Hersey hoops duo reflect on 25 years of excellence

Together, they celebrated more than 530 wins, 24 winning seasons, more than a dozen regional titles and two trips to the IHSA Final Four. But for Mary Fendley and Julia Barthel, 25 years of coaching John Hersey High School's girls' basketball team was never really about the numbers.

For head coach Fendley and assistant coach Barthel, who coached their last games in March, success was measured differently.

"The success in our program has been the relationships with the athletes," said Barthel. "To me that is the win in this job. And the hope that all the kids we've coached have been impacted positively."

For Fendley, the importance of those relationships was confirmed again in January, when 40 former Hersey players gathered on a cold winter night for a surprise reunion and send-off for the two women, who have been coaching partners for those 25 years.

Fendley pointed to the reunion as one of her most memorable moments as a coach. Another, she said, was when Hersey made it to the 2010 IHSA state finals.

"We had one losing season, in 2008. That made the fact that we were playing in the state finals in 2010 more gratifying," she said. "The kids that led us downstate in 2010 were sophomores on our only losing team. They knew the things they didn't want to do when they were seniors. It motivated them to get to the state finals."

Fendley and Barthel put the cherry on top of their coaching partnership with their second trip to the IHSA Final Four, with the Huskies placing fourth in the 2023 state Class 4A tournament.

Both women are District 214 alums. Fendley was a three-sport athlete at Rolling Meadows High School, and Barthel played basketball and volleyball at Elk Grove High School. After deciding on a career in education, Fendley said, becoming a coach was a natural move.

"Sports was always part of my school experience," she said. "It never occurred to me to just go home after school."

Fendley started at Hersey as a math teacher in 1992, and served as the sophomore girls' basketball coach for her first six years. When she moved up to varsity head coach, a handful of people applied for two open assistant coach positions.

"Julia was the obvious choice - the one to get right away," Fendley said.

As she did for her entire coaching career, Fendley still is teaching math full time; this year it's Honors Precalculus and Algebra II.

"It makes me sad that it's so hard to be a full-time classroom teacher and a head coach at the same time," she said. "Of my peers, so few of them have been full-time teachers."

Barthel, who formerly ran the special education/behavior support program at Hersey, was named the school's athletic director this year, overseeing both boys' and girls' sports. She is one of only two women athletic directors at the 12 Mid Suburban League schools; the other is also a District 214 AD, Shelley Wiegel of Wheeling High School.

Fendley said, "I think Hersey has set the standard for giving women opportunities in our district and our area. Since I started coaching in 1992, it was common for me to be coaching against all men. Title IX did its job giving girls opportunities in sports, but it did not make that opportunity for women coaches."

Things are changing, she and Barthel said: Witness that two of the four coaches at the 2023 IHSA Final Four were women.

"It continues to get better," Fendley said. "I never had a woman coach in my playing days. Now there's a generation of women who played in high school and had women coaches."

She and Barthel hope they have served as role models not just for their athletes, but for those girls who aspire to be coaches themselves someday.

"Our motto has been, 'If you can see it, you can be it,'" Fendley said. "I hope we did that for the last 25 years."

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