Koepke, Cieslinski power Vernon Hills past Elk Grove

Vernon Hills junior center Grace Koepke watched nearly all of the condensed spring girls basketball season at her assigned seating position. She played just one game due to undergoing ankle surgery.

"I tried to sit in the middle of everybody on the bench in every game, just to be moving and had some chants going on," Koepke said.

Many games, junior forward Alexa Cieslinski was sitting a few feet away from her injured teammate. Cieslinski missed a few weeks with shin splints.

The 6-foot-4 Koepke, an inside and outside threat, is back on the floor and healthy after missing an opportunity to shine last season.

As expected, the Cougars suffered numerous tough losses.

Well, after an offseason spent healing their bodies, Koepke and Cieslinski are back in full force this season.

And that showed on Wednesday night.

Koepke racked up a game-high 18 points and added 11 rebounds, while Cieslinski added 15 points and 9 rebounds to power Vernon Hills to a 53-43 victory over Elk Grove in the 12th Annual Vernon Hills Cougar Classic.

The Cougars (1-1) broke open a close game early in the third quarter with a three-minute flurry. Guard Caitlin Leuck, the only senior on the Cougars' roster, scored 7 straight points in a 9-0 run to pad the lead to 37-25. Koepke and Cieslinski closed out the game by combining for 13 fourth-quarter points to take advantage of the Cougars' decided height advantage over the Grenadiers (1-1).

"Our team has worked so hard for this season," Koepke said. "I have to improve on a lot, but as a team we came back and kept our lead throughout the game. It was good to get our first win of the season. We had a collective effort."

Cieslinski said she's slowly building her on-the-court chemistry with Koepke, though the two looked in sync in the second half. Koepke made 4 of her final 5 shots, while Cieslinski drilled a 3-pointer with just over 90 seconds left to seal the victory.

"Our ball movement is our main focus right now, especially with Grace since she usually gives us a height advantage on almost every opponent," Cieslinski said. "As a team, we did a good job tonight capitalizing on that. Grace can be a very powerful weapon for us."

Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner, who guided the Cougars to back-to-back Class 3A second-place finishes in 2011-2013, mentioned that Koepke and Cieslinski are the driving forces on his young team.

"We had Grace and Alexa on the court in their freshman years," he said, "There were times they were playing well. Last year we didn't have Grace and barely had Alexa. They built some chemistry in the offseason in AAU. It's great having them back."

Elk Grove senior guard Lili Duckmann, who scored 30 points in Monday's season-opening win over Niles West, attempted to will her team to a victory, even winning the jump ball over Koepke to start the game. Duckmann finished with a hard-earned 17 points. She scored the first 4 points of the game.

"We fought all the way until the end," Duckmann said. "We hustle and play with good effort and defense. We need to keep pushing and have to come out of this tournament with a winning record."

Elk Grove coach Jennifer Guth, back on the sidelines after a year's absence, noted many positives in the defeat. Senior guard Lauren Millhiser and junior guard Julia Masnica scored 8 points each.

"We knew we were coming in very outsized and knew we had to fight for every rebound," Guth said. "We were slow coming out for their shooters, but we made some adjustments, so I was happy to see the bounce back. I'm proud that we're taking a lot of shots, and they will start to fall. We're trying to push the ball up the floor, and the girls are buying into that strategy."

  Elk Grove's Lili Duckman (12) tries to thwart the rebound efforts of Vernon Hills' Katie Huse (23) during Wednesday's girls basketball game in Vernon Hills. Paul Valade/
  Vernon Hills' Ava Barszcz, left, finds a lane past Elk Grove's Lauren Millhiser (14) during Wednesday's girls basketball game in Vernon Hills. Paul Valade/
  Elk Grove's Lili Duckmann (12) takes a shot over the Vernon Hills' defense during Wednesday's girls basketball game in Vernon Hills. Paul Valade/
  Vernon Hills' Alexa Cieslinski (21) grabs the rebound despite efforts of Elk Grove's Julia Masnica during Wednesday's girls basketball game in Vernon Hills. Paul Valade/