junior and her chance has finally arrived.
A veteran on an otherwise young Billikens squad, Wilken is averaging 7.6 points and 3.4 rebounds for the 2-4 Billikens, who face SIUC at Chaifetz Arena Thursday. She got her junior season started with an 18-point, six-rebound effort at Eastern Kentucky.
“This being my junior year, I want to make a bigger impact. At least that’s my plan,” Wilken said. “We have a very young team this year. The freshmen are great and I want to be a good leader and teammate for them. But my goal, and what the coaches have been telling me, is that I’m going to make a bigger impact this year....
“Honestly its been tough for me. Going from starting and playing all the tine in high school to becoming a freshman and sophomore in college and playing just here and there. That was tough to handle.’’
Majoring in health information management, Wilken is a two-time member of the Atlantic 10 Conference Commissioner’s honor roll, awarded to student-athletes with a GPA of 3.5 or better. But after completing her sophomore year in May, Wilken was one of several Billiken players who spent the summer in St. Louis taking classes and working on her game.
That extra work has paid off.
“I’ve worked on my outside game, learned to take care of the ball better and worked on my post moves. I’m a short post player for Division I basketball, but I worked on using my body and staying low,’’ Wilken said. “ Like I said, I’m short but I am a pretty strong girl. This summer I worked on using that to my advantage better.”
The Billkens, who were picked seventh in the Atlantic 10 Conference preseason poll, open league play on Jan. 6 at Massachusetts. The Billikens also have upcoming home games on Saturday against SIUE and on Tuesday against No. 2 Connecticut.
“That should be a great experience, playing UConn,’’ Wilken said with a smile. “It’s going to be fun. We have nothing to lose.’’
While Wilken should be a key part of the Billikens success during the next two years, she is already pondering the possibility of life without basketball after she graduates from college in 2020.
“The first couple of years of college have gone by fast. But it’s been a great experience to be a NCAA Division I athlete. I get to travel everywhere and have had the opportunity to meet a lot of people from all over the country,’’ Wilken said. “Even educationally, I’ve had the chance to learn from and meet a lot of great professors who I have a feeling will be helping me later in life with jobs and everything.”
Wilken sees her proximity to her hometown as a perk of playing Division I basketball in St. Louis. Family, friends and fans from Clinton County often attend games and Wilken can get home quickly when she chooses.
“With my schedule its difficult to get home a lot, but its nice to know that I’m only an hour from home,’’ Wilken said. “I try to get to a Central volleyball game each year and some basketball games,’’ Wilken said. “Central is where it all started for me.
“(Central) coaches (Nathan) Rueter, Kelly (Hasheider) and the rest of the coaches helped get me here. They were tough on me at times because they knew college basketball would be tough. I wouldn’t be here without them.’’