Kateri Stone won't lie -- at times last year she questioned if her abilities would ever measure up.
Standards were set awful high by Montini's then-seniors.
Day after day in practice, Stone and the other Montini freshmen were thrown against seniors who could give many college teams a run for their money. At times the seniors made them look silly. Montini coach Jason Nichols admits he was fooled into believing their development was behind the curve.
It turns out, they were right on schedule. The state championship medal hanging in Stone's bedroom is maybe the second-most valuable reward she took out of her freshman year.
"Practicing against those seniors, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life," Stone said. "They wouldn't go easy on me, and they set really high expectations. It helped me to improve my game."
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Montini is going back to Redbird Arena for the fourth time in five years. It wouldn't without sophomores Stone, Sara Ross, Jasmine Lumpkin and Kelly Karlis.
"These kids proved me wrong. A lot of them grew up in a hurry," Nichols said. "That experience, practicing against those seniors, and their work ethic was invaluable."
Senior Tianna Brown and junior Nikia Edom are quiet veterans, and 6-foot-4 junior twin towers Malayna Johnson and Diamond Thompson jump out most to the casual fan.
But the sophomores are maybe the fresh-faced soul of this Montini team. There was no cooler sight after Monday's supersectional win than the joy on the face of Karlis piggy-backing on Ross' shoulders.
"It's exciting knowing that we are a bigger part of it this year," Ross said. "Nobody thought we could could make it back so we're really happy -- and we're not done yet."
This group didn't all grow up playing together, but in two short years has meshed into what Nichols calls "four little buddies." Ross and Lumpkin played grammar school ball back in the fifth grade, and Naperville residents Ross and Stone competed against each other before high school. Stone got to know Karlis when both joined the Lady Lightning AAU team. Now Ross says they are all best friends "who can pretty much talk to each other about anything."
"We spend pretty much every day together for who knows how long," Stone reasoned. "We've really formed a close bond, giving good criticism and pointers. We've grown together."
Stone felt the uncertainty of present and future after last year's seniors graduated. Ross didn't know where the scoring would come from.
But Stone has developed into a potent long-range shooter. Nichols has prodded Ross to attack the basket more, to not play like a scared freshman.
"I have more confidence in myself now," Stone said. "It's helpful to have three other girls my age. If one has a down day, we pick each other up. We are there for each other."
The four sophomores possess distinct games; Stone is the shooter, Karlis one of Montini's better defenders and rebounders. Ross and Lumpkin are more slashers than shooters, Lumpkin in particular best in the open court.
What the four share, though, is tremendous length and athleticism that is particularly useful on defense.
They do alternate tantalizing Nichols with their potential and testing his patience with youthful mistakes. Patience is a quality he admittedly has in limited supply.
"I am getting better at (being patient)," Nichols said. "It is rewarding to see them do things right that they were doing wrong over the summer. The biggest thing I get on them about is how hard they have to compete. They are going to fall asleep on a play -- it's human nature -- but if I stay on them the chances that they won't are better."
Ross, for one, hopes the yelling never stops.
"I'm used to it. My AAU coach is kind of the same way," Ross said. "If we do 10 things wrong and he doesn't talk to us about all 10, he feels he's cheated us."
The current challenge to the young kids: are they satisfied with just going to state, or are they going to Normal to win it all? It's a theme hammered home in practice this week.
Count the sophomores as not happy just to be there.
"We," Ross said, "want to be the best."