NORMAL -- Jasmine Lumpkin heard the whispers.
Or at least she sensed the perception in the water about this Montini girls basketball team.
"They thought this year was going to be our downfall," said the Montini sophomore, wearing the chip on her shoulder as well as she would any state championship medal. "I was motivated to come back and prove them wrong."
Count me as one of those doubting Thomases. You lose talent like Whitney Holloway, Whitney Adams, etc., you are supposed to take a big step back.
My long-range travel plans this weekend did not include a trip to Redbird Arena.
This is Montini's "down year?" A 33-5 season, capped off by a state championship -- for 99 percent of the schools in Illinois this is the kind of season that comes along somewhere between once every generation and never. Just because Montini is Montini and a basketball powerhouse doesn't make the story any less.
To win a championship with four new starters, two of them sophomores and one a freshman point guard -- is ahead of schedule like a 2-year-old winning the Kentucky Derby or an eighth-grader acing the ACT. But there were the Broncos, lapping Vernon Hills in the championship game Saturday.
Even Montini coach Jason Nichols, who prides himself on always being prepared, detail-oriented, never surprised -- even he was a little dumbstruck at what this group accomplished.
"This one is pretty special because nobody thought we would be back here," Nichols said, "and at times I was one of them. I would never tell them that, but as a coaching staff we thought, 'Yeah, let's get down here, let's get some experience and see what happens.' I'm kind of speechless about it to be honest with you. We're state champs -- wow. It's a credit to these girls."
Rewind three months.
Speaking to Nichols before the season he sounded like an artist with a fresh new set of brushes and a blank canvas. Who knew a Picasso was in store?
"We're sooooo young," he said at the time. "I forgot what it's like to be so young."
Montini took turns throughout the year looking young and looking great. Often the Broncos were both in the same game.
Around Christmas the inexperience bubbled to the surface when Montini struggled late in losses to Hononegah and St. Joseph.
But they grew.
Montini showed glimpses of what was in store against Whitney Young at the McDonald's Shootout. The Broncos perhaps first unleashed the killer instinct of a state champ in avenging the St. Joseph loss with a 40-point drubbing in sectionals.
Most of all, the young pups revealed their guts in rallying from 9 down late to beat a Hillcrest team many anointed the next state champs in Friday's semifinal.
"That win," Nichols said, "was so big."
Lumpkin scored the eventual game-winning basket in that game and showed her dynamic skills in the open court and driving to the basket with 14 points in Saturday's championship. If you're looking for a kid who could blossom next year as a junior, start with Lumpkin. But she is far from the only playmaker.
"It's always somebody new with this team," Nichols said. "When that kid plays hard she can be awesome."
There is little doubt that this year's Baby Broncos will once again be next year's favorites in 3A.
History could be calling. No girls basketball team has ever won four straight state titles. The last basketball team of either gender to win four straight is the Peoria Manual boys of the mid-1990s. Simeon's powerhouse boys could also be gunning for four in a row next year.
"We thought next year would be our year," Nichols admitted. "We got some kids that got to improve their skill set, though, so it's still going to be difficult. We got to get better and we got to get stronger."
In this relatively new world of four-class basketball, you kind of get the feeling that Montini should keep a block of hotel rooms on hold for every first weekend in March.
"I think we'll continue to get better," Montini sophomore Kateri Stone said, "continue the good chemistry we have and hopefully we'll be back here again next year."