NORMAL — Thirteen years ago, a renaissance of sorts was started in LeRoy.
It began without fanfare. Stephanie Hintz, Stephanie Howell, Molly Marcum, Emily Schopp, Ashley Walker and Katie Woltkamp entered kindergarten together in the local school district.
By fourth grade, some had started to play basketball. As fifth-graders, they were all calling themselves teammates. That was years after another movement had started in the community.
Following 11 years of LeRoy and Tri-Valley athletes playing together on a cooperative girls' basketball team, the Panthers started their first program in the fall of 1999.
That was the same fall that Hintz, Howell, Marcum, Schopp, Walker and Woltkamp were beginning their formal education. The six came full circle Saturday at Illinois State's Redbird Arena.
They will always be part of the first graduating class from LeRoy that has had girls' basketball the entire 13 years they were enrolled as students. They also capped their careers by being on the Panthers' first team to earn state medals in the sport.
All six played in at least one of the weekend's IHSA state tournament games, helping the school capture the fourth-place trophy. In a third-place game Saturday that was tied after one quarter, tied after two quarters and still tied with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game, Illini Bluffs pulled out a 58-50 triumph.
"These seniors are a huge reason we've started to turn the program around," LeRoy coach Danielle Cooley said. "I credit them for a lot.
"We hope their leadership as good girls will trickle down and, in a few years, we get back (to state) and say, 'Remember those girls? They are the reason we are here.' "
LeRoy scored the game's first six points and followed up with the first five points of the second half, but the Panthers were undone by making one field goal during the final 12:02.
"We didn't finish like we wanted," said Marcum, who scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, "but making state is a big deal. It's great to set the bar high."
The building process started years ago.
"In fifth grade, there were 13 of us," Howell said. "Since high school, there've been us six and we played JV together (compiling a 12-4 record as freshmen)."
By this year, a season following the school's first Sweet 16 berth, Howell said, "we had it in our minds we wanted to make it further than the school ever did before."
Marcum put the goal into public view early.
"It was Molly in the preseason who wrote, 'state,' as a team goal," Cooley said.
It was realistic, Marcum maintained, because "as juniors, we proved we were a team to be reckoned with."
Setting such a lofty goal left little margin for error. For it to occur with a group that has grown up together and formed close friendships added to the joy of the moment.
"It's like going to state with your family," Marcum said. "These are people I've known all my life. They know my quirks, my faults. Everything. It's amazing to get here with those five girls."
The bonds didn't just fall into place since practice got under way in November.
"We know and trust each other," Howell said. "We have that chemistry."
State wasn't the primary objective, Howell conceded, when the girls started playing together in fifth grade.
"We just thought about having fun and enjoying the sport," said Howell, who first watched a LeRoy girls' varsity basketball game once she became a freshman.
Walker, who scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in her final prep game, has memories from a school-record 27-5 season she will treasure the rest of her life.
"I wouldn't have wanted to have come here with any other team," Walker said. "It was a great four years."
The sting of a final-game loss, Cooley believes, will ease with time.
"It hurts now," she said, "but in a few weeks, I think they will look back, say, 'we were fourth' and be grateful for that."