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By Brad Spencer
Sixteen teenage girls looked up at J.P. Coughlin with not a rivet of anger in their faces or a hint of sadness in their eyes. Instead, the OPRF girls basketball coach saw 16 bright smiles looking back at him, and he knew then his first year as head coach was made memorable because of this special group of players.
It was early in the third quarter of the Trinity Sectional semifinal on Monday night and the Huskies were enduring a pulverizing beat-down by a much taller, much stronger and much more talented Whitney Young squad, the defending Class 4A State champ. Coughlin, who had just called his final timeout to desperately try to stop, or, more accurately slow down, the pummeling, instructed his players to take in and remember the support they were receiving from a loyal Huskies fan base. Exhaustion and frustration gave way to the bright smiles as the players looked up at one side of Michelle Germanson Athletic Facility's gym jam packed with their howling fans.
OPRF went on to lose to Young 82-36, but the Huskies had already reached heights that many thought they never would. OPRF made it as far as the sectional semifinal, something Catholic powerhouses and area-rivals Trinity (23-5) and Fenwick (23-7) failed to do. The team won its first regional championship since 2007 despite entering the playoffs with an overall record of 10-17.
Leading scorer Caroline Kelty, who scored a career high 39 points against Hinsdale Central in the regional semifinal and 28 against Bogan in the regional championship, was held to just 14 points against Young (26-4). Coughlin said his senior guard who averaged 18 points and nine rebounds per game is still mulling over a few college offers.
"I will never forget the show that Kelty put on over those two regional games, but also that every time she needed a teammate to make a shot, they hit, and every time we needed a stop, we fought and got that stop," he said.
Perhaps Kelty's most prolific game this season will be remembered as what ended up a loss to Proviso West earlier this month. Kelty sent the game into three overtimes before the Huskies succumbed to a 93-91 loss to the eventual West Suburban (Silver) Conference champs. The performance was made more endearing because it was Senior Night at OPRF.
Coughlin added that he's going to miss all five of his veteran players in Maeve Connelly, Kelty, Cuyla Hall, Emily Vachon and Jessi Dixon. Hall finished with eight points in the loss to Young.
"Our seniors were amazing leaders," he said. "It was awesome seeing the results they got and watching all five of them on the floor together as the final seconds ticked off on Friday night (in the regional title game). It was pretty amazing."
OPRF is expected to return several players next year, including Hailey Hoye, who started as a sophomore this season and averaged 10 points per game.
"Our younger players continued to get better over the course of the season and Hailey emerged as one of the top players in the conference," said Coughlin.