‘Loyalty’: Quartet of friends atop D-II women’s games chart

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) — Brooke Carlson, Elisa Backes, Maegan Holt, Klaire Kirsch and Shiloh McCool do almost everything together.

That includes movie nights and meals at the house four of the five share near the University of Nebraska-Kearney campus, organizing community service projects and excelling academically.

Oh, and they play basketball together. Lots and lots of basketball.

Carlson, Backes, Holt and Kirsch are the top four active players in career games played in Division II. Carlson has played in all 138 games for the Lopers since 2018. Backes and Holt each has appeared in 137 and Kirsch, who missed five because of injury last year, has played in 133. The four are using the fifth year of eligibility the NCAA granted players who went through the 2020-21 pandemic season.

McCool would be right there with them in games played if a knee injury hadn’t forced her to take a medical redshirt in 2019-20. She has played in 106 games and plans to return next season.

That players from the same school rank one through four in career games is a quirky statistic, if not an anomoly, considering there are 294 teams in Division II women’s basketball.

To coach Carrie Eighmey, it’s a refreshing stat.

“With all the conversations there are about the transfer portal and grad transfers and all those kinds of things,” she said, “the conversation has shifted (away from) the student-athletes who stay where they’re at and invest long-term into themselves and into the program they’re in.”

None of the UNK players were aware of their distinction until last week.

“It’s cool,” Carlson said. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a circumstance like this again, just with COVID and an extra year of eligibility and all of our seniors coming back. It’s mind-blowing, it’s amazing and it shows you how much loyalty there is in this program that we all came back to play for these coaches one more year.”

Carlson, Backes, Holt, Kirsch and McCool were part of Eighmey’s 2018 recruiting class known as the “Magnificent Seven.” Two moved on, but the other five became fast friends while living on the same floor of the freshman dormitory.

They come from four different states — Carlson from the Omaha suburb of Elkhorn; Backes from Salina, Kansas; Holt from Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kirsch from Rapid City, South Dakota; and McCool from Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

They gravitated to this middle-of-Nebraska city of 34,000 that advertises itself as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World for drawing more than 40,000 visitors to the area each spring to view the migration of the exotic birds. Mostly it’s a college town, and one with a proud history in multiple sports dating to its days as Kearney State College.

“We have a great basketball team and we like each other,” Backes said. “We love the school. We love the coaching staff. You’re lucky if you go to a college and find one of those things.”

The super seniors were building blocks for a program starting over in 2018-19. Only three players returned from Eighmey’s 21-win team the previous season.

McCool said there were times all five freshmen were on the court at the same time, most playing out of position and with little idea of what to do. That first team ended up 15-14.

“Things have definitely changed,” McCool said.

The Lopers have followed with seasons of 26, 22 and 24 wins and two NCAA Division II Tournament bids. At 15-3, they’re on track for a fourth straight 20-win season.

McCool and Backes are the top two scorers this season and Kirsch is the program’s all-time leading rebounder. Carlson and Holt are coming off the bench after starting in previous seasons; they say they had no problem accepting their new roles and never considered not coming back for a fifth season.

“Yeah, it kind of humbles me a little bit, and it makes me think of what are the other ways I can contribute to the team,” Carlson said. “Can I be cheering on the bench louder, can I be helping people if I see something on the floor they can’t see? It’s buying into the team mentality and putting away our personal pride for the benefit of the team and for something greater than ourselves.”

Memories made off the court might be more important to this group. Each spoke fondly of their time together, whether it was watching movies or sharing meals, playing cornhole before football games, going to the driving range to hit golf balls, rafting down the Kearney Canal or those dreaded 6 a.m. offseason workouts.

“We’ve been together for so long and through so much,” Kirsch said, “that if one of us decided not to come back, it definitely would feel like a missing piece.”

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