Daily Herald
DuPage County girls captain: Toni Kokenis
By Joshua Welge | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 3/4/2010 8:47 PM

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Tucked away in the Kokenis family album is a photo of 5-year-old, blonde-haired Toni standing by a palm tree in Hawaii.

Wearing a Stanford shirt and shorts.

Even without a basketball in hand her mind was thinking one move ahead.

The last four years that intuition was most magnified on the hardwood at Hinsdale Central High School.

Take Kokenis' last regular-season home game against Fenwick. In the final seconds Kokenis picked AAU teammate Tricia Liston's pocket and took in the game-winner, the 22-10 Red Devils' crowning moment of the year and Liston's only loss to this point.

Five nights later, Kokenis stood at the free-throw line, facing two shots in a tie game against Wheaton Warrenville South. A regional title hung in the balance.

Kokenis hit the first with 1.6 seconds left.

"We were sitting on the bench thinking, 'Should we have her miss the second?'" recalled Hinsdale Central coach Lindsey Montgomery said. "We look at her and she has a look on her face like, 'I know what I'm doing.' "

Kokenis missed the free throw on purpose. Time ran out. Hinsdale Central won the regional, Kokenis' fourth.

"She has a better basketball IQ than a lot of coaches," Montgomery said.

Kokenis' physical attributes - speed, strength, shooting and passing abilities - are second to none in the area. Combine that with a sixth sense for the game, and you have the captain of the 2009-10 Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area girls basketball team.

Kokenis is the third repeat captain, joining three-time captain Ashley Luke of Waubonsie Valley and four-timer Candace Parker of Naperville Central.

Kokenis' connection to basketball goes just about back to the crib.

At 6 months old, while being baby sat by great aunt Yia Yia Fofo, Toni sat up and threw a nerf basketball clear across the living room. From the time she could walk she tried to keep up with older cousin J.R.

Visiting the UCLA gift shop on a family vacation, barely past toddler Toni zeroed in on one souvenir.

"What do you think she wanted," said mom Marie, a UCLA graduate. "A basketball."

Toni's interest in Pac-10 basketball intensified after signing with her dream school Stanford last summer.

The Kokenis family TiVo is over-run with Pac-10 games Toni views on Fox Sports West. She estimates that she watches at least part of a game every day.

Steve Nash and Chris Paul are her favorite NBA point guards. Marie said she's also noticed her oldest daughter watching Kentucky freshman John Wall with interest.

"You can really learn from watching other players," Toni said. "Part of it is just a natural feel for the game, but I've also been playing and watching basketball for a long time."

"The way she watches games," Marie said, "is different than the way you or I would."

Not even a prescient basketball mind could have predicted the turbulence Toni went through the last two years.

Weeks into her junior year, Hinsdale Central coach and Kokenis mentor Steve Gross stepped down. Behind first-time coach Morgan Kasperek, Kokenis led the team to a 31-3 record. In stepped another first-timer and Hinsdale Central graduate, Lindsey Montgomery, this season. New system, new voice. A younger group of teammates, too.

"Having different coaches and the way they do things is definitely a challenge," Kokenis said. "Not all coaches are going to be the same. They have different ideas and different game plans, different ways to run practices."

Individually, Kokenis re-wrote the Hinsdale Central record book this winter.

She passed Kasperek as the all-time scorer in Red Devils girls basketball history in December, then in January eclipsed Brian Wardle to become the top scorer, girls or boys. Averaging 19.3 points per game to go with 6.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.6 steals Kokenis finished with 2,031 varsity points.

"I never dreamt I'd do that," Kokenis said. "It's really cool to have your name in the mix with the great basketball players that have gone through here."

It was a bumpy road, though.

Hinsdale Central lost its first game to York and a first-round game at the Bill Neibch Holiday Classic at Wheaton North. By Jan. 5 the Red Devils had as many losses as the last two years combined.

But they did pull things together to win a share of their fourth straight West Suburban Silver championship, upset Fenwick, then won their fourth straight regional.

"As a point guard you have to be able to know your teammates," said Duke recruit Liston, Kokenis' AAU teammate on the Illinois Hustle. "Toni does a great job of being able to see up the court, knowing when to shoot and when to pass. She's not afraid to make the extra pass and open things up for someone else."

Hinsdale Central even trailed Bolingbrook by just 5 at halftime before succumbing to the defending state champs for a fourth straight year.

Kokenis scored 20 points in that game.

"She makes her team better," Bolingbrook coach Anthony Smith said, "and is the one person that makes her team go. She is a true leader and does all the little things."

Smith, as well as any opponent, can appreciate Kokenis' maturation over four years.

"Freshman and sophomore year I thought we got her a little rattled," he said, "but junior and senior year she wasn't rattled. She was on a mission. She gave us trouble with lesser talent than she had before."

"She did everything for us," Montgomery said. "There was nothing she could not handle."

Hard to handle is that Kokenis will never suit up at Hinsdale Central again.

She scored the winning goal in the state soccer championship last year but won't play this spring to focus on basketball. Kokenis still works out every Sunday in the Hinsdale Central gym with ex-coach Gross, honing her ballhandling and shooting.

"A lot of high school players play a lot of basketball," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, "but that does not mean they improve their skill set. Fortunately, Toni and her parents are open about that. She's a terrific player and she wants to challenge herself to be the best at the next level and every level she plays at."

Montgomery, a collegiate assistant prior to returning to Hinsdale Central, believes Kokenis' knowledge of the game will serve her well at Stanford.

A student with a current GPA of 5.65, Kokenis plans to major in kinesiology.

"She just gets game situations," Montgomery said. "That is so much more important a part of the game at the college level than the high school level. That will come out. A lot of kids survive on their athletic ability in high school. She is a complete player in every aspect."

The captain's list

1988-89 - Tammy Kocher, Montini

1989-90 - Ann Hoving, Montini

1990-91 - Jennie Driscoll, St. Francis

1991-92 - Andrea Miller, Willowbrook

1992-93 - Kelly Miller, Lake Park

1993-94 - Terri Zemaitis, Downers Grove South

1994-95 - Autumn Braddock and Amy Wardle, Hinsdale Central

1995-96 - Casey Leonhardt, Downers Grove North and T.J. Williams, Naperville North

1996-97 - Ashley Luke, Waubonsie Valley

1997-98 - Ashley Luke, Waubonsie Valley

1998-99 - Ashley Luke, Waubonsie Valley

1999-2000 - Charliss Ridley, WW South

2000-01 - Candace Parker, Naperville Central

2001-02 - Candace Parker, Naperville Central

2002-03 - Candace Parker, Naperville Central

2003-04 - Candace Parker, Naperville Central

2004-05 - Kelly Krumwiede, Glenbard West

2005-06 - Erica Carter, Naperville Central

2006-07 - Keilani Moeaki, WW South

2007-08 - Samantha Arnold, Lake Park

2008-09 - Toni Kokenis, Hinsdale Central

2009-10 - Toni Kokenis, Hinsdale Central