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That surreal feeling became real for the girls basketball players, coaches and fans from Burlington Central and Huntley Friday morning.
They may have waked up looking for someone to pinch them to make sure, but the reality is the Rockets and Red Raiders are playing in supersectionals Monday night.
Man, how times have changed -- at least for this year.
We're not talking about two programs here that make a habit of playing basketball on the last Monday of February. To the contrary, this is just Central's second supersectional, and the last one came in 1984, when most of the current Rockets' parents were still in high school themselves. And for Huntley, well, this is totally uncharted waters for the Red Raiders.
Central has been one of those programs over the years that has always been competitive, but when the Rockets had their best teams Hampshire was better, witness the 13 times between 1990 and this year the Whip-Purs ended the Rockets' season.
But Huntley? There's really no other way to say it than being real -- Huntley girls basketball was, and not forever ago, a laughingstock. When Steve Raethz was a rookie coach at Huntley in 1999-2000, the Red Raiders were 2-23 and the scores of some of those games were, well let's just say not every close. The next year they broke the school record for wins by winning 13 games. The following year, their 19-11 record was the first winning season in program history.
Since 2006-07 Huntley has gone 136-72 and won five regionals.
Yes, times change. And on Monday night, both teams will have their biggest challenge yet. Burlington Central will travel to Hoffman Estates to take on Vernon Hills, the defending state runner-up in Class 3A, a team with two Division I recruits, a 29-2 record and one that will wear the heavy favorite's tag. Huntley, meanwhile, will battle Wheaton Warrenville South in the Class 4A super at Dundee-Crown. WWS is a team that quickly said "next year" after losing to Bartlett in the sectional finals last year, a team led by a DePaul-bound junior guard who is one of the best players in the state, a team that is 29-3 and ranked No. 3 in the Daily Herald Top 20.
But as they say, on any given night anything can happen. Proof in that pudding came Thursday when No. 1 Edwardsville was upset by Peoria Richwoods in a Class 4A sectional final. And if you haven't seen the video of Marian Catholic's buzzer-beating 3-pointer from just inside half-court to beat Marist, I suggest logging onto Google and checking it out.
It's one night, one game, and both Raethz and Burlington Central coach Mark Smith will be preaching that to their kids all weekend.
"They understand it's one game and they're focused and ready to go," said Raethz of his team, a No. 3 regional seed. "I've been real pleased with our toughness and out resiliency in the postseason."
Raethz, who always credits his kids and assistant coaches far ahead of anyone else, himself included, just has to smile when he thinks about where Huntley girls basketball was 15 years ago, when the Raiders still played in the old Big Northern White, to where they are now.
"It's been neat to see the program evolve," Raethz said. "It's a testament to the kids and the coaches we've had in the program. We were kind of a small fish in a big pond when we came into the Fox Valley Conference (in 2002) but then in 2006-07 (a 25-6 team), that was the turnaround year. From then on we've been perennial contenders in the conference and we've won five regionals in seven years. Each group has passed the torch with the expectations of what we strive for in the program. This group has been a real pleasure to coach and to see them progress in the postseason has been neat. We hope we can carry that on and play well Monday night."
At Central, the rave all season has been the progression of a talented bunch of freshmen, an equally talented sophomore and a senior point guard who is a Division I soccer recruit leading the way. While some may have penciled in Huntley as a supersectional possibility, nobody on Rocket Hill, Smith included, was talking much about the program's first Elite Eight berth being something that would happen this year. Yet here the Rockets are, one win away from Redbird Arena and the Final Four.
"We talked about how next Sunday it's over for everyone, so let's just enjoy what we're doing," Smith said. "We don't want it to end. We talk about next year and the future, too, because these kids just love playing ball. The freshmen don't really understand yet how difficult it is to do what they've already done. They play a lot of AAU ball and in AAU when you play 2-3 games a day, it's just on to the next game. We're on to the next game."
While Raethz doesn't have to introduce himself to anyone at Huntley, Smith was a relative unknown to most Central people. But not for long after he got the job in midsummer.
"He took the time to get to know us," said senior point guard Camille Delacruz, who will play soccer on scholarship at Northern Iowa. "He tells us what we do wrong but he's also positive with us when we do things right. He's completely honest with us and that's the best part about him."
Huntley has achieved consistency and longevity with its head coach and Central fans are hoping that now becomes the case for the Rockets, who have had six head coaches since 2000. The good news is Smith loves his situation and has no plans to go anywhere. He teaches at St. Charles North and has had an eye on Central sports for a long time.
"I'd read about them all the time in the paper," he said. "I like this situation, it's ideal. I used to think you had to be in the building but it's been good teaching (at SCN) all day then taking the drive to Central. And I have (sophomore coach) Kyle (Molik) and (freshman coach) Tia (Sportsman) there. It's a good community and it's been fun."
Both the Red Raiders and Rockets know they can send some shockwaves around the state with wins Monday night. But even if that doesn't happen, the future is worth the experience.
It's a future that most certainly looks brighter than ever for both programs.