Dual Parkland hoops national title bids 'a dream come true'
CHAMPAIGN — Before both Parkland basketball teams gathered inside Dodds Athletic Center on Friday afternoon, they were together.
No real surprise there.
“We were just watching March Madness with them downstairs and joking around,” Parkland women’s guard Kerstyn Lowery said. “We’re pretty close with (the men’s team).”
The two will stay connected next week, even if they’re in different states. The men’s team will make the short trek to Danville for the NJCAA Division II tournament, while the women’s team heads south to Harrison, Ark., the site of its NJCAA D-II tournament.
The fact five Parkland athletic teams this school year have already made a national tournament in their respective sport — volleyball won its second straight national title last November after both men’s and women’s soccer programs won their region tournaments to advance to nationals — isn’t lost on the basketball players.
“It’s great that we kept it going,” said Cornelius McIntosh, the leading scorer on the men’s team who averages 10.8 points. “We didn’t feel any pressure, but I’m sure the baseball and softball teams do now going into their seasons.”
The Parkland men (27-3) will try to extend their season next week in Danville, a year after the Cobras placed sixth, when they open their tournament against Johnson County (Kan.) Community College (24-8) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“The experience can help us a lot,” McIntosh said. “Last year, after we won regionals, we felt like that was our championship. After we won the first game at nationals, we were ecstatic.”
“I feel we’ll take it more seriously and realize there’s more to it than just the first game,” McIntosh added.
The Parkland women (25-6) start their national tournament stay at 8 p.m. Tuesday against Cincinnati State (26-6), a year after missing out on the national tournament following a national runner-up finish in 2015.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” said center Payton Bieber, a Clinton graduate who has started 28 games this season, averaging 5.6 points and 6.4 rebounds. “To me, it’s like a dream come true. I just hope we’re ready and keep playing like we’ve been playing.”
The men carry a 21-game win streak into Danville, while the women’s team has won six straight games and 17 of its past 19 contests.
“I know last year, it was an upset that we lost and didn’t make it to the national tournament,” said Lowery, who leads the Cobras in scoring average at 14.7 points. “Now that both teams are going, it’s really awesome.”
Layne Buzan is second on the women’s team in scoring at 12.4 points per game and is tied with Bieber for top rebounding honors at 6.4 per contest.
The Monticello graduate said she’ll keep close tabs on how the men’s team fares next week.
“I think it makes it even more special,” she said. “We get to celebrate with them, and everyone gets to be happy for each other. That makes it an even greater experience.”
If both programs keep winning next week, though, they’ll still monitor how the other one is doing, but they could play at the same times.
Win on Tuesday night, and quarterfinal games await on Thursday — at 6 p.m. for the men and 8 p.m. for the women — with both national title games set for 7:30 p.m. on March 25.
Buzan, like other Parkland supporters, is all for seeing that scenario play itself out.
“At Parkland, all the teams are close,” she said. “Part of it is we almost all live with each other at Parkland Point apartments. It’s a big family atmosphere at Parkland, especially on the athletic side. We all bond and have a good time together.”