Bureau Valley girls basketball started with a roar

Bureau Valley 25th Anniversary Series

MANLIUS — Bureau Valley girls basketball got off to a roaring start with the mid-90s consolidation of four Bureau County schools — Manlius, Walnut, Western and Wyanet.

The Storm won 17 games in their first season in 1995-96 and averaged 22 the next two with a pair of regional championships.

Bureau Valley has won three more regional championships in school history to go with one conference championship.

Storm’s a brewing

John McKenzie, who had been assistant boys coach at Walnut, was responsible for piecing together the first BV girls teams. And he had a lot of talent to work with.

Bethany Ellis came in from Walnut and held the school’s all-time scoring record (1,284 points) for 30 years until passed up by Saige Barnett in 2018-19.

Other early stalwarts included Heidi Wager, who came in from Neponset and is BV’s No. 7 all-time scorer (853), Melissa Milby, Kelli Baumgartner, Jessica Judd, Sarah Dale and Lindsay Lauritzen.

The Storm, playing as Buda Bureau Valley at venerable Bollman Fieldhouse, as the new high school was being built, went 17-8 in its first season, falling to Stark County in the regional finals at Bradford.

The next year, 1996-97, the Storm broke through for their first regional championship, defeating Bradford and host Stark County. McKenzie used his 10-man rotation to wear down El Paso and rally for victory in the sectional semifinals at the Chillicothe with a pair of late 3-pointers by little Jess Judd.

“I remember El Paso was limited on subs, and boy, I’ll tell you what, by the late third quarter, and we pressed the whole game, they were just dragging,” said McKenzie, whose team lost to Dunlap in the finals, bowing out with a 20-8 record.

The Storm were just warming up. In 1997-98, the Storm went 24-3, winning the first and only conference (Tri-County) championship in school history. They also won a second straight regional title, defeating Neponset (61-47) and then Stark County (67-55) at the Henry Regional.

The Storm lost to Dunlap 44-40 in an overtime thriller in the Peoria Heights Sectional semifinals.

“Gosh, the kids give you everything they had,” McKenzie said. “I know looking back, I feel, if we got past that game, we would have played Mendota and we’d had beaten them earlier in the season by 12-14 points. But you know, that’s basketball.”

McKenzie, who would win 25 games over the next two years before stepping down, said they were tremendous memories, including “practice memories you wouldn’t believe.”

“We had talented kids, obviously, who liked to do what it took to be successful. They shared the ball and did the dirty work. Very, very skilled,” McKenzie said. “I think if you look at those girls, they weren’t just successful on the court, they were very successful in the classroom, which led to the success on the court. They weren’t afraid of hard work.

“I just enjoyed those kids. All of them.”

McKenzie, a 59-year-old grandfather of two, retired from teaching at Mendota in 2012 and now lives in Wausau, Wisc.

Change at the guard

Jeff Ohlson who served as assistant under McKenzie in 1997-98 (“I learned a lot from this guy”), took over in 2000-01. He guided the Storm to their third regional title the next year, defeating Prophetstown 41-39 at Hall before falling to Stark County 53-38 in the sectional semifinals at Sherrard.

The Storm had to wait eight years to win their next regional, defeating Mendota 59-42 in the finals at Princeton in 2010. Olson lived up to his end of the bargain, allowing his team to shave his head bald if they won the regional.

The Storm fell to Byron 60-42 in the sectional semifinals at Winnebago, but finished with a 20-9 record, the last 20-win season in school history.

Ohlson found himself bouncing back and forth between his duties in basketball and football, where he served as assistant during the Storm’s great playoff runs and later became head coach, also. He said he made it work with a lot of great assistants.

“I still remember experiencing a semifinal football win in 2004 in the afternoon, walking off the field, changing into a shirt and tie, getting in a school vehicle and driving to coach the girls game at Rock Falls that night,” he said. “I don’t remember the score of the game, but I remember the excitement on the faces of the girls when I walked into the gym and the girls running up to congratulate me on the football win and them looking forward to watching the boys play football at state the next weekend. I can say it was a little hard to get them to focus for a basketball game.”

Ohlson, who served as athletic director from 2012-15 until he departed for Princeton, his alma mater, said he has many more memories and great stories from his tenure as the BV girls basketball coach.

“I learned an awful lot about coaching and running a program during my time and it was a lot of fun and memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” he said. “The memories, stories and the kids are what I will always remember and what makes it worth it, the wins and losses come and go.

“I have always told my teams, when you go back for your 25-year class reunion, no one will remember the score of the games, but they remember the memories and stories from that time. Go out and make memories.”

BV has had a run of five head coaches since Ohlson stepped down after the 2009-10 campaign — Wayne Bailey (2010-12), Holly English (took over as interim in 2011-12), Tiffany Gonigam (2012-16), Jim Nugent (2016-19) and Daniel Sinclair (2019-present).

A fifth and final regional crown came in Gonigam’s third season. BV beat TRAC rival Newman 57-42 in the 2014-15 regional finals at Fulton, but fell in the sectional semifinals once again, 43-31 to Putnam County at Hall.

Gonigam, who played for Ohlson at BV, would follow him to PHS and succeed him as girls coach. He said, “She’s a better player and coach than I ever was.”

Saige wisdom

One of the best players, if not the best, to ever suit up for the Storm, Saige Barnett, splashed onto the scene as a freshman in 2015-16. By the time she hung up her No. 12 jersey in 2019, Barnett would become the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,426 career points.

Barnett became the fourth BV player named as the BCR Player of the Year in 25 years, joining Darcy Kepner/Heaven Bennett (co-players in 2014-15) and Melanie Thompson (2009-10).

Did you know?

Bureau Valley has won 320 games in its 25-year history (12.8 a year), while losing 380 good for a .457 winning percentage.

Kevin Hieronymus

Kevin has been sports editor of the BCR for more than 34 years and previously was sports editor of the St. Louis Daily News, Morton Tazewell News and ISU Daily Vidette. He is a 2021 inductee into the IBCA Hall of Fame as a media member and has won numerous IPA press awards.