When the words Willowbrook and girls basketball are mentioned in the same sentence, what first comes to mind?
Alas, usually not the Warriors.
For 20-plus years Willowbrook High School has been an Illinois girls basketball mecca for one weekend in January as host of the McDonald's Shootout. Other than that it's hardly a hoops hotbed.
That might change this season.
With four starters returning off a 15-15 team, this could be Willowbrook's best team in almost two decades. Terry Harrell, entering his fourth year as coach, thinks so.
"This is a good enough team to advance in the playoffs," Harrell said, "hopefully deep."
That news is like water in the desert for a girls basketball program -- OK, let's take it a step further, an athletic program -- parched for success.
It seems like ages, but 20 years ago Andrea Miller was a Daily Herald All-Area Captain at Willowbrook. Following her were four straight regional championships from 1993-96.
Since then, nothing. No regional titles since 1996. Zero playoff wins since the 2007-08 season. Other than bowling and badminton, there hasn't been a regional crown in a girls team sport since the 1990s. Willowbrook did get a nice little taste of athletic success this fall, when its football team went from 0-9 to a playoff berth.
Harrell has been in the girls basketball program since 2005, putting up a 71-41 record at the varsity, sophomore and freshman levels.
The big guy always seems to have a smile on his face, but behind that is a man who means business and knows a thing or two about winning.
He was a three-sport standout at Beloit Memorial High School, a member of two Wisconsin state runner-up basketball teams and a championship track team. From there he lettered three times in football at Northwestern, starting for two years before graduating in 1983. Now he's the coach of the West Suburban Sharks AAU program.
Willowbrook's girls basketball team made some nice strides last year.
A .500 record doesn't sound like much to some programs, but it doubled the win total from the 2010-2011 season. A win over Proviso East opened eyes.
With guards Colleen and Molly Krawczykowski and Angela Bruno and Anita Sterling back aboard, the Warriors went 35-2 over the summer.
"We beat everybody," Harrell said. "We beat Geneva."
Harrell's group starts with those guards, of which he says, "I have three guards that can play with anybody."
He is pretty emphatic that Bruno, in particular, is a player who deserves more attention.
"To be honest, I never see Bruno's name," Harrell said. "They name the best girls in our conference and I never see Bruno. They name the top girls in the county and I never see Bruno's name, ever. And whenever we play somebody I always put Bruno on their toughest player and she shuts them down. Basketball is more than scoring points, and she does more. She handles the ball under pressure, gets us into our offense, plays defense.
"When she has to score for us she does, but she usually doesn't because we have other girls who can score. She is a complete guard. Some D-III college is going to get a D-I or D-II kid and she's going to eat up those D-III kids."
Further boosting Harrell's confidence is improved depth. Melissa Rader comes off the bench with energy and rebounds, and Olivia Domin, said Harrell, "has been a beast" the first few games and is a dead-eye shooter.
What Willowbrook does not have, Harrell is quick to concede, is a big post player.
"We have to make up for it at other end," he said.
Wednesday night's matchup with a good Plainfield East team proved that out. The Warriors won't overpower anybody, but they can win with good, heady guard play and good shooting.
Harrell is daring his kids to dream big, to not concede anything or to anyone.
Who knows, when it's all said and done folks may be talking basketball in Villa Park well past one weekend in January.
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96