When Molly Hartke, Altamont's eighth grade girls basketball coach checked her mailbox earlier this month, she thought her eyes may have failed her. Tucked inside was an invitation to join Illinois' top coaches at the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association year-end banquet on April 27, where she would be honored as the Co-Coach of the Year in District 14.
"I've never received an award like this," Hartke said. "When I got it in the mail I was shocked. It's a great honor."
When evaluating Altamont's success this season, however, the award comes as no surprise. The Wildcats advanced to the state quarterfinals, posting wins over Neoga, Hartke's hometown, in the regional championship, and undefeated Paris Crestwood to reach the state tournament.
Though the Wildcats came up short in the Elite Eight, Altamont finished its dream season with a 19-5 record. For Hartke, she realized this group was special from the start.
"With these girls," she said, "I knew it could happen. It was a matter of playing some good teams throughout the season (to prepare)."
The list of accolades for Altamont was impressively long this season. The Wildcats picked up a first-place finish in the National Trail Conference's regular season, and added another title in the Vandalia Old State Capital Classic tournament.
Hartke credits the Wildcats' drive to improve as the key to this season's success.
"They just worked so hard in practice," she said. "Always wanting to get better, asking what they can do to get better. They set high goals for themselves at the beginning of the year."
Now that the memorable year has drawn to a close, Hartke is excited to make the trip up to Bloomington to be among plenty of familiar faces.
"It puts another spark on a great season that we had," she said. "I'm hoping to run into some other coaches I've played against in the past and know, and see all the other junior high coaches. It will be very interesting."
But the third-year coach won't be making the trek to Bloomington alone. Rob Niemerg, the seventh grade coach at Altamont, was also honored for his efforts in taking the younger Wildcats to the state tournament as well.
Altamont's seventh grade team had a similarly eye-popping resume, with an NTC regular-season title and Vandalia tournament championship to match. The Wildcats advanced to the round of eight at the state tournament where they fell short against Princeville, but Niemerg was incredibly proud with his team's achievements.
"It's not just me," he said. "It's the players. It was a good group of kids."
Altamont also received the services of a talented cast of sixth graders, and the collection of the two grades amounted to an extremely talented team.
"We a had a really strong, athletic group," Niemerg said. "We had a lot of height, a lot of speed. We had a lot of pure athleticism."
The Wildcats called on this athleticism to defeat notable rivals St. Anthony and Teutopolis in the regular season, and Altamont bested Stew-Stras 39-18 for its regional title.
Niemerg's squad used a last second bucket from Hanna Wolff to topple Paris Crestwood 18-16 in the sectional title, and the Wildcats advanced to the state tournament. Having finished his ninth season as head coach, Niemerg was most proud that he gets to share the experience of advancing to state with the eighth grade program as well.
"The best thing is the fact that both the seventh grade and and the eighth grade team went," he said. "After losing in the regional final last year, the girls said they wanted an even better year (this year)."
The feat marked the first time in school history that both programs advanced to the state tournament, as both squads delivered on their desire to improve.
Hartke, Niemerg and eighth grade boys coach Mike Dokey will all share the spotlight in Bloomington, but Niemerg says it's not the coaches who deserve the attention.
"I think it's pretty cool," Niemerg said. "It always nice to be recognized. But it's about the kids."
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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