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Senior stories: Brigham and a class that persevered

By Jacob Knabel on Feb. 22, 2024 in Women's Basketball

Kendal Brigham knows something about the importance of community. It was the community of Wahoo that helped uplift Kendal and the Brigham family in June of 2018 and in the years since. Having then just completed her sophomore year of high school, Kendal helped lay her mother Kim to rest while releasing the beloved wife, mother and high school art teacher and track coach to the Lord. The wave of empathy and support that Kendal felt made such an impact on her that she never wanted to lose hold of that type of environment.

In the midst of losing her mother as a teenager, Kendal looked around and saw beyond the tragic circumstances. She was blessed by the time she had with her mother and blessed by the family and community that made her feel loved.

“When she did pass away, I got so many letters and text messages and had a lot of people coming to the house to tell me they were thinking about me,” Brigham said. “The amount of people that showed up at the church for the funeral was unreal. It couldn’t fit any more people in there. It was packed upstairs and downstairs. That’s when I saw how valuable community is. That’s something that got me to Concordia. I see the same sense of community at this university as I did in Wahoo.”

Nearly six years since Kim’s passing (following a three-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer), Kendal beams when talking about the traits that she inherited from her mother. Kendal proudly dons the No. 32 that her mother wore during her time as a prep basketball player at the same Wahoo High School that Kendal graduated from. Kendal’s high school coach, Linda Walker, had to fight back tears while watching Kendal at a game this season. Quite simply, Kendal looked like her mom – the way she played the game, her mannerisms, her competitiveness, her toughness, all of it.

Those traits made Brigham a perfect fit for Head Coach Drew Olson’s Concordia Women’s Basketball program. In the fall of 2020, Brigham began her college career during an awkward period of intense COVID-19 restrictions. In the time since, Brigham and her fellow classmates have experienced ups and downs on the road to shaping the Bulldogs into an NAIA top 10 team this 2023-24 season. Individually, Kendal has enjoyed her best season yet. She was named the MVP of CIT and has shown she can go off for 20-plus points in any given game.

Kendal found her way here to Seward because she wanted to play up-tempo, high-level basketball, and because this simply felt like an extension of her hometown Wahoo.

Recalls Brigham, “I remember talking to Coach Olson for the first time and he had heard about my story, and he was telling me about his mom (who battled ALS) and his journey through that. I felt right away that we started off on a great note. I could really connect with him. I went on my visit here thinking I wanted to go farther since Seward is only like 45 minutes away from Wahoo. After I came on my visit, me and my dad (Rob) looked at each other and we were like, ‘This is where I’m going. I’m definitely going to end up here.’ People in the Seward community show up every single game, and that’s really special to me and to our whole team.”

Said Olson of Kendal’s recruitment, “I just remember her club team coming to play against us in the summer. We really liked her and what she brought. She’s super tough and really fast. You could tell she was a great person and going to be a great fit for our program.”

The quickness and the speed of Kendal has always stood out to those who have watched her play basketball. She becomes a blur with the basketball, reminiscent to the Road Runner character from Looney Tunes. Beep! Beep! Her ability to dribble the ball at full speed is a skill that has led to many transition baskets for the Bulldogs over the past four seasons. As Kendal says, “I was told at a young age that I’m really fast. At club basketball when you’re little, they come trap you and you have to figure it out. I would just go.”

As a youngster, Kendal dreamed of hoops glory at the college level. She also competed in track and volleyball at Wahoo High School. While her mother typically coached hurdles at track practice, Kendal focused on mid-distance races and was part of a state-gold 3,200-meter relay team. At the meets, Kim Brigham would stand in a corner and holler at Kendal to run faster.

As an impressionable child, Kendal looked up to a star basketball player in the community. One day, Kendal wanted to be just like her.

“I think that was always the goal (to play college basketball),” Kendal said. “When I was growing up, Sadie Murren was a player at Wahoo and she went on to play at Nebraska before ending her career at Wayne State. She was so good. I heard she was going to go play college basketball. I was in like fourth or fifth grade and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to go do this too.’”

Kendal came to realize her dreams on Nov. 5, 2020, when she started her very first collegiate game. She also started the next two games before her minutes declined and she was added to the junior varsity roster. That wasn’t exactly the path Kendal expected for her freshman year, but she wasn’t going to be deterred.

“It was definitely tough, especially when you come in as a freshman after you’re kind of on top of the world your senior year in high school,” Kendal said. “You get there as a freshman and you’re still trying to figure it out. Your confidence really fluctuates and mine definitely did. I’m just so glad that I stuck with it because I can’t imagine being anywhere else or not playing these past few years. Especially these past two seasons – they’ve been the best basketball seasons of my life. They’ve been so fun. I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else either.”

This Saturday, Kendal will experience another senior day without the physical presence of her mother. Four years ago, the Lincoln Journal Star detailed her journey to that point. The accompanying photographs from Wahoo’s senior day show Kendal being kissed on the forehead by her father Rob as well as the No. 32 jersey set out on the bleachers where her mother used to cheer her on. Kendal referred to her mother as her “No. 1 fan.”

In honor of her mother, Kendal was inked with a small tattoo on her wrist. The tattoo displays the signature that Kim scrawled on every piece of artwork she crafted. As Kendal explains, “It’s a reminder that I was one of her creations.”

No doubt Kim would be proud of Kendal (and Kendal’s four siblings) and this senior class that has grown up together. It’s uncertain whether any of the seniors will use the ‘COVID year’ of eligibility, so Kendal and her fellow classmates plan on soaking up the last moments of a special 2023-24 season. There just might be a few tears on Saturday afternoon.

Said Kendal, “It’s definitely a very emotional thing. It’s sad to think that these last few games could be the last ones I play with all of these girls. With this senior class, the biggest emotion I feel is just love and gratitude towards them. We’ve kind of been through it all. College athletics is not an easy thing to navigate. Having that support system by your side makes it a lot easier and more enjoyable.”

Sadie Powell – Though she comes from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sadie Powell has a unique connection to Coach Olson’s family. Sadie’s mother Connie was once the teacher of Drew’s wife M’Leigh in the small town of Blairstown, Iowa, not far outside of Cedar Rapids. It was enough to inspire both Olson and young Sadie to explore the possibility of collaborating in Seward.

Said Olson, “I was really excited to be able to have Sadie as part of our team because I knew how good she was going to be. I don’t think she knew how good she was at the time. We had a couple of other kids we were recruiting at the same time. I know we picked the right one.”

Recalls Powell of her recruitment, “I was introduced to the Concordia schools because my mom attended CURF, but I liked the small town feel of CUNE more. The coaches and players were so friendly on my visits and when I came to basketball camp, I was drawn to the strong basketball program and the strong faith of everyone here.”

The 6-foot graduate of Kennedy High School brought with her a versatile game and the type of length that you can’t teach. Powell’s skillset allowed her to see early playing time (25 games as a freshman) before her role increased dramatically in year two. The progress she’s made is what you would hope for someone who works at their game and develops over four years.

In year four, Powell is averaging a career best 11.8 points per game while snaring 4.6 rebounds and nearly 2.0 steals per outing. In the latest contest, Powell poured in 22 points on the home floor of No. 1 Dordt. That’s big time for Powell, who will enter the weekend needing 11 points to reach 1,000 for her career.

A scoring milestone will mean little compared to the memories shared with her teammates. Said Powell, “I have met my best friends because of Concordia Basketball. We are so close because we get to spend almost every day with each other. We have been through so much these past four years on and off the court. The time traveling and in hotels will always be some of my favorite memories.”

Taysha Rushton – Anyone who has followed GPAC women’s basketball in recent years knows the name Taysha Rushton. She made her presence known not only on a conference level, but also on the national stage as just a freshman during the 2020-21 season. The Midland, Texas, native racked up 27 points in the 2021 round of 16 national tournament upset of fourth-ranked Marian. It was quite obvious then that Rushton was on her way to becoming one of the more prolific scorers in the program’s history.

Rushton’s journey was detailed extensively in a feature linked HERE. Coach Tae’lor Purdy-Korell was the first Bulldog coach to spot Rushton, who had traveled to the Rocky Mountains as part of a club tournament. Olson and Purdy-Korell will tell you that Rushton’s recruitment took some time. Rushton had no ties to Concordia and wanted to mull her options – totally fair for someone of her talent level.

Said Olson, “Taysha’s recruitment was a matter of persistence. Tae’lor saw her play in a club team tournament in Colorado and she said, ‘Hey, this kid’s really good. You should come watch her.’ So I did and you could tell how special and how gifted she was. We were fortunate. Taysha had aspirations to be division I, but probably due to her size she didn’t get looked at as much as she deserved. We kept hanging around and stuck with her. We were very blessed that she chose us because it’s been a great four years.”

There have been moments when Rushton considered other options, but she felt compelled to stay and see this thing out to the conclusion. Rushton can look back now and say, “It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in my life. I went through some rough patches freshman and sophomore year thinking about leaving because I wanted to go to cosmetology school. I love basketball too much and I decided to stay. It’s honestly so crazy looking back. This is my senior year. No way I’ve already been here four years. I’ve made the best friends on my team. I have great relationships with the coaches. I love Concordia and I’m so glad I chose to come here.”

The program’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer (1,808 career points) has more business to tend to as she’s gearing up to play at the national tournament for the fourth-straight year.

Mackenzie Toomey – The Lincoln Southeast High School alum Mackenzie Toomey stayed close to home for her college experience. Toomey already had a good idea of what Concordia Women’s Basketball was all about having been a regular at the school’s summer camps since grade school. In turn, Olson had an idea that he was getting a gritty, 5-foot-9 guard who would turn out to be a major pain in the neck for opposing backcourts.

Because she’s not one of the team’s double-figure scorers, Toomey can sometimes get overlooked. Olson knows better. Her effort and toughness have made Concordia a better team.

“Toomey is actually the camp legend,” Olson said. “We have a few players who have been part of our summer camps for multiple years. We get a lot of recruits from camp, but Toomey was special because she came to camp as a sixth grader, seventh grader, eighth grader and so on. We knew who she was all the way growing up. It’s awesome to see her growth and development as a junior high kid all the way to now. That’s been a fun journey.”

Toomey saw the program as just the right fit for her. Said Toomey of her recruitment, “What ultimately led me to Concordia is the family and faith dynamic, the success of the program and Coach Olson’s fast style of play – and it was close to home so my family could still come and support me, and I could still go home and be close to them.”

Toomey recently went past 200 career steals and has always been a tremendous rebounder out of the backcourt. Offensively, Toomey will attack when the time is right. She enjoyed a 16-point, five-steal performance earlier in February while up against No. 1 Dordt. Toomey supplies fuel that powers the Bulldog press while being loved by her teammates.

Said Toomey in reflection of her time as a Bulldog, “I would never do my college experience differently. I love all my teammates, but my friends in my senior class will always have an extra special place in my heart. I am so thankful that Concordia brought us together. Not only are they great friends, but they are simply great people who are hardworking, kind, intentional, a fun time and all-around people you would want to have in your corner. Even though it makes me so sad to not be able to experience life together the way that we have these past four years, I can’t wait to see what amazing things they continue to do in life and to cheer them on along the way.”

A special class – While Kendal, Sadie, Taysha and Mackenzie are the seniors the Seward community has familiarized itself with as on-court standouts, the senior group extends beyond that foursome. Gretna, Neb., native Hanna Spearman earned her spot on the varsity roster but, unfortunately, has been sidelined for much of the past two seasons due to injury. The rest of the senior group is made up of Lydia Dose, Carolyn Esh, Maggie Hughes and Elayne Poppe. Each one has its own special story.

Olson will likely always recall how the senior class came together in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID restrictions even limited recruiting visits, meaning some of the incoming student-athletes had to take more of a leap of faith than they normally would.

Said Olson, “They were recruited during the pandemic. I remember myself being in the basement talking to Hanna on the phone and I remember being on the swing set outside talking to Carolyn. We were trapped in our house – we can’t go anywhere. I was just calling people and walking around the house. I think it’s incredible the group that we were able to bring in despite some of them not even being able to visit campus. Carolyn had never been on campus before, and she still chose to come to Concordia. That group has done so many great things for our program. A lot of them are things people don’t see. They’re selfless and great teammates. They’re caring and do all the little things.”

Without question, it’s a senior class worthy of Saturday’s celebration. Olson is thankful to have nine seniors who persevered and stuck it through some of the trials and tribulations that were experienced. It’s the memory of those shared moments of joy and agony that will make senior day that much more emotional.

“It’s remarkable that we’re finishing with nine seniors because of what they went through,” Olson said. “Their freshman year was really weird. We were very distant and having to wear masks all the time. It felt unusual throughout that entire season. The next year we were still somewhat dealing with some COVID stuff. I think because of the previous year, we still didn’t have that connection and weren’t able to build those relationships. That sophomore year was a little more difficult than we had imagined, and I think the record shows that. We just didn’t have that unity as a team, but this group has persevered through that and had an incredible junior year. It was really fun. I think all of us that were part of that team look back on that season with a lot of great memories. We take a lot of pride in what we accomplished. This year, we’re having an incredible year with a lot of big wins and have put ourselves in position to do a lot of great things in the postseason.”