Last summer, Monday through Thursday from the start of June until the middle of August, Katie Neher started her day on the turf of the Lake Forest College football field.

There was agility training, speed training, footwork drills and reaction drills with wrinkles thrown in to work hand-eye coordination. From there it was in to the weight room for strength training.

“I took a conditioning class with the football team in the summer between my junior and senior year and I stayed on campus,” said Neher. “I got a bunch of work done. I got faster, and more in shape, and I think that really gave me a boost. And I think also knowing it was my last year, I didn’t want to hold anything back. I wanted to throw my entire self into it.”

Her entire self translated into the Midwest Conference Women’s Basketball Player of the Year award. It was quite the journey to get there.

Basketball has been a constant in Neher’s life. She started playing at 3 or 4 years old, before she can pinpoint a specific memory. She was a junior on Northwestern High School’s first state championship team in 2018, then moved into a starting role as a senior, helping the Tigers repeat as Class 3A state champs. Neher was named to the Tribune’s All-Area squad in her senior season.

From there it was on to Lake Forest College, an NCAA Division III school in Chicago’s northern suburbs. As her freshman season progressed, she adjusted and moved into a starting role, averaging 6.5 points. She upped her average to 9.5 points as a sophomore, second-highest on the team, but Lake Forest played just eight games as COVID played havoc with the 2020-21 schedule.

As a junior, her role changed. She was counted on more to be a primary attacking weapon.

“At Northwestern, obviously playing with Madison [Layden] and Kendall [Bostic], they were definitely the scorers and I had more of a defensive and role player-type of situation there, which was great. Obviously, that worked for us,” Neher said.

“But when I came to Lake Forest, it really shifted to me being the scorer and relying on me to do all that, which I wasn’t really used to, so it was difficult, but that’s how all that changed.”

When Lake Forest coach Tamlyn Tills recruited Neher, Tills had a vision for what she could be.

“Katie’s athleticism was the draw when she was in high school,” Tills said. “She had raw talent that just needed to be tapped. Honestly, all the credit should go to her for her relentless work ethic. We challenged her with specific shots and counter moves, but she was the one who decided to work at it.”

Moving into a larger role after the graduation of Lake Forest leading scorer Kelsey Burton, Neher responded by averaging 12.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2 assists as a junior

With her senior season on the horizon, Neher wanted to get the most out of it. That’s where the conditioning class with the football team came in.

Asserting herself as a senior, she upped her numbers to career highs across the board. Operating as a 2-guard in a three-guard offense that emphasized transition play, she averaged 20.9 points per game, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2 steals. She also led the Foresters in minutes.

“It was really fun and I’m just really grateful that that was kind of what they needed for my last year,” Neher said. “I really felt like I wanted to spend every single second I could out there, I didn’t want to be watching at any point because I knew it was going to be my last season. It was really nice, and a great way to close things out. I wish we could have performed better as a team.”

Lake Forest went 9-15 overall and 5-11 in the Midwest Conference, placing seventh. Neher was the league’s leading scorer in conference matchups at 20.1 ppg. She was voted the league’s player of the year by the MWC coaches.

“It felt really good,” she said of the league award. “I really wish our team would have performed better. The Player of the Year seems to always go to a player whose team goes to the conference tournament and we did not, so I felt kind of weird about that this year, but obviously super grateful. But it felt good to do as my last thing ever.”

She averaged 25.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists in the stretch run of the Forester’s last seven league games, when Lake Forest went 4-3 including two overtime wins. She also hit her last 27 free throws.

“Her confidence made it easier for her to be a leader both on and off the court,” Tills said. “She embraced being the go-to player with humility. She has a high motor that carried her through double teams by opponents and tough situations. Katie is truly deserving of all her success this season. She has left her mark on Forester women’s basketball and I could not be more proud.”

Neher stamped her name in the school’s history in her final game as a Forester on Feb. 18 against Grinnell College. She scored 29 points that day, becoming only the ninth player in program history to reach 1,000 points. She finished her senior season with 501 points, and her Lake Forest career with 1,010.

The milestone came in the final game in a college career filled with memories and exciting moments. One in particular from this season stood out.

“When we were in Hawaii, we had a tournament, we were down 30 against a pretty good team, Luther College,” she said of a game in the Big Island Holiday Classic on Dec. 18, 2022. “We were down by 30 at halftime and ended up coming back and forcing overtime and ended up winning that game, which was really crazy. There were like 7 seconds on the clock, it was my first buzzer-beater ever when we forced it to overtime. It was in transition, my teammate Melissa Gomez set a really great screen and then it was a baseline pullup.”

Neher is an environmental studies major at Lake Forest and this season ended her hoops career. It’s difficult to let those experiences go, but she gained a lot as a Forester that she can takes into the rest of her life.

“Especially in terms of basketball, I gained a lot of patience as well as confidence,” she said. “Not only with my physical abilities, but I was able to be a captain my senior year. I gained a lot of confidence in terms of being able to lead other people, and just being at Lake Forest.

“Lake Forest is a really great school and I feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin and I think it was a really great fit in terms of letting me be who I want to be and do what I want to do.”

React to this story:


Trending Video