By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
A trip through Quincy's grocery stores might best tell the impact Eric Orne has made as Quincy Notre Dame's girls basketball coach.
While in the aisles, it's not uncommon for Orne to be stopped by people he doesn't know who want to talk about his Lady Raiders.
"People come up to me that must recognize me, and they say, â€˜I enjoy seeing the highlights of your girls,' or â€˜I finally came out to a girls game,'" Orne said. "When they stop you and do that, even though you don't know them, there's a sense of pride there."
For a coach who has achieved so much in terms of victories and postseason plaques during his 13 seasons, those grocery store encounters are an indicator of an achievement of a different sort. They're an indicator of an achievement Orne thought might be the most elusive.
"That would probably be the one thing I didn't know if we could ever accomplish," Orne said, "because there has always been a great tradition of Quincy Notre Dame (girls) basketball, with their two state titles in the '80s and still a lot of great teams, but we never got the great crowds."
Yet, when Orne and his Lady Raiders built the most impressive girls basketball dynasty West-Central Illinois has ever experienced, Quincyans took notice.
There was a standing-room-only crowd at The Pit in February 2012 when the Lady Raiders defeated Class 4A's eventual runner-up, Edwardsville, 48-44.
This season, fans filled the Student Activity Center at John Wood Community College on Dec. 15 to watch QND defeat the eventual Missouri Class 5 state champion -- Columbia Rock Bridge -- 47-42. The Pit was packed on Feb. 2 to witness QND beat Class 4A's eventual runner-up, Rolling Meadows, 87-82 in overtime.
A large crowd was at Illinois State's Redbird Arena to support the Lady Raiders as they defeated Vernon Hills 62-45 on March 2 to win the Class 3A state championship.
Along the way, Orne made sure his players understood what was happening.
"You are the show," Orne would tell his players. "This is something that you need to embrace. This is something that should excite you, because no girls team has ever played in front of crowds like these."
For his role in building the dynasty, Orne has been selected as the 2013 Herald-Whig Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. He becomes the first coach since the award was launched in 1978 to win the award three years in a row.
Sustaining a dynasty
The crowds were the response to a dominant product.
QND went 30-0 this season, achieving the Lady Raiders' first perfect season since the 1983 state title team went 30-0.
The Lady Raiders became the fourth team in IHSA history to three-peat as champions, joining Teutopolis (1988-90), Bolingbrook (2009-11) and Lombard Montini (2010-12).
They also became the first team to win titles in consecutive seasons in different classes. QND's titles in 2011 and 2012 came in Class 2A.
"I think (this year's title) is the most amazing one with us being bumped up," said Orne, whose teams have won 79 straight games against in-state competition and 53 straight overall.
Partially because of the bump up in class, QND didn't enter this season as the favorite to win a championship. That was bestowed upon Montini, the three-time defending Class 3A champion.
The Lady Raiders also were facing the graduation of two all-staters and the transfer of another. All told, QND lost 43.7 percent of its scoring and 57.3 percent of its rebounding from its 2012 state title team.
The cupboard was far from bare. All-state seniors Jordan Frericks and Kassidy Gengenbacher, the lead stars during each year of QND's three-peat, returned. So did another starter in junior Kristen Gengenbacher and junior Cassidy Foley, a former key reserve who moved into the starting lineup.
Still, it was a different squad and most notably featured less size.
A new look
Orne responded by abandoning his high-low, half-court offensive scheme which had produced three straight state title game appearances in favor of a four-guard, half-court system.
"You just have to find a system, especially this year because we changed a lot, that fits the talent of your team," Orne said.
You also have to be willing to be willing to listen to others. Orne credits assistant coach Kevin Meyer as the brain behind the four-guard system.
"We had to make a change," Orne said. "We didn't have the post players, and (Meyer) spending one year at John Wood (in 2009-10 as an assistant) and bringing over that style really paid a lot of dividends. I think then the girls also bought into it. We knew it fit us."
QND also adjusted to a younger, more inexperienced bench.
"(Orne) really helped the younger class to build their confidence," Frericks said. "He was able to do this while still coaching us. It was just awesome to see what he was capable of doing with these younger girls and how their confidence level just went up."
It reminded Frericks of how Orne handled his veteran players when they were younger.
"I wouldn't have the confidence that I had if it wasn't for him helping me through the years," said Frericks, a three-time Associated Press all-stater.
The man with the plan
Some people were skeptical as to why Orne would schedule a three-games-in-three-days stretch against powerhouse teams near the end of the regular season.
Yet, after QND beat Class 2A-ranked Nashville 41-36, Class 4A-ranked Springfield 65-58 and Class 4A-ranked Rolling Meadows 87-82, the Lady Raiders had all sorts of momentum as the postseason neared.
"A lot of people came up to me and said, â€˜Do you think that was a good idea, that he would play three games in a row like that?'" junior forward Mary Beth Hugenberg recalled. "At the time, I was like, â€˜I don't know. That's going to be tough.'
"At the end, I think back, and I'm just like, that was a very good move on his part, because it got us so ready for postseason and for the state finals because we were used to playing good games back-to-back."
Yet, as key as that stretch was, Orne points to a Dec. 14 game against Harrisburg, a Missouri Class 2 school in the midst of a mediocre season, as the turning point of QND's season. It wasn't a marquee game and one that was played in front of a modest crowd.
Entering that game, the Lady Raiders were 8-0 and they had won every game by at least 22 points, but they weren't quite overwhelming inferior opponents the way they did the previous season. So Orne decided his team needed a spark.
No Lady Raider team had worn gold uniforms since QND lost to Clopton 73-72 on Feb. 5, 2005. A superstitious coach, Orne had put the uniforms in retirement after that loss, but he issued the gold threads to his players before the Harrisburg game.
Call it coincidence, but the Lady Raiders delivered their most lopsided win of the season to date, crushing Harrisburg 94-33 despite the starters not playing the final quarter and a half.
Afterward, QND's players talked about how the excitement was back in their program.
The next night, QND took down Rock Bridge in a packed gym.
The Lady Raiders had their standard home white uniforms back on, but there was no questioning the city of Quincy was fully embracing the golden era of girls hoops that was on display.
"Quincy understands basketball, and they understand that our kids are playing very hard," Orne said. "And I think they just found them as a fun team to watch. When you top that with bringing in high-caliber teams, it creates some excitement, and there's nothing better than Friday or Saturday night with a big game in town."