Cedarville Legend Returns to Coach At Alma Mater

[Ed. I’m going to start posting journalism stuff from school for two reasons: (1) To increase the content on this blog. I swear I want to make it a daily thing. Srsly. (2) To showcase some of my journalism material for, you know, real life. This was published in Cedars, Cedarville University’s student newspaper, last Friday.]

While she’s coaching, Kari Flunker can hardly sit. She prefers to crouch on the floor in front of her seat, yelling and clapping, as if waiting for a chance to sneak onto the court and play again.

And did she ever know how to do that. In the Cedarville women’s basketball career record books, there are two notable names: Brittany Smart — the all-time NAIA Division II leading scorer — and Kari Flunker.

Second in total points (2,275), first in assists (644), second in steals (331), tied for first in games played (142), first in all three-point shooting categories. She was a two-time All American, and two-time American Mideast Conference Player of the Year before graduating in 2005.

When you talk to anyone who knows Flunker — now a first-year assistant coach at Cedarville — each of them start stringing together the same descriptive words: Passionate. Energetic. Hard-working. Competitive. Especially that last one.

Like the time her freshman year she spent the night after a painful loss shooting three after three with her dad, still wearing her untucked jersey. Head coach Kirk Martin said her commitment to Cedarville basketball was obvious, even that early. “I knew we had a keeper,” he says.

There are all those times in practice scrimmage, her teammates hoping Martin would put them on Flunker’s team.

“If you were on her team, that meant that you were probably going to win,” says Molly Cary, formerly Molly Early, who played with Flunker for three seasons from 2001 to 2004. “If you weren’t on her team, that meant that you were probably going to get in a fight with Kari that day.”

Flunker and Cary were roommates in 2004, and still stay in touch. During the Ohio State-Wisconsin college football game this year, the two exchanged text messages, with Flunker — a native of northern Wisconsin — gloating over the Badgers’ win.

“We were really good friends off the court, but when we were on the court, it was game time,” Cary said. “There was no buddy-buddy about it. She had that competitive drive, even in practice against her best friend.”

Flunker played every sport she could as a kid, including boys’ Little League baseball. After high school, despite carrying an offer from Michigan Tech (an NCAA Division II powerhouse), Flunker chose to attend Cedarville.

Her first year was also Kirk Martin’s, and Cedarville instantly improved from a 9-19 record the year before to 23-10. Flunker was a pivotal part of developing Cedarville women’s basketball into an elite program.

“It was really enjoyable to be a part of the program when it was in its building stages of becoming an excellent powerhouse program for many years,” Flunker said.

Then there’s that 2005 national title game during Flunker’s senior year. Cedarville had lost to perennial NAIA contender Morningside College in the championship game the year before. Flunker took it personally.

“My junior year, that loss in the national championship game just propelled us to be even greater my senior year,” Flunker said. “That really motivated me every single day in practice, remembering them lifting that trophy and us not.”

Cedarville met Morningside in final round in 2005 too, Flunker’s last game. And lost again. Flunker called it “agony.”

“I was thinking ‘This is our turn, they got it last year, we’ll get it this year,’ ” she said. “That was one of the toughest games of my career.”

And she wouldn’t take her jersey off. She kept it on during the postgame meeting, she kept it on when the team went back to the hotel, she kept it on the whole night.

“She might have even slept in her jersey,” said Stacie Travis, who played with Flunker for that one year and now works as the director for basketball operations for the women’s team.

“We were better than them. But we just couldn’t get it done,” Martin says about the game, six years later. “She didn’t pout about it. She just kept at it the whole game, and it just never came together. Life’s lessons about sports are [about] staying at it when it’s tough and she stayed after it for 40 minutes.”

While basketball was over, her athletic career at Cedarville wasn’t. A physical education major, Flunker needed an extra semester to fulfill the hours in her major. In the Fall of ’05, Flunker joined the volleyball team — a sport she had played in high school. Joining the normal rotation exclusively on the back row, Flunker helped head coach Teresa Clark take the Jackets to their first NAIA volleyball tournament.

“She became a spark plug,” Clark said.

Flunker taught for a little while after graduation, but quickly realized that her desire to teach didn’t match her love for basketball. So she coached at Wisconsin Green-Bay for two years before Martin invited her to return to Cedarville as a full-time assistant.

“He’s pretty much been begging her to come back ever since she graduated,” Travis said. “So when the timing was right, I don’t think she could turn it down.”

Flunker is not far removed from being a player herself, and current players say they can relate to her more easily. Martin said there’s often a player in her office wanting to talk.

“When you’re competitive it makes it fun,” senior guard Lydia Miller said. “At halftime, if she’s frustrated, she just bluntly lays it out.”

“It’s a gift, I’m jealous,” Martin said, laughing. “She just relates to them amazingly well. She can get on them, and she can push them. … And they respond very well to it.”

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