Wallen sisters share bond on, off court

CHAMPAIGN — Coaches aren’t always overjoyed at the thought of having siblings on the same team. The potential for problems is ever-present.

If they’re having a squabble at home, it could be carried into their practices or games. If one sibling performs better — or receives more recognition than the other — it can create tension.

St. Thomas More girls’ basketball coach Chris Mennig recognizes the pitfalls. He also has two reasons why the scenario can work well.

They are Erica and Lexi Wallen, sisters who fill two of the five starting positions on the Sabers’ top-ranked Class 2A girls’ basketball team.

Problems have been averted, Mennig said, because of the individuals.

“Erica being older and her ability to be so selfless and embrace having a talented younger sister is one of the bigger pieces behind the scenes of our overall chemistry,” Mennig said.

The girls are separated in age by two years. Erica is a senior. Lexi is a sophomore.

They have two more games together, two more chances to make lasting memories.

“On the court I treat her like another teammate,” Erica Wallen said. “Off the court I realize how lucky I am to share this with her. This is definitely an experience we will remember and treasure and look back on when we’re in our 40s.”

The team aspect remains more important than their individual successes.

“We don’t compete with each other,” Erica Wallen said. “We try to encourage one another. If one of us has a good game, the other one is happy for her.”

Lexi Wallen said there is no jealousy.

“We realize that each person will take turns having her night,” she said.

They are so accepting because each sibling has been a major contributor on a team with a 12-game winning streak entering Friday’s 8:15 p.m. state semifinal game against fifth-ranked El Paso-Gridley (31-1) at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena.

In Monday’s first super-sectional victory for St. Thomas More, Lexi Wallen scored a game-high 19 points. Erica Wallen was second on the team with eight rebounds.

The sisters see their role as teammates as one that has been beneficial overall in their lives.

“We’ve had sisterly fights,” Erica Wallen said, “but we get along pretty well. Being on the same team has deepened our relationship and forced us to get along. That carries off the court.”

Lexi Wallen’s high school debut was a sparkling one in each of her endeavors. She was an All-Area second-team selection as a freshman in volleyball and basketball, and a first-team pick in soccer. She’s not yet ready to devote herself to one or two of the sports.

“I enjoy all three,” she said.

Seeing the effort that each of them has made in basketball has enhanced their appreciation for the other.

“From each other we’ve learned that hard work pays off in the end,” said Lexi Wallen, who is the Sabers’ leading scorer with a 15.2 average.

Mennig said it’s impossible to rank the value of the contributions that each sister makes.

“Erica is a quiet piece to the puzzle and why the team has this unique opportunity ahead of them,” Mennig said. “She was there when we were building our little tradition. Don’t let her fool you. She is as competitive as the next person.”

Lexi Wallen has had seven double-doubles this season and is one of the Sabers’ go-to players.

“At times Lexi tries to assert herself within the game,” Mennig said. “When called upon they have met the challenge every time.

“They are quietly unassuming. Watch them in layup lines and they’re not very intimidating. Once the ball is tipped up, see what they bring to the table.”

Personalitywise, the girls are different.

“I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind,” Lexi Wallen said.

Added Erica: “She is more outspoken and I’m more shy, but I’ll say what’s on my mind to her.”

Erica Wallen returned to basketball last year after a one-year hiatus. She played basketball and volleyball as a freshman but concentrated on volleyball as a sophomore. She found she preferred the pace of basketball and for her final two years has focused solely on it.

“It’s faster-moving, and I love the game,” she said.

Although Mennig said, “I’m glad Erica came back,” he played no role in her return. “I’ve never chased anybody down the hallways,” he said.

Erica Wallen’s layoff didn’t have an adverse effect on her play. She has made 54 percent of her shots from the field and 66.7 percent of her free throw attempts. Lexi Wallen is in the same range, connecting on 51.5 percent of her field goals and 64.5 percent of her free throws.

“We’re pretty fortunate that both of us have had a lot of success,” Lexi Wallen said.

Occasionally they play one-on-one at home in the driveway. The outcome is not always the same.

“I remember winning one time,” Erica Wallen said.

Collectively, the story is much different. The Wallens, along with the other starters, senior Jade Brinkoetter, junior Randa Harshbarger and freshman Tori McCoy, have helped the Sabers win 28 of their last 29 games.

“It’s cool to play with her on a successful team,” Lexi Wallen said. “We can say we’re in this together.”

State pairings
A look at the Class 2A state semifinals, which begin Friday at ISU’s Redbird Arena:
FRIDAY’S GAMES
Nashville vs. Walther Lutheran, 6:30 p.m.
El Paso-Gridley vs. St. Thomas More (31-2), 8:15 p.m.
SATURDAY’S GAMES
Third-Place Game — Semifinal losers, 6:30 p.m.
Championship Game — Semifinal winners, 8:15 p.m.

Get your tickets
Tickets for Friday’s game can be purchased for $10 apiece at STM during school hours today through noon Thursday.

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