Calm, cool and collected: Ishpeming’s Koski has touch that gets her to Elks Hoop Shoot national finals

ISHPEMING – Someday – maybe around the year 2022 or 2023 – Jillian Koski will be called upon to make the free throws that win a game for the Westwood High School girls basketball team.

Having all those spectators in the gym hanging on her every movement won’t be a problem after the journey she has embarked upon as an 8-year-old this winter and spring.

Koski, a third-grader at Aspen Ridge Elementary School, will travel with her family and grandparents to Springfield, Mass., for the Elks Hoop Shoot national finals on Saturday morning.

She already won four free-throw shooting competitions starting at the local level and going through Upper Peninsula, state and multi-state contests to get this far.

And it has earned Jillian, her parents Jared and Renee, 10-year-old sister Madelyn, and grandparents Harold and Dianne Reichardt, a trip to the birthplace of basketball and home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

As she has done four previous times, Koski will attempt 25 free throws, first taking 10, then a few minutes later another 15. It’s the final stop in this contest conducted by the Elks National Foundation, the charitable arm of The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The group includes Elks Lodge No. 447 of Ishpeming.

She participates in the 8-9-year-old girls division, and has made at least 16 of her 25 tries in each contest. Koski is in the youngest division, which also includes ages 10-11 and 12-13 for boys and girls, for a total of six divisions.

At the 8-9 level, organizers move the shooters up four feet from the regular free-throw line to within 11 feet of the basket, but they still use a regulation high school basketball.

That’s a big ball for someone like Koski, who stands 4 feet, 4 1/2 inches tall.

“I’ve been going to basketball practice with my sister since I was in first grade,” she said last week.

Koski played for the West Ishpeming Swoosh third grade girls’ team at weekend tournaments this winter. The Swoosh won 16 times and tied once while never losing a game with her father as coach.

Dad, big sister Madelyn and cousin Megan Manninen, all share credit for Jillian’s run of accuracy.

“My favorite player is my cousin Megan,” Jillian Koski said about Manninen, who earned All-U.P. basketball status several times at Westwood, graduating in 2012, and played at Lake Superior State last season.

Manninen has special insight for her cousin, since she also reached the national finals of this tournament in 2006 in the girls 12-13 division.

“She said to take the practice shots,” Koski said Megan’s best advice was about the optional warm-ups competitors can take before the shots count.

Koski listed several things taught to her by her dad when shooting, including following through, getting proper rotation on the ball and “using my legs.”

And Madelyn is a big challenge as the older and taller sister when they play basketball at home.

Elks organizers ask everyone in the gym to be perfectly quiet during the competition at each level, with the rule more strictly enforced at higher levels, according to Jared Koski.

While that might be better than a gym with a rowdy and raucous crowd, the quiet creates pressure, too.

“The only thing you can hear is the ball hitting the rim, the backboard or the net,” the elder Koski said. “A lot of the kids just cover their faces because they don’t want to see what’s going on, though you can still tell from what you hear.”

Jillian Koski made 16 of 25 shots at her lodge’s competition at Ishpeming High School during November that included competitors from the Ishpeming, NICE and Republic-Michigamme school districts.

Her touch improved as she continued on in the contest, making 17 of 25, then 5 of 5 in a playoff, at the U.P. finals again held in Ishpeming in December.

The state finals weren’t held until February in Grand Rapids, where Koski made 20 of 25 shots, and she made the same 20 of 25 at the Michigan-Indiana-Ohio finals held in March in Angola, Ind.

That last Great Lakes Region competition qualified her for nationals, where 12 competitors in each division – out of what was reported by the Elks was a total of about 3 million contestants – come together starting Saturday morning in a contest that has run since 1972.

The Hoop Shoot part of the Elks website,, will have live results and Twitter commentary during the finals starting at 9:45 a.m. Saturday.

“I think Jillian’s group will be up right away, because they’ve always had the youngest groups go first,” Renee Koski said.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.