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This year’s Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference Hall of Fame ceremonies at Morton College provided a journey down memory lane for Kristy Heinzl.
It was a chance for Morton College’s first NCAA Division I female scholarship athlete to replay the many good times with her parents, Dave and Cindy, who were regulars at all of Kristy’s games; and coaches, Larry Lanciotti (basketball) and Tom Malesky (volleyball/softball).
“It’s amazing the amount of time that’s passed,” the Berwyn native said. “It seems surreal to go back and think of all the things you did. It’s a flashback and it makes you remember all the good times. This was a huge honor (the Skyway Hall of Fame). You hear people talking about halls of fame and now you’re in one. You have to say, ‘Come on.’”
Heinzl, now Kristy Evashenk, certainly possessed Skyway Hall of Fame caliber credentials during her two years at Morton College from 2000 to 2002. She was all-Skyway in three sports – volleyball, basketball and softball.
“Growing up, I always was involved,” said Evashenk, the second of three Heinzl sisters to attend Morton College. “I’d play softball for Stickney and later the Lemont Rockers in the summer, basketball in the winter and volleyball in the fall. I saw myself as more of an athlete. I never thought I excelled in any one sport. I enjoyed being on different teams because you were exposed to a different set of girls and coaches each season.
“Playing different sports helped me develop as an athlete. Participating in three sports made me that more well-rounded and more versatile.”
Evashenk was an 11-sport varsity athlete at Morton High School, but that didn’t move the athletic recruiting needle much until she came to Morton College.
“I guess it sounds terrible, but I wanted to continue to play sports,” said Evashenk on why she selected Morton College. “In high school, there didn’t seem that big of a push toward higher education as there is now. Plus, there was the security and safety of staying at home.”
During Evashenk’s freshman year, she was part of Morton College’s last women’s basketball team to win a conference title. As a sophomore, Evashenk was a key player on the women’s volleyball team at Morton College that was hovering around the .500 mark before putting together an 11-game win streak to reach the Region IV title game for the last time in program history.
They also accomplished the unheard of – going 6-0 in the Skyway’s postseason tournament to improve from fifth to second overall. The 25-win season was one of Evashenk’s favorite memories of Morton College.
“For some reason at Morton College, volleyball was one of my favorite sports,” Evashenk said. “There was a laid-back atmosphere. The team clicked and there were no outside distractions. It was just so fun. Going undefeated in the Skyway Tournament was such a high.”
While Evashenk gained the most recognition for volleyball with a place on the all-Region IV First Team as a sophomore, basketball was the sport that got her a scholarship. Even that has a Skyway connection.
Evashenk, who shared the Morton College Female Athlete of the Year honors for 2001-2002, was all set to play basketball at the University of St. Francis in Joliet. She was practically all signed, sealed and delivered, just only needing to drop her letter-of-intent in the mailbox when fate intervened.
Nicholls State assistant Sue Syljebeck, acting on a recommendation from the late Bill Probst, her former coach at Skyway institution member McHenry, got Evashenk to visit the NCAA Division I program in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
Former Morton College athletic administrative assistant Jonnell Medina chased down Evashenk to inform her “a school called Nicholls State was looking for film.” Evashenk went home to research her potential athletic suitor.
“I thought it was like nickel,” Evashenk admitted. “I didn’t see a school called that.”
The school, according to its web site, is named after Francis Tillou Nicholls, an “esteemed figure in the Confederate Army” and former governor and chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court. Plus, they offered Evashenk a scholarship.
“I never thought I’d be in that position,” said Evashenk, who earned her associate’s degree from Morton College. “I looked at some schools in Iowa and was ready to sign with St. Francis. I was ready to put the letter in the mailbox when the Nicholls State coach called. They told me to hold off. Hey, it was a Division I school.
“For any athlete to have that kind of an opportunity, it was a big deal. It also was a chance to go away from home, so I chose to go there.”
In addition to Evashenk’s athletic ride, she had some extra pocket change thanks to taking advantage of numerous scholarship resources available through Morton College.
“I went the counselors’ office at Morton College,” Evashenk said. “There were a lot of transfer opportunities and I decided to apply. I think I got five or six transfer scholarships. In my first year at Nicholls, my athletic scholarship paid for everything. I used the other scholarships as cash.
“Honestly, it (applying for the scholarships) was easy. I had to write an essay on how Morton College impacted my life. I got a Masonic Lodge scholarship. They presented it to me in front of their group. Had I not gone to the counseling office, I would have essentially given up on free money.”
Division I life turned out to be short-lived, but a period of discovery for Evashenk.
“It definitely was a lot different than Morton High School and Morton College,” Evashenk said.
Mom and dad, a great support system throughout the years, weren’t at her games. She missed rehashing games with her dad, who also was the assistant softball coach at Morton College. There also was a bit of cultural shock in going from the Midwest to the South.
“You were submerged into the team from the first day,” Evashenk said. “At the first so-called practice, you had to run a mile under a certain time. I also roomed with a basketball player. You’d go from study hall to lifting to practices and games. They owned you.”
Heinzl was told to sit in the front row for classes because monitors checked the student-athletes’ attendance.
“You’d practice three times per day sometimes,” Evashenk said. “It was very regimented. You didn’t have the diversity of multiple sports and different teammates. If you were in multiple sports, one season would end and the drama would be over. Now, you’re around the same teammates night and day.”
The Nicholls coaching staff tried to mold Evashenk into “MAD Kristy – Make a Difference Kristy.” It just wasn’t in her athletic DNA, though.
“I was a role player,” Evashenk admitted. “They wanted me to shoot more. If I had an assist, to me, it was as good as scoring a basket.”
After Nicholls State’s 9-18 season, it was time for the standard player-coach postseason meeting. The coaches asked Evashenk to stay for the summer, which was no problem. The coaches wanted Evashenk’s “contagious positive attitude to infect the rest of team.” In other words, they wanted Evashenk to be a cheerleader.
Evashenk’s competitive athletic career was at a crossroads and she claims her decision left the coaches at Nicholls State “taken aback.”
“I told them that they should use my scholarship for someone else,” Evashenk said. “I decided to focus on my academics and my future after athletics. Sports were a big part of my life, but I knew I wasn’t going to play in the WNBA or overseas. It got me where I wanted to be, but my focus now was to stay here and finish college.
“Coaches and athletes work hard for their money. Nothing’s for free. If they want something, they’ll get something in return.”
There’s no remorse or rancor in Evashenk’s voice about her experience. She’s one who would definitely encourage people to go away for college and experience life on your own. Her parents never had that opportunity.
“I was fortunate enough to meet some really awesome people and of course was introduced to drive-thru daiquiris shops, Mardi Gras and Cajun cooking,” Evashenk wrote on her wedding blog about her Nicholls State experience. “In addition to all this fun, I was lucky to avoid the treacherous hurricanes and earn an elementary education degree.”
Kristy’s story truly ends on a happy note because she had a plan for life after athletics. Evashenk graduated from Nicholls State with a degree in elementary education and then later a master’s in curriculum instruction at Concordia University Chicago. She’s happily married to Gary Evashenk, a teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Berwyn. They just celebrated their third wedding anniversary and have a 1-year-old son, Grayson.
Kristy’s been teaching fourth grade in the Cicero Grade School District 99 for 13 years, the last four at Cicero East after spending the first nine years at Burnham.
“I idolized my teachers,” Evashenk said. “I’d go back to my grade school (Havlicek in Berwyn) and help set up class and grade papers. I put my teachers on a pedestal and admired them. We had desks in our basement and we’d play school in our house.”
Evashenk likes working with fourth-graders. She calls them old enough to be responsible.
“With our guidance, we try to get them to do better,” Evashenk said. “I’m very appreciative of the kids here. They appreciate anything you give them, whether it’s sticker or a smile. It’s very humbling being with them.”
Morton College was an important place in Evashenk’s development. While it might have been tough to be the designated cheerleader at Nicholls State, Evashenk has no problem being a Morton College booster.
“Morton College might not be the glamorous campus that people want it to be,” Evashenk said. “But it’s a steppingstone to turn your dreams into what you want. You’re only 17 or 18 years old. You might not be sure what you want to do. Morton College definitely made a lot of things possible in my life. It definitely was a good time when life was easier.”