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Preparing to cover a team in the girls state basketball tournament always becomes a combination of exhaustive research on the participants as well as a walk down memory lane. Many times, memory lane has multiple avenues, especially when it's a group of seniors who have been together a long time, and the program is one that's been there before but doesn't have the luxuries of some and can't take a state trip to the bank as a given every year.
This year's Bartlett team qualifies on both fronts. It's been seven years since the 2004-05 Hawks, with McDonald's all-American Lindsay Schrader leading the way, made a run to the championship game, only to fall to Peoria Richwoods 52-48 in a game that Bartlett may have won with another minute on the clock.
Schrader, who won Illinois' Ms. Basketball before going on to a stellar career at Notre Dame, was a superstar and she was surrounded by a great supporting cast of players like Kim Ebbesen, Kaci Baird, Morgan Aycox and Erin Griff, among others.
This group of Hawks has its own identity. Their coach, Denise Sarna, hasn't belabored any conversation with her 2011-12 team about that runner-up bunch.
But that team, and a close personal bond through the years, has been the impetus to this Bartlett team reaching the Class 4A Final Four, where the Hawks will take on Whitney Young, the No. 2 ranked team in the nation, in Friday night's state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Five of the eight seniors have been playing together since sixth grade and all eight seniors have been playing at Bartlett High School since their freshman year. They also all attended middle school in Elgin Area School District U-46. No transfers within this Find me 10 schools in Chicagoland that can say that.
"We all started playing together when we were younger and the friendships have grown since then," said Katie Gutzwiller, one of the five Bartlett seniors who have been together since sixth grade travel with the Bartlett Park District and at Eastview Middle School.
"We started meshing together and we really got a feel for the game together."
Gutzwiller, Lisa Palmer, Nicole Gobbo, Haley Videckis, Ashley Johnson and Natalia Grodzki all went to Eastview. They were joined at Bartlett in the ninth grade by Kristin Conniff (Canton), who will shoot in the 3-point Showdown tonight, and Janessa Baker (Tefft) and when they take the floor at Redbird this weekend it will be the culmination of over 125 basketball games together as Hawks.
It's always been their goal to end their careers playing at state, something they all watched the 2005 Hawks do as fifth graders.
"When we were younger we'd watch the older girls and imagine that being us," Gutzwiller said. "We'd dream of this happening. We were all connected."
This is Whitney Young's fifth straight trip to state and its sixth under coach Corry Irvin, who I still call Corry Carter more often than not. As Corry Carter, the Larkin graduate was a one-time career scoring leader for the Royals before going on to play at Fresno State. She coached at Larkin and St. Edward, as well as DePaul, before landing at Whitney Young in 2001-02. She's never had a losing season and if her Dolphins bring home the state championship this weekend it will be her 300th career win. Corry's dad, Deryl, is still her assistant and still lives in Elgin with wife and Corry's mom, Marlene.
Young, which won the 2008 title, has lost to Bolingbrook the past three years in Normal.
There in 2005, too: Young was also in the state tournament back in 2005, which was back in the two-class days. The Dolphins lost to Peoria Richwoods in the semifinals then beat Bolingbrook for third place.
Dry spell: The 38-0 Peoria Richwoods team of 2005 was the last undefeated state champion in any class, a spell Whitney Young has a chance of breaking this year. Including last weekend's Class 1-2A state tournaments, there have now been 22 state champions with at least one loss crowned since that Richwoods team.
All-state news: Bartlett senior Haley Videckis and South Elgin senior Becca Smith were named to the Class 4A all-state second team Associated Press earlier this week. The AP all-state teams, unlike most others, are limited to five first-team players and five second-team players in each class. It's quite an honor for Videckis and Smith considering all the great players on the ballot this year. In other all-state news, St. Edward's Callie Johnson was named to the fourth-team by the IBCA, with the Green Wave's Maddie Kerr, Alex Lee and Rena Ranallo earning special mention.
Finally, more memory lane: I had the opportunity Wednesday to have lunch at the Elgin Public House with retired Elgin girls basketball coach Lee Turek, one of his assistants and current Elgin Sports Hall of Fame Foundation president Mark Sharf, and former Elgin educator and mayor Ed Schock, whose daughter Leslie, a former Elgin High and Northwestern great, is now the head coach at Palatine, where Ed is her assistant. Turek, who won 359 games in his career at Elgin and guided the Maroons to a second place state finish in 1996, retired from coaching 10 years ago.
You can only imagine the stories told in that hour. One thing we all agreed on was the atmosphere at Elgin High for Monday night's supersectional game between Bartlett and DeKalb was tremendous -- and much of that had to do with the Bartlett student section reminding us of a day gone by, when student section crowds were like that for every school every night in the postseason.
Then our discussion got around to four classes ... um, we'll save that one for another day. Off to Redbird.