This week's St. Charles East Class 4A girls basketball regional tournament has a definitive Upstate Eight Conference River Division feel to it.
While Fenton, Glenbard East and Lake Park will be out to prove the so-called experts wrong, the top 3 seeds in the field -- No. 4 Geneva, No. 5 Batavia, and No. 11 St. Charles East -- are certainly familiar with one another.
Geneva (17-10), shooting for its fifth consecutive regional championship, brings plenty of momentum into Tuesday's postseason opener against either Fenton or Glenbard East.
The Vikings stretched their winning streak to 5 with Friday's 54-46 victory over Neuqua Valley in the annual conference crossover contest between the UEC River and Valley champions.
How impressive was the win?
Considering the fact that Neuqua Valley entered the game with a 24-2 record, hadn't suffered a home loss this season, and handled Geneva with relative ease back in November (45-22), the Vikings' road triumph should serve as a huge confidence boost heading down Route 64 to St. Charles East.
"It was a good win for us," said Geneva coach Sarah Meadows. "We're starting to click."
Despite losing junior point guard Michaela Loebel to season-ending ACL surgery, the Vikings have persevered thanks in part to the unselfishness of junior Sidney Santos, and the all-around efforts of forwards Sami Pawlak and Abby Novak.
"Everybody knows what everyone expects of them now," added Meadows. "We've asked them to do some different things this season."
The Vikings' barometer might come in the form of junior guard/forward Morgan Seberger, who had 13 points Friday night against Neuqua Valley.
"She has played tremendous basketball since the Streamwood game," said Meadows. "She has worked her rear off on defense."
Aiming for its first regional crown since 1990, Batavia (18-10) features one of the conference's top scorers in junior guard Liza Fruendt along with formidable frontcourt players Erin Bayram (6-2 junior) and Hannah Frazier (6-1 freshman).
The Bulldogs figure to face St. Charles East for a third time in Tuesday's regional semifinals, with Geneva likely awaiting the victor.
Their first 2 meetings offered very different results -- an incredible 38-point swing.
Batavia cruised to a 74-49 homecourt victory on Jan. 8 before dropping a 79-66 loss to the Saints in St. Charles less than 3 weeks later (Jan. 26).
"We had a real nice win against East and then they kind of lit us up at their place," said Batavia coach Kevin Jensen. "We feel like it could go either way depending on how we're playing.
"We look at Geneva and think that we were right there with them," added Jensen, whose team lost both meetings to the Vikings (60-56 and 56-46). "And it's sure hard to beat a team three times."
Jensen knows it won't be easy for his team, either.
"You've got the smaller size and incredible speed of St. Charles East and then the size of Geneva," said Jensen. "They're pretty much playing four forwards in their starting lineup. Both of those teams, for different reasons, can cause some pretty tough matchups for us."
Like Geneva, St. Charles East (16-11) might be playing its best basketball of the season, evidenced by its 4-game winning streak that included last week's 68-61 win over Metea Valley (21-6).
"I'd definitely say we are peaking at the right time," said Saints coach Lori Drumtra. "We're playing well together and shooting well."
That might be an understatement of sorts.
Junior guard Amanda Hilton connected on 6 of the Saints' 13 3-pointers against Metea Valley, while sophomore guard Katie Claussner tallied a team-high 20 points.
St. Charles East also drained 13 3-pointers in its win over Batavia, as Hilton and Claussner combined for 51 points.
"Katie has really stepped up since she has had the opportunity to take that two-guard spot," Drumtra said of Claussner.
While the Saints' 2 previous meetings with Batavia were wildly different, their 2 games against Geneva were just plain wild -- both stretching beyond regulation time.
St. Charles East won the first game in overtime, 81-75, back in December before suffering a 75-69 OT loss to the Vikings last month in Geneva.
"We've played Geneva very well this year," said Drumtra. "Both games went down to the wire."
The Saints definitely aren't the same team that began the season with just 1 win in 5 games at the Schaumburg tournament.
"Our lineup looks a lot different from November to February," said Drumtra. "It's a long season and I'm not always sure people understand that. It's hard to maintain excellence for four months."
Drumtra likes the direction her team is heading coming into the tourney.
"There have been years where I knew the team had plateaued and I've had a couple of teams that had the right trajectory," she said. "I've got a good feel for this team. The girls are focused."
The 3 teams share several things in common.
They each have 3-point shooting threats -- Batavia's Miranda Grizaffi and Fruendt; Geneva's Seberger; and St. Charles East's Kyra Washington, Carly Pottle, Claussner and Hilton.
And they've got unheralded players who aren't afraid of getting floor burns -- Batavia's Sami Villarreal; Geneva's Kelly Gordon; and St. Charles East's Pottle.
Which team is going to advance to the Bartlett sectional?
"Geneva is still the favorite," said Jensen. "Granted, they have some losses but over the long haul of the season I think they've been the most consistent of the three teams."
One thing is certain -- it'll be entertaining.
"It will be fun," said Drumtra.
"Winning conference this year was probably more meaningful because we had to work so hard for it," said Meadows. "It has been fun to have the competitiveness we've had in our conference this year."
"I feel that anything can happen," said Jensen. "Any of the three teams are perfectly capable of rattling off a few games in a row. It kind of reminds me of when I played at Plano. Our regional was at Yorkville and the top three teams were Plano, Sandwich, and Yorkville. It made for a real fun tournament.
"Our kids are pretty excited about it," he added. "The part that is fun is whoever does come out -- it's going to seem sweeter to them."
Let the fun begin.
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org.