It's been well chronicled that Burlington Central girls basketball coach Mark Smith knew he had some talent coming in when he took the Rockets' head coaching job.
And Smith knows talent. His daughter, Kelsey, plays at DePaul and as a boys basketball coach for several seasons at St. Charles North, as well as a former high school and college player himself, Smith knows good players when he sees them.
But even Smith admits being surprised at how well his freshman-laden team has done this season. At 19-4 overall and having secured their first Big Northern East championship since 2006-07, the Rockets also cracked the Daily Herald Top 20 this week for the first time this season, and they're the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Class 3A regional that they will host. Central has not won a girls basketball regional since 1990 and has only three regional banners in program history.
The "Fab Five" freshmen -- Shelby Holt (11.3 ppg), Samantha Pryor (8.6 ppg), Kayla Ross (7.4 ppg), Becca Gerke (4.4 ppg) and Samantha Cruz -- have meshed well with the senior leadership of Camille Dela Cruz (6.2 ppg) and Erika Haynes and sophomore returnee Alison Colby (7.3 ppg) to put the Rockets in position to threaten the school record for wins (23) and win a regional for the first time since the Shelly Lange-coached BC team did so 23 years ago.
"If you look at our leading scorer from game to game it's different a lot of times," Smith said after the Rockets beat Richmond 56-34 Saturday to secure the outright BN-East title.
"Realistically, I had heard the kids were good but I had no idea what was in the conference. One benefit we have is that they all play AAU. They're dedicated and passionate about basketball. I knew it was a good group, I just didn't know how good."
Central will get a good test Wednesday night when it travels to Streamwood (17-5). The Sabres are currently tied with Geneva in the loss column in the Upstate Eight River and need to beat Larkin and Batavia this week to secure at least a share of their first conference title since 1987-88. The nonconference game with Burlington Central comes in between those two important River games for Streamwood.
For the Rockets, they need only to beat Marengo and North Boone for a second time to close out an undefeated conference season. They also have a nonconference test at home Feb. 5 against St. Charles North, where Smith teaches.
Then will come a regional that will surely be a challenge to win. Plano, somewhat of an unknown with a 17-5 record, is the No. 2 seed while Kaneland (11-8), which owns a 56-53 overtime win against BC, is the No. 3 seed. Even fourth-seeded Sycamore and No. 5 Hampshire can't be counted out. Sandwich is the No. 6 seed.
"Hampshire has run off some wins and Sycamore plays in a great conference," Smith said. "It won't be easy."
The Rockets will open the regional on Feb. 13 against the winner of the Hampshire-Sycamore game the night before. Central beat Sycamore 42-40 in OT on Nov. 17 and downed Hampshire 49-27 on Dec. 8.
Welcome change: For the past several years, some coaches and a lot of media have sought a remedy to the late weeknights caused by the second game of postseason doubleheaders not starting until 8:15 or 8:30 p.m. It's usually happened when the first game goes overtime and then there's tiebreaker shootouts in the IHSA's 3-point shootout contest. Finally, a remedy has been put into place.
Starting this season, the 3-point contest will only be held on regional championship and sectional championship nights instead of every night of the postseason. The previous format had players shooting each night their team played or would have played, and that format lended to some late nights and long trips home for student-athletes on school nights.
The new format will bring up to four players from each team in the regional together on the same night as the championship game, at which time the regional representatives to the sectional round will be determined. Shooting will begin at the regional site at 6 p.m. and the championship game at 7:30 p.m.
At the sectional level, the four players who advance from the regional will all shoot on sectional championship night to determine the four players who advance downstate. Sectional 3-point shooting will also begin at 6 p.m. and the game at 7:30.
More than anything, the new format should ensure that all those 8 p.m. games on doubleheader nights actually start at 8, if not even a few minutes early.
Pairings set: The IHSA released the pairings for the Class 3A and Class 4A postseason this past Friday. The Class 4A Streamwood regional certainly does have a rivalry factor to it on opening night Monday, Feb. 11. At 6 p.m., District 300 rivals Jacobs and Dundee-Crown will meet for the third time this season. Jacobs, the No. 4 seed, owns two wins over the fifth-seeded Chargers this season. Then, at 8 p.m., Elgin and Larkin will battle for the fourth time this season. The third-seeded Maroons own a 2-1 edge over the sixth-seeded Royals this season. On Tuesday, Feb. 12, top-seeded Streamwood faces the Jacobs vs. D-C winner and at 8 p.m. No. 2 South Elgin takes on the Elgin-Larkin winner. The championship game is Feb. 14.
Huntley (19-5) may have been given the toughest regional opener around, despite the Red Raiders' record. Assigned to the Belvidere North regional, the Raiders are the No. 3 seed and have to open on Feb. 12 against No. 2 DeKalb (21-3). Belvidere North (18-6) got the No. 1 seed and gets a first-round bye.
Bartlett got the No. 8 seed in its own sectional complex and has been assigned to the Wheaton Warrenville South regional, where the Hawks will play No. 9 York in the 8 p.m. semifinal on Feb. 12. A win would likely put the Hawks against No. 1 WW South in the regional title game, which would be a rematch of last year's Hoffman Estates sectional title game won by Bartlett.
And in Class 3A St. Edward, which is up from Class 2A this year and part of the Vernon Hills sectional complex, is assigned to the Lakes regional. The 18th-seeded Wave will play No. 15 Chicago Senn in a Feb. 11 play-in game. A win would pit St. Edward against top-seeded Vernon Hills, the defending Class 3A state runner-up.
The week ahead: Who will win the Upstate Eight River and Fox Valley Conference Valley Division championships will, for all intents and purposes, be decided this week. in the UEC River, Streamwood and Geneva are tied in the loss column with one loss each. Streamwood is at Larkin Thursday and then hosts Batavia Saturday at 2:30 p.m. to close out their River schedule. Streamwood can secure no worse than a tie for its first conference title since 1987-88 by winning both games. In the FVC Valley, Cary-Grove and Huntley are in a virtual tie for the top spot. The Trojans are at Jacobs Wednesday then host Huntley at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and finish their Valley schedule against Dundee-Crown next week. Huntley is at D-C Wednesday and the Red Raiders' final conference game is Saturday at Cary-Grove.