By Kyle Daubs
Let’s get something straight before we hurt anyone’s feelings.
Choosing the best team in Mattoon High School girls’ basketball history was not easy. Over a 30-year stretch (1976-2006), the Lady Wave won 601 games, 22 Regional Championships, five Sectional Championships, and made four trips to the state tournament.
However, one MHS girls basketball team didn’t just go the farthest out of any team in school history, but helped revolutionize basketball for girls all over the community.
From finishing fourth place in the state tournament to sustaining greatness during a time period where girls playing sports was scrutinized, the 1977-1978 Lady Wave is the best basketball team to ever play in Coles County.
Mattoon was coming off an Elite Eight appearance the previous season, losing to Washington, 55-38, to end the season 12-4 in just its third season. The team returned four starters, but featured a new coach. Tennis coach Dwight Perry replaced Linda Blades, who stepped down from coaching to take a librarian position in Sterling.
According to Craig Sanders of the JG-TC, Perry said playing at Assembly Hall (State Farm Center), “was something on their mind.” The previous season the Center at Illinois State had held the first-ever state girls basketball championships.
“We wanted to get back to the state tournament,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “Before the season, we had a chip on our shoulder. It was more of a goal that we wanted to get back, but we really wanted to play at Assembly Hall.”
The core of the team returned. That included four starting seniors in All-Big 12 Conference center Linda Nuxoll, guards Susan King and Nancy Saegesser, and forward Sheila Trower. Lisa Newman, the team’s 5-foot-11 junior forward, was asked to play big time minutes and was thrown into a starting role. Key reserves Angie Allee, Gail Halsey, and Becky Tinney were also contributors.
As Nuxoll Taylor remembers, there was a bond among everyone in that group.
“We were a tight-knit group,” Taylor said. “Back then, freshmen were still at the junior high. As ninth graders, we didn’t have sports. There were three or four of us that joined the boys track team just to be a part of something. We weren’t as fast as the boys, but it was something to do. Getting to state was a special goal to us.”
At the time, the season didn’t start until Jan. 5. Perry was the first male coach of the girls team. When talking to Sanders, Perry said “he found no difficulties being a man and coaching the girls.” He recruited Melanie Ogle, a former Eastern Illinois University women’s basketball player, as his assistant coach.
“When Dwight came in, I think I can say for the rest of the girls that we were excited,” said Sheila Wilson (Trower). “He was so much fun. He scrimmaged with us. He made us work hard. We didn’t have a problem with a male coach. I think it was more difficult for him probably.”
Before the season tipped off, Perry raved about the “Run and Gun” offense. He said that the team set a goal to average 78 points per game in honor of the seniors graduating in 1978.
The team got off on the right foot by blowing past Shelbyville in the first game of the season in a major rout, 104-23. MHS then whipped Bethany, 78-36. After scoring 24 points, Saegesser was quickly becoming the team’s go-to scorer, while Nuxol, Trower and Newman were consistently scoring in double-digits.
“A coach’s dream,” Perry said. “When I first took over, the first thing I did was buy them all t-shirts that said “Run And Gun Is Fun.” It was fun. We pressed hard, got the ball down the floor, and looked to score as quickly as we could. We had eight or nine girls that you could rotate and put anywhere. It was a joy to coach them.”
Mattoon thought that Champaign Central would be its first true test of the season. Instead, Champaign’s best player Cathy Stukel left the team to play AAU volleyball. Stukel had received a full ride scholarship to play at Southern California. The 6-foot-1 athlete was the real deal, helping the Trojans reach the NCAA National Championship as a college junior and senior .
“We played them in the Super Sectional at EIU the year before and guarding her was rather difficult,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “I was just 5-8. It was definitely a challenge.”
Without Stukel, four Mattoon players scored in double figures in a 62-24 victory over the Maroons. Allee scored more than 10 points for third night in a row.
Before the Green Wave played their next game, members talked to the JG-TC about a topic that was sweeping the nation. An Ohio judge had ruled that girls must be allowed to participate in contact sports, which included football, basketball and wrestling.
At the time, Saegesser told Nancy Purdy of the JG-TC: “If girls are asked to be in boys’ basketball and were asked to give up their own program, they would be offended. I would rather have the girls’ program. It’s progressing and getting better. I don’t think there will be a line waiting to sign up for football, nor any need to get smaller jerseys.”
“It was a struggle to get girls sports going,” said Holly (Tinney). “We had girls pony baseball, but didn’t have softball. In junior high, us girls didn’t have sports teams. We would play basketball on the stage together. We were just glad to have our own league.”
The Lady Wave next posted a hard-fought victory over Decatur MacArthur. Mattoon overcame a 20-point deficit. In the third quarter, Mattoon relied on a numerous turnovers that resulted from its pressing defense. Using a string of runs, MHS cut its deficit to 48-44 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Allee and Saegesser scored to help tie the score at 53 with just under four minutes to play. After Nuxoll put the Lady Wave ahead, Perry called for Mattoon to stop running. The tactic worked as Mattoon won, 63-55.
After the game, Perry said this was a great win because it proved “they could win under pressure.” He also credited Trower for causing so many turnovers.
“I was a pretty aggressive player back then,” Wilson said. “I played more of a defensive role than on offense. In practice, Dwight had us practice defense and fast breaks a lot. When we first started, people thought girls basketball was not going to be exciting. We never stood around. We were pretty exciting to watch.”
Mattoon then resumed competition in the Big 12 Conference, which consisted of Bloomington, Champaign Central, Danville, Stephen Decatur, Lincoln, Mattoon, Springfield, and Urbana.
Mattoon had to take on Bloomington and powerhouse Lincoln without its leading scorer. Saegesser missed both games as part of an international seminar on American Government in Washington, D.C.
Mattoon was able to drop Bloomington without Saegesser, but had a much harder task against Lincoln. The Wave then had to find a way to battle All-American and All-Big 12 selection Barb Verderber, a 5-foot-10 junior who averaged 20 points.
“She was very intimidating,” Holly said. “She was tall and just a really good basketball player. She could dribble, shoot anywhere, and just an all-around great athlete.”
It was a close game. Despite losing 51-50, Mattoon battled the entire way. Newman fouled out in the third quarter, which allowed Verderber (22 points) to control more of the post. Mattoon had a chance to score the game-winning shot, but Nuxoll’s jumper was waved off because it was released after the buzzer.
“It was a horrible feeling,” said Taylor. “We were so, so close. Our offense was a fast break offense. Sheila was super fast. Nancy was our other get-out-and-go runner. We missed that when we first played them.”
Trower finished the game with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and the loss cost Mattoon the Big 12 Conference championship.
“If Nancy would have been there, I feel we would have more than likely won that game,” said Wilson. “But you never know. Maybe if Nancy was there, I wouldn’t get 20 points. Who knows? We didn’t blame her at all. She had an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. We were disappointed with the loss, but we still played our hearts out.”
When Saegesser returned, Mattoon again looked like the buzzsaw. Despite a 24-poins, 24-rebound night from Kathy Taitt, the Lady Wave dominated Charleston 66-41. MHS followed that up with an 83-42 win over Springfield, a game Mattoon led 30-8 after the first quarter.
The Springfield game was a special night as Blades was in attendance. According to Sanders, Blades told Perry “they’re fantastic” and that “I think they can go all the way.”
“I got to know Linda when she was coaching the girls before I did,” said Perry. “I really liked Linda. I hated to see her leave. I thought she did a great job with the team.”
The tough competition kept coming for the Lady Wave, but Mattoon proved to be one of the best teams in the state. Mattoon beat an Altamont team that featured All-State forward Caroline Huelskoetter, 78-54. Huelskoetter, who later played collegiately for both Kentucky and Southern Illinois, had scored 57 and 50 points in two previous regular-season games. Defended by King, Huelskoetter scored “only” 32 points.
“I don’t want this to sound derogatory, but Susan King was just like a bulldog,” said Perry. “She was a great defensive player. You could give he an assignment and she would be in your face the whole time.”
After defeating Urbana, Mattoon improved to 10-1, having also won a 55-51 squeaker over Paris in a game Perry told the JG-TC “was the worst officiated game he’s ever seen.”
After making just two of its first 16 shots, Mattoon nonetheless battled to within 51-47 with under a minute to play. King made two shots to tie the score before Nuxoll scored the go-ahead bucket. After the game, Perry told the media: “Linda Nuxoll got beat to death.”
“I don’t remember much about Paris,” said Taylor. “I only remember one of their players because we went to basketball camp together. I liked the challenge of playing someone good and trying to stop them or hold them down. I took a lot of pride in doing that job.”
Mattoon followed that performance with a 97-30 rout of Decatur, buoyed by Newman’s reord-setting 29 points – a mark that has since been eclipsed. It was a bitter ending as Allee went down with “a severe ankle injury,” which sidelined her until the postseason.
After that, Mattoon secured a 79-57 win over Mount Zion. The win was a big deal as Trower recorded her best game of 16 points after battling the flu for four games. However, the focus was more on the quality of depth this team possessed.
“We did a lot of work in the summer,” said Taylor. “There was no instruction, but they left the gym open. We girls would go play basketball for two to three hours two to three times a week. It wasn’t air conditioned, so even on the days when it was 90-degrees, we didn’t miss. Looking back on that now, I don’t know how we went through all that, but what comes to mind is that we had a goal and we had girls on the team that wanted to put the work in. There was no jealousy, just a commitment to do what was needed.”
Mattoon closed out the regular season with blowout wins over Rantoul and Danville. Mattoon entered the Arcola Regional with a 15-1 record, the No. 1 seed, and one of the best resumes in the area. Mattoon averaged 74.2 points per game while allowing 43.8 points.
After closing out the regular season, the Lady Wave did not play for another two weeks. What happened in the Regional drew anger from some irate fans.
Mattoon defeated Villa Grove, 107-25. Perry drew the ire of fans after he left his starters on the court late in the game. Perry told Sanders he wanted his starters to get reconditioned after the long layoff.
“I was never one to run up the score, but, at the same time, you can’t tell the kids to not guard them and not play,” said Perry. “I didn’t have the starters in until the end of the game. I’ve had the score ran up on me before. That’s not something that I did to other teams.”
Mattoon took care of the Regional Championship with a 90-54 win over Arcola, leading 40-17 at halftime. Nuxoll and Saegesser finished with 21 and 20 points, respectively, while Yvonne Stoner began to carve a key rotation spot with 12 points.
That set up a rematch with MacArthur in the first round of the Mattoon Sectional. According to the JG-TC, more than 1,300 fans were in attendance, a factor in which MacArthur coach John Wykoff credited to their downfall.
“I remember that gym. It was packed,” Wilson said. “It was exciting to have so many fans, but we were just excited to have a basketball program and get to play sports.”
Mattoon dusted MacArthur, 68-45, after trailing 28-23 at halftime. But Mattoon opened the second half with a 16-0 run and never looked back. Wykoff said the team was “rattled” when their offense couldn’t connect. Saegesser led the team with 21 points, Nuxoll added 18 points and 13 rebounds, while Newman and Trower had 13 points apiece.
“I remember they had a girl with the last name Bond that was one of their better players,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “We knew we had to try and contain her. I remember the crowd. We had tremendous crowds my senior year. We had cheerleaders at every game, which had never taken place before. The boys basketball team was very supportive. It was just fantastic.”
The Sectional Championship featured a Coles County Clash, but the game was not much of a game. Besides CHS’s leading scorer, Taitt, no other player scored until 2:19 remained in the first half. MHS led 31-17 at halftime and were never threatened in the second half.
That vitory sent Mattoon to the Sweet 16 and a date with 18-0 Chattsworth, a school with an enrollment of 122 that has since consolidated into Fairbury Prairie Central.
Chattsworth featured Ruth Ann Kaiser, a guard who averaged 23 points. Before the game, Perry told the JG-TC that Kaiser was better than Altamont’s Huelskoetter. The Super Sectional at Charleston HS was sold out two days in advance.
“When we first started playing, it was mostly parents and siblings that showed up,” said Wilson. “You know how it works. When we kept winning, more people started paying attention to us. Everybody likes to follow a winning team.”
The small school packed a powerful punch, but Mattoon held on for an 80-73 victory to advance to the state tournament and the Elite Eight.
Mattoon led by as many as 17 points before Chattsworth fought back to 73-70 with 1:35 left in the game. After a basket by King, the lead was cut back to three after two free throws.
“Something that Dwight was really good at was that he knew exactly when to sub, exactly when to call a timeout, and get everyone regrouped,” Holly said. “We had the talent, but he kept us composed. He knew his stuff. He was a very good coach.”
Trailing 75-72, Chattsworth sent Trower to the free-throw line on the next possession. She made the first one and Nuxoll rebounded the missed second one, skipping a pass to Saegesser who then nailed a baseline jumper to give the Wave an insurmountable lead. Down the stretch, both Nuxol and Saegesser hit three free throws to clinch the game.
“I had a real desire to win and I was going to do all I could to win,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “That’s the only thing I can say. With Nancy, she had the same desire. We just wanted to win.”
It was a very physical game. The press that Mattoon employed led to foul trouble. Every Mattoon starter had four fouls in the fourth quarter. After the game, Chattsworth coach Gary McCool told the media that Mattoon “was not the best team we have played that season.” However, he was impressed with the “team’s defense and their hustle.”
Meanwhile, Perry called Kaiser, who scored 30, “the best player we have seen this year.”
“She was 5-foot-10 and just a sophomore,” said Perry. “That girl almost beat us by herself. I had never seen anyone play at her level. I remember her family moved to Arizona or somewhere out west after that year and they didn’t have basketball out there. I don’t know if she continued to play, but she was just phenomenal. She was such a handful.”
Heading into the Elite Eight, Mattoon saw familiarity in the next opponent, Dundee. Former MHS boys’ basketball coach Paul Judson guided the team. Dundee featured two strong guards who both averaged 20 points.
Wilson said Coach Perry brought the team in early to Assembly Hall before the game, which helped calm their nerves.
“I will never forget playing in Assembly Hall,” Wilson said. “Dwight took us in early, so we could get t-shirts, walk around, and all that. I think it really helped with our nerves. I remember when we played the first game, we were pretty calm. We just looked up and saw all this green and gold that our fans had. It was really neat because we started with hardly any fans to ending up with a lot.”
In the end, Mattoon made the Final Four thanks to one of the most unlikeliest heroes.
Dundee trailed 51-45 through three quarters but battled to within 55-54 with five minutes to play. After Trower and Nuxoll combined to score five points, Mattoon led by five. The JG-TC captured the photo of Nuxoll putting Mattoon ahead 61-55 with the tag line “High Flying Nuxoll.”
However, Dundee fought back. After two quick baskets, Trower fouled out, which allowed Dundee’s Collette Jung to tie the score at the free throw line, 61-61 with just a minute to play.
According to Sanders, Perry took the ultimate gamble by stalling. The Wave held the ball until about 4 seconds remained. The plan, Perry said, was to give reserve Gail Halsey ran out of time.
“In practice, Gail was always sinking those long shots,” said Wilson. “They were passing the ball around trying to get the ball to Linda or Nancy. They just couldn’t get it to them. Gail fired it up and it was very exciting. It was a long shot and we didn’t have three-pointers back then either.”
From 20 feet out, Halsey swished the shot to give Mattoon the 63-61 lead with four seconds left in the game.
“That was just one of those games that made you say holy cow,” said Perry. “Gail was very competitive, and very coachable. Honestly, I believe there was anybody on that team that was capable of hitting that shot. It just so happened to be her time. It was simply amazing.”
It was even more wild for those that were on the bench at the time.
“You’re giving me chills right now thinking about it,” said Holly. “She was a sub like me and, with all the nerves, she just sunk it. It was awesome. It just shows that we had scrappers and that we all never gave up.”
The estimated crowd of 5,580 people at Assembly Hall roared.
“It was an eruption of green and gold,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “We sold so many tickets. I can’t tell you how many t-shirts we sold. Even my own parents, who were older at the time and never wore t-shirts, supported us.”
With 2 seconds left, Judson burned two timeouts to draw a final attempt. Instead, a Dundee player dropped the inbounds pass to which Halsey recovered and was fouled. At the line, Halsey hit both free throws for the final scores, 65-61.
“I remember a bunch of us hoisting Gail up on our shoulders,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “We had confidence in each other. If didn’t matter who took the shot. Even if the shot didn’t come to me, it didn’t matter. Gail was open. Take the shot.”
The Final Four matchup featured a rematch with Lincoln, this time with Saegesser in the lineup. However, this was a tale of a different Lincoln squad. For the first time, the Lady Wave found themselves on the opposite side of a blowout.
Lincoln shot 53 percent from the field and held Mattoon to 22 percent shooting in a 67-48 romp. Verderber scored 28 points (the former state record for points in a state tournament game) as Lincoln ultimately finished as the state runner-up.
“We couldn’t get anything going,” said Wilson. “We were really hoping we could beat Lincoln after they beat us in the regular season. We thought we had a good chance, but we just couldn’t hit a single shot. It was extremely disappointing.”
In the third-place game, Mattoon cemented one of the greatest comebacks in a state basketball tournament game. Saegesser tied Venderber’s record of 28 points in a game that featured a rollercoaster of nerves. Mattoon forced Moline to commit 43 turnovers.
After trailing 24-4 in the second quarter, Mattoon used an 18-6 run to make it 30-22. Moline used a string of baskets to lead 39-24 at halftime, but Mattoon then rolled out a 14-0 run to trail 39-38 in the third quarter.
After Moline reeled off an 8-0 run to lead 54-42 with 3:59 in the fourth quarters, fans might have thought all hope was gone. Instead, three straight Moline turnovers led to three MHS baskets. After baskets from King and Trower, Mattoon trailed just 58-54 with 1:22 left to play.
“Dwight was huge into playing defense, and we practiced it a lot,” said Holly. “We were very quick on our feet. We just all clicked well together. We knew what the other was thinking and we absolutely loved to run. With that said, we couldn’t do it without the coaching.”
The deficit was cut to 59-58 with 51 seconds left. In an attempt to steal the ball, Saegesser committed a foul that sent Moline to the free-throw line. After Moline missed one of two, 10 seconds remained.
Nuxol took the shot, but was fouled, which sent her to the free-throw line where she converted one of two. Nuxol stole the inbounds pass but missed the shot in the 60-59 loss that put MHS in fourth place overall.
“First and foremost, playing in Assembly Hall is something I will never be able to express how much it means to me,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “It means the world to be able to run out and play on the same floor as other college athletes. When we played at Illinois State, it wasn’t the same atmosphere. For that game, I felt like I let the entire team down. I thought I lost the game for us. I remember crying in the locker room. There were several others, but, in my own mind, I let the team down. Now that I have gotten older, I think we had many other opportunities to do something different and we didn’t take advantage. I just take a lot of pride in the fact we made it there and gave it our all. I guess as you get older, things get more into perspective.”
The Lady Wave received numerous awards: Saegesser was named UPI Second-Team All-State, First-Team All-News Gazette, and eventually went on to play at Eastern Illinois University. Nuxol narrowly beat out Saegesser (594 points) as Mattoon’s all-time leading scorer with 599 career points , although it has since been eclipsed. Nuxol had interest from EIU, but ultimately played at Lake Land College along with Stoner. Nuxol, Newman, and Trower each made Second-Team All-News Gazette, while the trio, along with King, were all named All-Big 12 Conference. Perry was named the Decatur Herald Coach of the Year.
“Someone once asked me what was the difference between coaching guys and girls, and I said there was no difference,” Perry said. “From a competitive and skill standpoint, they could do every bit as much as the boys. Those girls were tremendous ball handlers, shooters and passers. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or girl on the floor. They wanted it and wanted to win.”
Newman later joined the two at LLC before transferring to SEMO. Sadly, she died in a car crash in the1980s.
“I still remember getting that call while I was in college,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “I twisted my ankle because I was in such a hurry to get to basketball practice. Lisa was someone that was carefree and enjoyed the sport of basketball. Her mom and dad were huge fans. She just wanted to play and do her best. Even though she wasn’t one of the seniors, she still knew the goal we wanted to achieve.”
Despite the loss, Newman was among many from that squad who changed the perception of girls sports in the community. The state run didn’t just put Mattoon on the map as one of the best schools in the state. It also brought the community together and did something much, much bigger. JG-TC writer Harry Reynolds said it best at the time: “even though Mattoon didn’t win the state championship, they did something far more important” by destroying any notion that women did not care about playing sports.
“When you think about it, we did sort of pave the way,” said Wilson. “At the time, I remember schools were having financial problems. Some schools were thinking about cutting programs because they didn’t have the money. I think what we accomplished helped them look at other areas. If they were thinking about cutting programs, we would have been the first to go. At first, we thought getting fourth place was disappointment. Today, it’s really quite an accomplishment.”
He also cited that the team gave the women in the community something to be proud of, citing that even his own daughter wanted to start learning how to play basketball.
“I feel that we all earned an acceptance from everyone,” said Nuxoll Taylor. “We had kids that were much younger than us and those who were older come up to us and tell us they loved watching us play. Kids today have so many more opportunities. To be apart of starting something, I treasure that. Looking forward, I have a 2 ½-year-old granddaughter. I can’t wait to get her interested.”
As for others, Holly still recalls seeing “all the green and gold” every time she attends an Illinois basketball game. When asked about changing the perception of how the community viewed girls’ sports, you could hear the pride in her voice.
“We had one of the biggest crowds when we went to Assembly Hall. It was filled with green and gold,” said Holly. “We brought the town out. Sure, in the past we had Cal Ripken baseball that brought out people, but this was high school girls basketball. It wasn’t just our parents and friends. It was everyone. We showed everyone that girls can play sports too.”
At age 76, Perry continues to serve as the MHS girls tennis coach. In 13 years career coaching girls basketball at MHS, which included two stints, Perry’s teams went 251-83, which included 11 straight Regional Championships in his first stint.
He watched George Reed win 339 games over 17 years. He was a fan in the stands when the 2016-2017 team went 30-2 and broke the school record for wins. However, through all the success, the 1978 team is the best in his eyes.
“I’m biased when I say the ‘78 team is the best ever,” said Perry. “The 2016-2017 team I thought was the best Mattoon team to make it to the Final Four. Those group of seniors back then started playing basketball in fourth grade on their own. They grew up together. They loved athletics. They thought they had to be role models for the little girls who saw them play. They were just a great group of kids and a great group of women. Thank goodness they were there when I was coaching. But, from a state level, they have to best the best team to ever play in Coles County.”