By Kyle Daubs

When the Charleston High School girls basketball team reached the IHSAA sectional championship in 2018, few thought this was going to be the encore act for 2019.   

“We knew we were going to be tough, but we never thought we would be almost 30-0 good,” said forward Sydney Littleford.

If you had predicted an undefeated regular season, then you deserve all the praise in the world. For most everyone else, the 29-1 girls squad was a surprise. 

The team had lost three starters to graduation – Paige Swango, Hope Griffin, and Kaitlyn Coffey. Swango left as the all-time 3-point shots leader and Griffin ranks in the top 10 for assists and steals. Tough losses from a team replacement for a team that made the Sweet 16 and finished 25-3. 

“Every year we wanted to accomplish something and be better,” said guard Annie Crowder. “As freshmen, we won our conference, Then, we went undefeated in JV. As for varsity, there was a lot of pressure to be as good as last year. We knew we had high stakes to perform after what we followed.”

A squad of seven seniors and an All-State sophomore did the trick. It helped that the sophomore, Shae Littleford , is also the sister of one of the seniors. 

“We had some of the best chemistry on and off the court,” said Sydney. “We just really got along everywhere we were.”

Charleston started the season by winning the Paris Thanksgiving Tournament by outscoring their opponents by at least 30 points each game. The championship was a lull, in which Charleston defeated Paris 74-44. 

“At that point, I think we showed something special was about to happen,” said Crowder. “For some reason, Paris became this big rival, like up there with Effingham. Beating them by that much, we knew we could be whoever we played and we could have a special season.”

After cruising past Monticello, Mahomet-Seymour, and Taylorville. Regan Bollant scorched the Tornadoes by making seven of 11 3-pointers for 22 points. When the season ended, her 104 3-pointers ranked third on the all-time leaderboard. She had made just 16 3-pointers as a junior. 

“When I moved to Charleston, I had never played anything like Charleston basketball before,” said Bollant, who transferred from Judah Christian her junior year after he dad, Matt Bollant became head coach of the EIU women’s basketball coach. “It’s so much faster. My junior year, we had Paige, Hope, and Kaitlyn. I felt like they didn’t need me to win. I knew going into my senior year, I had to keep the three components alive. It was easy when you had Shae. She’s the best point guard I have ever played with. She always found me when I was open.”

Against Taylorville, Bernie Jackson finished with the third-most rebounds in a game (20) in school history.

“Coach Miller never likes playing against Taylorville,” said Jackson with a laugh. “It’s always a battle when we play them. In that game, I knew that Shae, Liz, and Regan were all getting baskets. I knew I had one job: get the ball and get the ball to them. They were able to hit those shots and win us the game.”

The team faced its first big challenge against an Effingham team that featured two players, Carsyn Fearday and Abby Weis, who later helped the Lake Land College women’s team earn a No. 4 national ranking in 2020 before the pandemic shut down a chance to win a national title. Fearday, Natalie Carie, and Weis combined for 43 of the 63 points in Effingham’s sectional victory later in the year. 

In early December, the Trojans triumphed with a 51-44 win that featured 25 points from Littleford and 11 points and eight rebounds from Jackson that helped rank CHS eight in the state AP poll.

“We were all really nervous because we knew how talented they were,” said Buescher. “I will say that before the game, we found out that Carsyn (Fearday) was out with a concussion. We heard that during the JV game and it was like a weight was off our chest because she was their best player. We knew we still had to bring it to win the game.”

The Trojans entered the Charleston Holiday Tournament with a 13-0 record.  After blasting Pekin by 30 points, Charleston defeated four state ranked teams – Springfield Sacred-Heart Griffin, Tri County, Effingham and Teutopolis. 

Shae Littleford scored 35 in the first two games and 25 points against Effingham. 

“There was like a moment of awestruck,” said Sydney. “To be able to have that type of player on your team, it doesn’t happen very often, especially in a town like Charleston. We’re not a big area like Chicago. You just sat there and watched, and thought to yourself, ‘Wow.’”

In the championship, Littleford scored 17 while Jackson scored 16 and grabbed seven rebounds.

“In my senior season, I felt like that was one of the moments I was really able to step up for my team,” said Jackson. “To do that in my championship game of that tournament is unbelievable. After the game, everyone was so excited. It was the high of a lifetime.”

CHS coach Jeff Miller was impressed by his team’s performance.

“I remember looking at coach (Amy) Jackson and saying, ‘Wow, we played pretty well’ and then it was business as usual right after that,” Miller. “I don’t want to understate how big of a deal it was. I mean, it was only the third time we have ever won that tournament. However, that was just our mentality. We were ready for the next opportunity.”

After winning the tournament, the Lady Trojans defeated Taylorville, Lincoln, Mount Zion, Mattoon, and Mahomet-Seymour in lopsided fashion to set up round three with Effingham on the road. At the time, the Lady Hearts were just one game out of the conference lead.

“That was one of the biggest games I remember,” said Shae. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it. There was such a huge Charleston crowd, even with it being on the road. It almost felt like a home game.”

Charleston defeated Effingham 56-46 behind a 29-point effort from Littleford on 11-for-11 free throws. 

“One of the biggest things Coach Miller stresses is that making free throws wins ball games,” said Shae. “We always practiced pressure situations, so when it came to the game, we were always able to follow through.”

The Lady Trojans closed the regular season with wins over Decatur Eisenhower and Olney and a No. 4 state ranking in Class 3A. Charleston then won the Clinton Regional with easy wins over Mahomet-Seymour and Champaign Central. 

A 62-60 loss to Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin in the sectional semifinal, though, ended the season abruptly. Charleston led for the majority of the game. 

“I literally cried for two weeks straight,” said Buescher. “I would go to bed and just cry because I knew we should have won that game. There’s no blame on everyone, but I think we would have made it to the state if we won.”

The Cyclones did not take the lead until 2:48 remained in the third quarter. A 3-point play from an offensive rebound did just the trick, but it was something that happened all game. Charleston was outrebounded by 19. 

“Looking back on it now, they were able to keep their big girls out of foul trouble, and I put myself in foul trouble,” said Jackson. “They stuck Regan or Liz down low, and they were utilized. When I was in the game, they pulled their big girl out to pull me out from down low. They just strategized really well and played to their advantage.”

Charleston battled back and forth for the lead, resulting with a 58-56 lead with 3:24 left in the game, but couldn’t score more than two points to close out. 

“We beat them earlier in the year, which makes it more frustrating,” said Bollant. “The whole game, we didn’t feel like ourselves. We weren’t gelling like usual. We couldn’t give a stop, or convert on offense. It’s so painful to think that’s how we ended the best season of our lives.”

Littleford scored 36 points, including all of the team’s points in the fourth quarter until Bollant’s basket with 13 seconds remained. 

“We just weren’t matched up well with them,” said Littelford. “They were a huge team that could stop you on the defensive end. We didn’t have a lot of momentum on the offensive side to match them. It was just one of those nights where we didn’t hit shots. It sucks that it happened in that game.”

Sacred Heart-Griffin defeated Effingham in the sectional championship and reached the state tournament, finishing fourth overall.

“I was heartbroken for the girls,” said Miller. “All that blood, sweat, and tears that they put into four years. We knew we had a target on our back, being one of the only undefeated teams in the state. To this day, I’m still proud of them. That one game shouldn’t define that basketball season. In hindsight, I think we could have made it to Redbird Arena. It was just the worst time of the year to have a bad game.”

There were plenty of accolades at the end of the season. Littleford set the school record for single-season points (707) and steals (111). Along with Bollant’s place on the 3-point list, Jackson finished her prep career ninth in career rebounds. Elizabeth Buescher finished with the third-most steals in a season with 92. 

In the present, Littleford enters her senior season with a chance to become the school’s all-time leader in points, assists, and steals. As special as that may be, she would trade it all for a chance to replay that final 3 minutes, 28 seconds. 

“I wouldn’t trade anything for that experience and going 29-1, but every single one of those girls would have rather gone to state then have all of those wins,” said Shae. “Not too many teams make it to state. It would have been an amazing opportunity.”

Of course, so would everyone else. 

“I would give anything to go back and play them all over again,” said Bollant. “We were the better team.”

“I would do anything to have an opportunity to play for that state title game,” said Crowder. 

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